Vocation, Vocation: A Study of Prisoner Education for Women

By Spark, Ceridwen; Harris, Anita | Journal of Sociology, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Vocation, Vocation: A Study of Prisoner Education for Women


Spark, Ceridwen, Harris, Anita, Journal of Sociology


Between 1991 and 1999, the number of women incarcerated in Australia almost doubled (Cameron, 2001; Carlen, 1999; Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women, 2003). In spite of this, as several scholars have noted, the circumstances and needs of women prisoners tend to be invisible to both researchers and society (Cook and Davies, 1999; Girshick, 1999; Grimwade, 1999; Torre et al., 2001). This is because they are vastly out-numbered by men in prison populations and because female criminality is often associated in the public mind with gender role transgression and 'double deviance'. As Farrell (1998) notes, female offending, especially by mothers, challenges normative constructions of femininity. She suggests that incarceration attracts scorn rather than support from the community and from the prison system, where women are typically perceived as more difficult inmates than men (Fine et al., 2001). Such perceptions of women inmates mean 'they are rarely allowed to speak or be heard' (Cook and Davies, 1999: 5) on matters directly related to their well-being in prison and post-release prospects. This article argues that women's own voices must be given a central place in an emergent debate in corrections policy: the vocationalism of prisoner education.

There is a serious paucity of research on prisoner education programmes for women inmates. The few studies that do exist call for more research, particularly in the Australian context (Farrell, 1998). International studies have linked effective prisoner education for women with reduced recidivism, an improved prison environment, and enhanced self-esteem and life skills (Fine et al., 2001), but little is known about whether or how Australian women in prison benefit from the education programmes available to them. Indeed, despite the emphasis in government policy on employment, there is a profound lack of material linking education and training with post-release employment for women. The vast majority of Australian female inmates have achieved only low levels of for-real education before entering prison (Cameron, 2001; Danby et al., 2000; Office of the Correctional Services Commissioner, 2000) and while education programmes in prison are promoted for their role in 'rehabilitation', very little is known about inmates" perceptions of education and the impact it has on their lives. As Graycar (in Cameron, 1991: I) notes, "employment and education programs ... are often delivered without consideration of their effectiveness'. Moreover, inmate women's own desires and goals are rarely considered in the design and delivery of education programmes. This is supported by one inmate's claim that in terms of education programmes 'they decide what they think is good for us ... not once did they ever ask us' (Danby et al., 2000: 9). Consultation with prisoners is likely to increase the "success' (Reuss, 1999) of education programmes, but very few studies have focused on the prisoners" own experiences and opinions.

This article addresses this oversight by directly engaging the views of inmates themselves. Drawing on in-depth interviews with women in Victorian prisons--namely, the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) and Tarrengower Prison--we examine women inmates' experiences of education. In the first section the education programmes at DPFC and Tarrengower are described. This is followed by a description of the methodology, which, being discourse-based, makes a unique contribution to understanding the motivations for education for inmate women. Subsequently, the findings from these in-depth qualitative interviews are presented and discussed. Demonstrating the disparity in Victoria between stated government aims for inmate women's education and training and the motivations and outcomes articulated by the women themselves, we argue that prisoner education for women ought to be conceptualized in relation to a range of factors and not merely conceived of as a path to employment. …

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