Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Sorting Women's Risk: New Zealand Women Prisoners' Misconducts and Internal Security Risk

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Psychology

Sorting Women's Risk: New Zealand Women Prisoners' Misconducts and Internal Security Risk

Article excerpt

Little research has focused on women prisoners' risk of violent or other serious behaviour problems during their period of incarceration, contributing to concerns that the existing male-based prisoner security classification systems used to manage such risk are not suitable for women prisoners. Examining institutional infractions (i.e., misconducts) is one way of investigating how well a security classification system is working. The present study describes New Zealand women prisoners' patterns of official institutional misconduct and their security classification statuses. Of the 886 New Zealand women imprisoned during the 12-month study period, less than 20% had one or more official misconducts. Only a small proportion of these acts were violent: 12% comprised assaults on others, or fighting between inmates. The majority of misconducts (72%) were categorised as disruptive or destructive behaviour, and another 15% involved alcohol or drugs. The overall rate of misconducts increased with higher security classification, but only minimum and low-medium security classification (the next highest) consistently differed in the expected direction for all categories of misconduct. The results were consistent with the few other studies that have investigated women prisoners' pattern of institutional misconducts by security classification status.

Keeping offenders safely, securely, and humanely locked up is a major purpose of prisons. Doing so cost efficiently is also paramount. A cornerstone of prisoner management is the security classification system: the process of determining the level of risk a prisoner poses to the public through potential escape, and within the institution through violence or other serious behaviour management problems. Security classification systems group together prisoners with similar risk of harm to the public and institution. For example, a prisoner's security classification determines the type of facility or unit where she is placed, the number of prison officers per prisoner required for various activities, the degree of restriction of movement within a unit and the wider institution, where prisoners can work and attend programmes, access to escorted or temporary releases, and so on. From prisoners' perspectives, security classification shapes how they are perceived by others, who they mix with the range of work, rehabilitative and other opportunities they can access during their sentence, and ultimately the type of environment from which they return to the community (Brennan & Austin, 1997; Farr, 2000). For women prisoners, security classification also can determine contact with children; some jurisdictions provide enhanced visiting options and specific programmes for mothers and children at lower security levels (Australia & New Zealand Correctional Services Administrators' Forum, 2001; Carlson, 2001; Rist, 1997). In short, security classification shapes prison management and prisoners' lives.

In New Zealand, as in most Western jurisdictions, security classification systems were developed first with male prisoners and then applied to women. The adoption of male-based security classification systems in women's prisons has usually occurred without prior cross-validation with women prisoners. The question of whether these male-based systems work well with women prisoners has become of significant concern across jurisdictions. In particular, male-based security classification systems are thought to over-classify women (i.e., to over-estimate women's risk and allocate them to higher security than is necessary; see Austin, 2003; Austin, Hardyman, & Brown, 2001; Burke & Adams, 1991; Farr, 2000; Hardyman, Austin, & Tullock, 2002; Rist, 1997; Van Voorhis & Presser, 2001).

Institutional rule violations or misconducts are a measure of the risk a prisoner poses within an institution. There are a variety of rules about how prisoners must behave while in prison. …

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