Jail Mums: The Status of Adult Female Prisoners among Young Female Prisoners in Christchurch Women's Prison

By Goldingay, Sophie | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Jail Mums: The Status of Adult Female Prisoners among Young Female Prisoners in Christchurch Women's Prison


Goldingay, Sophie, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

At present in Aotearoa New Zealand, young female prisoners aged 14-19 years are either mixed with adult prisoners, or kept separate from them within the mainstream environment. Due to the practical difficulties of keeping young women separate in this environment, they may have few opportunities for participating in rehabilitative and therapeutic programmes or education, and may face extended lock-up hours. Young male prisoners aged 14-17 are treated differently: for example, they are placed in Young Offender Units, where they are provided with age-appropriate services and interventions. The differences in treatment available to young men and young women have been explained in the past by anecdotal practice wisdom around the mother-daughter nature of the relationships between adult women prisoners and young women prisoners. The current study explores the social context within a women's prison, through in-depth interviews, in order to learn more about the nature of the relationships between adult and young women prisoners. While these are only preliminary observations based on a small number of participants, it appears that in Christchurch Women's Prison a culture of respect for older women may exist among the young women prisoners. Participants indicated that for a number of reasons ongoing close relationships with adults are essential for their wellbeing.

INTRODUCTION

The nature of the relationships between adult women prisoners and their youthful counterparts in New Zealand is to a large extent unknown. Some previous anecdotal speculation by New Zealand authorities suggests that adult prisoners mother and befriend younger prisoners, keeping them calm (Department of Corrections 1998). In contrast, overseas studies warn that older women prisoners may manipulate, bully and take advantage of young women prisoners (Gaarder and Belknap 2004, Howard League for Penal Reform 1997).

This paper reports preliminary findings of a larger doctoral project in progress, which explores the needs of young female prisoners in Aotearoa New Zealand and what management arrangements might best meet these needs. A qualitative discourse analysis approach is being used in this study to analyse texts from the transcripts of semi-structured interviews with young women prisoners, in order to explore the social context and subjective experience of young women in prison (Lovering 1995). Analysis of the data from the Christchurch cohort suggest that mother-daughter type relationships predominate, and young women prisoners rely on these relationships for their wellbeing. Should this finding extend to young women prisoners in Arohata Women's Prison and Auckland Region Women's Correctional Facility, it may be of interest to policymakers. The author's own social work practice and research background has contributed to this research being guided by a feminist and anti-colonial agenda. Hence, the author seeks to advance the situation of this group of women and consider what is in their best interests.

Why Investigate Relationships between Older and Younger Women Prisoners?

"Best interests" is a phrase used by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). While the UNCROC guidelines appear to be accepted worldwide, it is my view that there remains a lack of clarity with regard to what constitutes the "best interests" for young women prisoners, particularly in the New Zealand context. New Zealand has been criticised for continuing to mix young female prisoners with adult prisoners (Harre 2001). (2) As a result, collaboration between the Ministry of Youth Development and the Department of Corrections led to a vulnerability assessment tool being produced for young women prisoners called the Test of Best Interests (TBI) (Department of Corrections 2006). This tool is similar to the one used to assess vulnerability among young male prisoners, with some substantive changes, such as an assessment of wellbeing factors, family influence (for location of placement purposes) and gang affiliation (Department of Corrections 2005).

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