What Works: Women and Juvenile Females in Community Corrections


Chairperson’s Commentary on the 1998 Annual Conference of the International Community Corrections Association, Arlington, Virginia, September 27-30




Department of Law, Carleton University

C473 Loeb, 1125 Colonel By Drive

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6



Phone: (613)-520-2600 ext 8095 (University)


August, 1999

(Posted March, 2001)





                The Rise of Rehabilitation

Martinson and a Watershed in Penal Reform



The Profile of Female Offenders

The Limits of Our Information

Shared Perspectives on Female Offenders


Discursive Dilemmas and Contradictions

Dilemmas and Contradictions of Holistic Approaches in Repressive Contexts*

Dissension About Definitions of ‘Success’ and the ‘Client








Crime must be answered in a convincing way; but imprisonment can accomplish this purpose only by generating new injustices... There is no frictionless medium in which retributive pain can be unproblematically delivered. Imprisonment is not just a neutral system of moral accounting; it is a violent ritualization of power, and, as such, it produces effects that undermine and overwhelm its capacity to represent justice.

(Cayley, 1998, p. 347)


In the summer of 1998 the International Community Corrections Association asked me to Chair their conference on “What Works: Women and Juvenile Females in Community Corrections” (Arlington, Virginia September 27-30). They also asked me to edit this volume of papers from the conference, and to write a paper on female offenders[1] in the context of the conference content.


In considering the ICCA requests I was somewhat hesitant. This hesitation arose given that most of my criminological research has involved minimal attention to gender issues (McMahon, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999a). My hesitancy was fuelled by the fact that the only gender-related research I had done previously was on the topic of women working in corrections, and particularly in prisons for men, and their experiences of discrimination and harassment by their male colleagues (McMahon, 1999). In short, I had never written on the topic of female offenders and questioned whether I had the expertise to carry out the proposed tasks.


At the same time, I was attracted by the ICCA requests. For, although I had not written in the area my interest in female offenders is long-standing. This interest was intensified pursuant to the scandal about ‘certain events’ at Canada’s Prison For Women in 1994, and by the aftermath of the scandal. As this scandal involved issues which arise later in this paper some information about it may be instructive for the reader.


In April 1994, following disturbances at the Prison For Women,[2]The disturbances at the Prison for Women in April of 1994 included a “brief but violent physical confrontation” between some prisoners and staff, and various forms of “‘acting out’” by inmates (Arbour, 1996). a decision was taken by management to call in the IERT (Institutional Emergency Response Team) from a neighbouring institution for male offenders. The IERT was asked to deal with 8 women seen as the main culprits in the disturbances.


By the time the IERT came into the Prison For Women each of the women was asleep in individual cells in the segregation area. Despite the fact that the trouble was over, and no immediate threat to the institution’s security was being posed by the women, the IERT swung into action. In doing so, the IERT followed the procedures which they used in dealing with men. Each of the women were confronted in their cells by the 8 male IERT members and their male coordinator, as well as by a female staff member of the prison. In accordance with standard procedures, the men’s dress and equipment were designed to be ‘intimidating.’ As Louise Arbour - Commissioner to the later Inquiry into the events - noted (Arbour, 1996, p. 67):


The dress consists of a black combat suit and associated protective gear - shin pads, safety boots, gas mask with an eye shield, and a protective helmet. The weapons carried by IERT members include batons, mace cans, and at least one plastic shield per team.


The   IERT carried out their task in accordance with the policies of the Correctional Service of Canada. Their standard procedure for stripping and removing prisoners was as follows.  The Team (Arbour, 1996, pp. 67-68):


marches into the area in formation (as it is part of the intimidation technique) and approaches the cell of the inmate who is to be extracted. The plastic shield is banged against the cell, producing a loud and frightening noise. The inmate is told to lie face down on the floor and warned that if the order is not obeyed, mace will be used. If the inmate complies, the cell door is opened and members of the team enter the cell and assume an ‘on guard’ stance with batons and mace around the inmate.  Restraint equipment - usually handcuffs and leg irons - is applied to the inmate. The inmate’s clothing is cut off, and the inmate’s body is visually inspected... If the cell is to be stripped, the inmate is taken from the cell and made to walk backwards...


The only IERT member who speaks during this procedure is the team leader, who issues any necessary instructions. Other IERT members do not speak, and do not answer questions from the inmates...


These demeaning and dehumanizing procedures inflicted on the women prisoners were captured on video as the IERT - as part of its professional approach - records its activities. The purpose of the video is (ironically) to protect members from allegations by inmates, and for use as a training tool. The video provides a series of chilling images. Commissioner Louise Arbour describes the opening scenes as follows (p. 71):


Prior to the video being turned on, the IERT marched into the Segregation Unit in standard formation, approached Joey Twins’ cell and banged on the bars of her cell with the shield.  She immediately did as she was ordered, and when the video begins she is lying face down in her cell surrounded by IERT members who are holding her down. An officer now identified as a female staff member of the Prison for Women staff, cuts off Ms. Twins’ clothing... while IERT members hold her down... Ms. Twins’ hands are cuffed behind her back and her legs are shackled. She is marched backwards out of her cell naked, and led to the corner of the range. There she is held against the wall with the clear plastic shield,, with her back against the wall. Some IERT members stand around her... The corner where Ms. Twins is standing is visible to anyone on the unit or standing in the doorway separating the disassociation side from the protective custody side of the Segregation Unit. Those who attended in those areas over the course of the evening included members of the prison’s correctional staff, the institutional physician, Dr.  Mary Pearson, the Case Management Coordinator, Marjo Callaghan... Correctional Supervisor Warnell, as well as the IPSO and the maintenance men....


While she is still being held in the corner, a paper gown is brought to Ms. Twins and tied around her neck. The effect is something like that of a bib. The paper gown neither covers her, nor provides warmth.


Upon her return to the cell, an IERT member begins the extremely lengthy process of attempting to apply a body belt in substitution for her handcuffs, during which procedure her gown comes off. A body belt is a form of restraint equipment which, as its name implies, consists of a locked chain around the inmate’s waist to which are attached locked cuffs attaching the wrists to the locked belt, more or less at the side of the body...


Finally, this lengthy procedure is completed and she is left lying on the floor of her cell in restraints - body belt and leg irons - with a small paper gown.


Throughout this procedure, she is evidently distressed...


When sections of this video were publicly broadcast (about 9 months after the strip-searches and with the women’s consent) my reaction, similarly to that of much of the Canadian public, was one of shock and horror. Each woman, alone in her cell, is swarmed by men in riot gear. Each woman’s clothes are removed by force or under duress, and in the presence of these masked, armed, silent, anonymous, men. Few words are spoken by the supervisor. Each woman is given a paper gown - inadequate to cover them with any modesty - and subsequently subject to other degrading procedures.


For me, these events at the Prison for Women were not only horrifying, but also puzzling. For, in many respects, Canada from the late 1980s has also been a world leader in attempting to reform women’s imprisonment. The woman-centred report Creating Choices (TFFSW, 1990) embodied proposals for the closure of the Prison for Women and its replacement with more progressively- oriented institutions. Implementation of these proposals was in progress at the time of the strip searches. The juxtaposition of progressive discourses and repressive practices was stark. Arising from this contradiction I followed with interest the work of the ensuing Commission of Inquiry, its recommendations and attempts at their implementation, as well as research accounts about recent policy shifts with respect to federally sentenced women in Canada (see especially the work of Kelly Hannah Moffat itemized in the references). I also began to reflect more systematically on the situation of female offenders when called upon by the Commission as a ‘resource person’ in their examination of cross-gender staffing in prisons for women. [3]


The invitation of the ICCA for me to Chair, edit and write provided a welcome springboard from which to pursue this fledgling interest in female offenders, and their situations more generally. As one who believes that the vast majority of prisoners could be better worked with beyond prison walls, the ICCA effort to focus on community corrections was likewise welcome. However I want to remind the reader of my novice status concerning this topic. What follows is as much a matter of my own education as it is an effort to educate the reader.




A striking comment made at the conference by several participants was that “Women [offenders] exist in the shadow of men.” This statement certainly resonates in the United States where women have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms simply because they have cohabited with men who have been active in the illicit drug trade.  More generally women offenders have existed in the shadow of men in that the relatively small numbers have been associated with a lack of policy-makers’ attention to their situations and needs. Women have been, and are, frequently incarcerated in prisons for men.[4] Programming has been inadequate. Typically, activities available to women in prison (notably laundry and sewing) have tended firstly, to serve the needs of the institution more than those of women, and secondly, to keep women offenders engaged in traditionally female occupations. For those women imprisoned in prisons for men, where broader programming should be available, security concerns are often cited as a rationale for preventing their access to other programmes and activities.


Just as the theme that ‘women exist in the shadow of men’ surfaced repeatedly at the conference so did the assertion that - especially with respect to formulating criminal justice policy - ‘one size does not fit all.’ In identifying what might ‘fit’ for female offenders  it is useful to consider the situation with respect to punishment generally, both currently and historically. In this paper therefore, I first provide an historical overview of correctional policy, and particularly since the 1960s.  I then go on to focus on female offenders, and to discuss contributions at the conference by presenters and participants under the following headings: points of consensus; and dilemmas, contradictions, and dissension involved in attempts to assist female offenders (with dissension mainly focusing on the actuarial discourse of ‘risk/needs assessment’ as applied to female offenders).


Following this I identify some challenges facing those who wish to humanistically and holistically assist female offenders despite the constraints of an increasingly bureaucratic and technocratic justice system. This paper concludes with reflections on the limits and potential of different approaches to assisting female offenders and whether related efforts should be viewed as primarily involving art or science.


Although my perspective is, by reason of experience and education, primarily western and Anglo-American based, I hope that the discussion might also be useful to those from other cultures, not least in stimulating them to challenge to the boundaries of dominant approaches, and to offer other visionary and progressive alternatives.




[I]t is indeed time to look again at the institution of prison.  It was created in quite a different age, as an alternative to transportation to the colonies or to Australia or to replace physical punishment. An institution devised for the needs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and carried on throughout the twentieth with only minor changes needs to be reviewed for the twenty-first century.

(Stern, 1998, p. xxi)


As we enter the new millennium the picture which prevails of imprisonment around the world is depressing.  The conditions to which prisoners are subject in many places almost defy belief. For example, in Russia as of 1998 nearly 100,000 prisoners, or 10% of all prisoners, were suffering from active Tuberculosis. Owing to Russia’s economic crisis it was impossible for the authorities to provided them with the necessary drugs (Penal Reform International, 1998). Meanwhile, those who were ill further suffered, as did the prison population more generally, from the lack of adequate accommodation, food and heating.


The size of prison populations is also depressing. While there are huge variations in the size of prison population in different jurisdictions[6], and while many complex factors explain the size of prison population in any given jurisdiction[7], during the last decades of the twentieth century there has been a strong perception among prison critics that the predominant tendency is that of a growth in prison populations internationally. In conjunction with this, societal attitudes toward crime appear to have become increasingly punitive. As expressed by David Cayley (1998, p. 41) in the course of his discussion of the ‘U-turn’ in crime policy since the mid-1970s:


[D]espite the huge variation in prison numbers between say, Norway and the United States, the changes that have taken place seem to have certain common features. Everywhere emphasis has shifted from rehabilitation to retribution, from the culpability of society to the culpability of the offender, and from reasoned policy to symbolic gesture.


With the use of imprisonment growing internationally, with deplorable conditions being not uncommon, and with the public mood becoming more harsh, Vivien’s Stern’s call for a reasoned examination of the possibility of progressive alternatives to imprisonment is compelling.


How do we understand the growing use of imprisonment at the end of the twentieth century? Obviously this basic question cannot be fully answered here. But, at least from a western perspective, some important developments since the 1960s assist in explaining the recent evolution of logic with respect to penal policies. Understanding these recent developments is in turn illuminated by a brief consideration of the longer history of imprisonment and rehabilitation.


The Rise of Rehabilitation


Given the current emphasis of reformers on the need and moral imperative to establish more alternatives to imprisonment, it is easy to forget that the prison itself as a form of punishment was initially established as an alternative. In the wake of the French Revolution previously used penalties were seen as unjust and less than civilised. Specifically, the inception of the prison marked several shifts in penal policy. Where punishment had often been carried out in the public sphere (e.g. in the market square), it would later be administered in a more private and hidden way - behind prison walls. Where punishment had often been directed at the body (as with whipping, flogging, the use of stocks and pillories, and transportation), it would later bee more directed at the soul of the individual (Foucault, 1977).


The birth of the prison as a form of punishment[8] was closely parallelled by that of social science as a form of inquiry into the human condition. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of psychology, psychiatry, sociobiology and sociology. The emergence of criminology late in the century drew from these approaches and particularly from their positivist orientation: early criminologists (similarly to their mainstream successors up to the present day) had as their scientific objective the identification of the individual and social characteristics of offenders, and thereby of the factors underlying criminal behaviour.  In conducting this task the prison - by virtue of its spatial, legal and administrative segregation of prisoners from wider society - provided the “institutional surface” whereby the concerns of the new discipline of criminology could be explored (Garland, 1985, p. 80). As criminological historian David Garland has elaborated (p. 82), early criminological knowledge became synonymous with that of prisoners:


The prison provided a kind of new experimental laboratory, a controlled enclosure in which the new knowledge could develop. It provided the possibility for the long-term observation of criminals who could be examined, measured, photographed and catalogued in an organised manner. It produced statistical data on conviction rates, recidivism patterns, and criminal careers, which were invaluable criminological materials unavailable elsewhere. It even allowed a degree of experimentation in so far as various regimes of labour, diet, discipline and so on could be compared with one another to assess the effects of each upon the prison population and the causes of crime.


From the outset positivist inquiries in the prison setting were not solely scientific endeavours. They fused with utilitarian and reformist efforts to discover the causes of, and thereby suitable treatment for, criminal behaviour. The social scientific genesis of criminology parallelled and reinforced the emergent policy-reform discourse of rehabilitation. As the rehabilitative ethos gathered support among social scientists and correctional reformers, the orientation of punishment changed: the earlier emphasis on the offence, and on legal and classical principles of justice, was moderated by growing attention to the offender and the utility of strategies of classification, differentiation, and individualization in the provision of treatment (Cullen and Gilbert, 1982). Over time, penal practices increasingly incorporated rehabilitative strategies. The political, legal and administrative groundwork was laid for the development of treatment-oriented programmes such as probation, parole, and half-way houses.


Within the public realm utilitarian, reformist and scientific interests overlapped with issues of costs, humaneness and effectiveness. Penal officials sought assurance that vocational, educational and other therapeutic programmes were not only having their intended effect, but were doing so in a cost-efficient manner. Reformers sought support for their humanitarian objectives and their claims about rehabilitation as a penal strategy. And social scientists sought to advance their knowledge of the causes of criminal behaviour through examination of  the results of treatment, and especially with respect to recidivism.


Of course, the pace of the development of rehabilitation, and of the development of criminological knowledge, varied greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Nonetheless, while it is true that criticism of the prison has been “endemic to its history” (Ignatieff, 1978, p. 19), it is also true that the popularity of rehabilitation as an associated strategy grew to the point that the period following the second World War, and especially the 1960s, saw “its fullest and widest support” (Young, 1983, p. 98). Until the late 1960s rehabilitation “remained unchallenged as the dominant correctional ideology” (Cullen and Gilbert, 1982, p. 82).[9]


Martinson and a Watershed in Penal Reform


Where the 1960s represented the culmination of the gradual rise in belief in the rehabilitative ideal, the 1970s represented a watershed in penal reform. Perspectives at the end of the decade contrasted sharply with those at the outset. Within this watershed Robert Martinson’s article published in 1974, and titled ‘What Works? Questions and Answers About Penal Reform,’ was a major precipitating factor. In brief, Martinson’s article provided a meta-analysis of over 200 studies which had assessed correctional and treatment programmes. In conducting such assessments, and in evaluating whether or not programmes ‘worked’, the phenomenon of recidivism - or of the tendency of an offender to relapse into crime - had come to be regarded as crucial by criminologists and correctional authorities alike (Garland, 1985b, pp. 61-2; Mannheim,  1960; Ohlin, 1956; Third International Congress of Criminology, 1955).


Having conducted an extensive review of existing studies, Martinson’s baldly stated and gloomy conclusion was that: “with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism” (p. 25. Emphasis in original).


At first glance, from today’s perspective, this might be seen as a damning indictment of rehabilitation. But it is important to note that Martinson’s conclusion was not novel. Some earlier researchers had come to a similar conclusion. For example, in 1961, Leon Radzinowicz commented on how there appeared to be little difference between the effectiveness of programmes in the prison setting and non-incarcerative dispositions. In his words (1961, p. 169): “the similarity of success and failure rates, as measured by the after-conduct of offenders, irrespective of whether they were put on probation, fined [or] sentenced to short-term imprisonment, or to longer corrective detention, is indeed striking.”


If at one level Martinson’s findings were nothing new, why were they so energetically received and rapidly translated into the buzz phrase ‘Nothing Works!’? What seems to be of most significance here is not so much the actual findings as the way in which Martinson interpreted their significance. Where earlier researchers had used such findings to reinforce their commitment to rehabilitation, and to call for better ways of accomplishing it,[10] Martinson used his findings as a basis for questioning the very notion of rehabilitation itself. Having first followed his predecessors in querying whether the lack of effectiveness of programmes might only be reflecting the need for “a more full-hearted commitment to the strategy of treatment”, Martinson (1974, 79) went on to state:


It may be, on the other hand, that there is a more radical flaw in our present strategies - that education at its best, cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behavior. Our present treatment programs are based on a theory of crime as a ‘disease’ - that is to say as something foreign and abnormal in the individual which can presumably be cured. This theory may well be flawed.


Meanwhile, developments in the public culture and academic spheres contributed to Martinson’s assertions being taken seriously elsewhere. The social and political events of the 1960s and early 1970s had already generated much scepticism about the state’s potential in ‘doing good’ through criminal justice and other institutions. As Cullen and Gilbert have expressed it in the context of the USA, the ‘turmoil’ of the 1960s and the emergence of the civil rights movement “marked the beginning of a period in which the legitimacy of state authority was subjected to continued and widespread debate among liberal forces... optimism about the possibilities for genuine reform within the confines of existing institutional arrangements would be replaced by a deep sense of pessimism” (1982, pp. 104-5).


In the correctional context prison disturbances contributed to the waning credibility of correctional practices. Iconic among these were those at Attica, New York in 1971[11] where dozens of people died. As Cullen and Gilbert have explained with reference to Attica and the United States (1982, 108):


Traditionally, reformers had championed the infusion of the rehabilitative ideal into the criminal justice system and the expansion of discretionary powers that would allow for the individualized treatment of offenders. While the difficulties surrounding correctional programs were not ignored in the past, many liberals nevertheless held tenaciously to the belief that the state could ultimately be induced to exercise these powers in a benevolent manner.  But the bloody suppression of the uprising at Attica compelled even the most adamant supporters of enforced therapy to re-examine this assumption. In focusing attention on the plight of society’s captives, Attica revealed how badly the liberals’ faith in the state had been misplaced. It was now clear that the state used its discretion not to better inmates but to brutalize them, not to effect individualized treatment but to incarcerate only the poor and non-white.


Reflecting this climate of cynicism liberals began to refer to the ‘crime of treatment’ (AFSC, 1971, p. 83). Rehabilitation was described as a myth that fostered the victimization of prisoners themselves. Earlier themes of doing ‘more good’ were overtaken by those of doing ‘less harm.’


Calls for doing less harm also resonated with similar thinking in the social sciences. Throughout the 1960s phenomenological, ethnomethodological and symbolic interactionist approaches to the study of deviance and control - by highlighting the socially constructed nature of deviance -  had been providing a challenge to positivist approaches in criminology. Labelling and related perspectives also called attention to how the actions of criminal justice institutions and agencies could be read as ‘amplifying deviant behaviour’ (Vold, 1979, p. 264; see also Cicourel, 1968; Lemert, 1951, 1967, 1971; Skolnick, 1966; Bittner, 1967; Sudnow, 1965; Emerson, 1969; Scheff, 1966). Sociologists in the 1960s and early 1970s drew on critiques of psychiatry in pointing to the coercive and repressive aspects of rehabilitation programmes, and thereby to their punitive elements. In short, many social scientists now ascribed pathology to the correctional system itself, rather than to those being processed by it (e.g. Goffman, 1961; Greenberg, 1970, 1972; Kittrie, 1971; Frankel, 1972; Conrad, 1973; Mitford, 1973; Rosenhan, 1973; Gaylin, 1974).


A major legacy of Martinson’s work and ensuing debates has been the accelerated use of community corrections in many western countries. One of the ironies here is that community programmes were initially established under the ethos of rehabilitation.[12] It might have been expected therefore that critiques of rehabilitation would yield the curtailment, rather than the expansion, of community corrections. However the studies reviewed by Martinson also included some of community corrections programmes, notably probation and parole. And here, in contrast to his otherwise pessimistic conclusions, Martinson identified “one encouraging set of findings.” Observing that such programmes have cost advantages, and that offenders in them did not do any worse than those in institutional contexts, Martinson concluded that “the implication is clear: if we can’t do more for (and to) offenders, at least we can safely do less” (1974, p. 48, emphasis in original). In short, Martinson’s findings echoed the notion of ‘doing less harm’ that was prevalent in other reformist sectors. His work supported calls for ‘deinstitutionalization,’ and reinforced the impetus toward the development and expansion of community programmes (including, for example, probation, parole, half-way houses, community service orders, and victim-offender reconciliation programmes).[13]


The notion that ‘nothing works’ would increasingly be challenged - especially in the 1990s - both concerning efforts at rehabilitating offenders and at reforming criminal justice systems (e.g. Cullen and Gilbert, 1982; McMahon, 1992; Stern, 1998; Cayley, 1988; Currie, 1998; Andrews et al, 1990, 1990a; Harland, 1996). However the 1980s were in many ways one of an era of a policy, political and theoretical void in terms of corrections. If ‘nothing works’ then what might one advocate for? Logically, the best course of action often seemed to be to attempt nothing innovative at all.  If you persisted in being reform-minded the best strategy seemed to be to concentrate on the legal protection of offenders. Meanwhile, where critical criminologists had often previously advocated for reform, they became more likely to confine themselves to analysis and critique.  And where policy-makers had sought visionary solutions, they became more likely to confine themselves to the management of existing problems.


Sadly, this cynicism about the prospects for penal reform was parallelled by an increasingly punitive public culture temper in many jurisdictions subsequent to the 1970s. While one can point to the relative stability, and even decline, of crime rates (Currie, 1998), and while one can debate long and hard about the extent and sources of this punitiveness, it seems futile to dispute the fact that public culture expressions of concern about crime, and calls for punishment, had become far more prevalent by the 1990s than they were three decades previously. The American ‘War on Drugs’ is one manifestation of this public culture preoccupation and has played a major part in the growth of the prison population in the USA.


In summary, the penal climate at the turn of the millennium is an exceedingly punitive one. Imprisonment rates generally seem to be rising, and in some countries (e.g. the USA and Russia) at a pace that almost defies belief. Faith in the potential of rehabilitation has been seriously undermined since the 1970s, and the voices of those few who argue that treatment programmes and penal reform can work tend to be drowned out in the public culture by media, political and other sources advocating tougher measures against crime. In turn, this get tough approach is associated with hardening attitudes more generally towards those in the poorer, and vulnerable, sections of society.  Welfare states and social services were radically diminished in many countries during the closing decades of the twentieth century.


Within the criminal justice system itself discretionary, humanistic and rehabilitative approaches have been supplanted by those emphasizing just deserts, retribution, determinacy and proportionality. As previous clinically-oriented approaches give way to actuarial ones the ultimate penalties, despite the rhetoric, often appear very far from any notion of proportionality of justice. A notorious case in point here it the ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ legislation in California and elsewhere in the USA. Under such legislation, life imprisonment can hypothetically be imposed upon anyone convicted of a third felony. As of 1995 more people in California had been sentenced under the legislation ‘for simple marijuana possession than for murder, rape and kidnapping combined, and more for drug possession generally than for all violent offenses” (Currie, 1998, p. 49). Thus while the discourse promoting the legislation emphasized its use on dangerous and violent offenders, it has been as likely in practice to be directed at petty and minor offenders.


At a general level it seems reasonable to contend that the dominant trend internationally is a punitive one. But caution must be exercised in making sweeping generalizations.[14] For example, it can generally be said that the prison population in the USA is at least four times higher proportionately than that in Canada. David Cayley (1998, p. 351) in his discussion of the use of conditional sentences in Canada provides a stunning example of the differing approaches to sentencing in the two countries:


[I]n May of 1997, Mr. Justice Forestall of the Ontario Court’s General Division... handed down a noncustodial sentence in the case of St. Catherines man whose drunken driving had killed two people. The offender was ordered to do 240 hours of community service over 18 months, surrender his driver’s licence for four years, undergo counselling, and spend 75 hours over the next two years making presentations to students on the consequences of drinking and driving. On the same day in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a man facing similar charges was given two life sentences after a jury rejected the prosecutor’s argument that he should be executed.


From these cases one might easily infer that Canada is far more lenient than the USA.   However, as David Cayley himself points out, this is not so when one examines the sub-group of young offenders.  Indeed, where young offenders are concerned it has been argued that the custodial rate in Canada is twice that in the USA, and is also higher than that in other Western societies.


Similar caution must be exercised in making statements about female offenders and responses to them. Having briefly addressed the broader context of penal policies and politics we can now turn to their situation. In doing so my objective, rather than providing a summary of research, is to provide some reflections stimulated, as explained earlier, by my position as Chair of the 1998 Conference of the International Community Corrections Association - ‘What Works: Women and Juvenile Females in Community Corrections.’ These reflections draw both from the other papers in this volume, and from the discussions which they stimulated at the conference itself.  My aim is to provide the reader with some insights into beliefs and concerns about female offenders and the penal system raised at the conference.




... the study of female criminality and its control, as well as the issue of gender in more general theories, faces constant problems of marginalization, incorporation, and tokenism.

(Downes and Rock, 1998, p. 309)


In deciding to host a research Conference on female offenders and community corrections the ICCA was innovative in a variety of ways.  It was innovative firstly in putting the focus on female offenders - a topic which has been relatively neglected not only within the field of criminology generally, but also within the sub-field of gender issues in criminology. Attention to gender issues in criminology increased enormously during the last decades of the twentieth century. But, where women are concerned, there has been a far stronger focus on their experiences as victims of crime than as perpetrators of it.[15] This focus makes sense given that women are far more likely to be victims than offenders, and given that the vast majority of the offending population is male.  It  also makes sense given the multiple forms of victimization experienced by female offenders themselves.


However there are also what might be described as ideological factors at work which have inhibited a focus on female offenders, and particularly from feminist perspectives. As Downes and  Rock (1998, p. 320) observe:


[Some researchers] more feminist than criminological, would deflect attention away from the criminal woman.  Feminist politics or grand theories urge the ending of what has just begun. Just as an earlier generation did not wish to endanger the politics of race by looking too closely at the links between blacks and crime (other than in the context of the unjust criminalization of blacks and the racism of the criminal justice system), so some feminists have argued that no good purpose can be served by exploring the criminality of women... A feminist criminology, it has been argued, is prone to ‘correctionalism’ and collusion with patriarchy, [and] being used as an instrument against women.


Focusing on female offenders does raise difficult dilemmas. But avoiding them is hardly the best path to their resolution. Especially in light of public culture preoccupation with violence by women (see Chesney-Lind, this volume), which in turn produces a thoroughly misleading stereotype about female criminality more generally, it seems incumbent upon us to counter public misperceptions with a clearer picture.


The ICCA was also innovative in bringing together speakers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary perspectives. In particular, by bringing together speakers from psychological and sociological points of view the stage was set for an opportunity to confront both the actions of female offenders and reactions to them. While the interdisciplinary dialogue that ensued was not always an easy one, nor by any means comprehensive,[16] the papers presented and the discussions which followed, represented some important steps towards addressing issues about female offenders from more holistic perspectives. Certainly I, as a sociologist, learned much from the psychological insights offered, and particularly those presented by Stephanie Covington. While statements are frequently made in more sociologically-oriented literature in criminology about the high percentages of female offenders who have experienced physical and sexual abuse, and who themselves engage in substance abuse and other forms of self-harm, it is rare to see such a thorough documentation of these problems, and in the specific context of female psychological development.


As a critical criminologist I also appreciated Stephanie Covington’s and other contributors’ emphasis on the similarities between those women who happen to be in conflict with the law and women more generally. Many girls and women have had experiences of physical and sexual abuse, but it is those of us who are additionally disadvantaged because of poverty and racism that are most vulnerable to becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system. As Covington concisely states, their crimes “are actually social issues.” Taking this statement as seriously as it should be has enormous implications for how one views both the problems of female offenders and potential responses to them.


With respect to the latter, the ICCA conference was further innovative in directing attention to the importance of utilizing community-based programmes for female offenders (see especially Glover Reed and Leavitt, this volume). Yet, just as there has been a dearth of feminist research on female offenders, and just as social-psychological perspectives on the topic have been lacking, so have community corrections more generally been an under-researched topic.  In any given country there tends to be far more literature available about prisons than about community alternatives.  Moreover, and as already noted, such literature as does exist tends to be overwhelmingly focused on programmes for males.[17]  Once again then, dialogue at the conference was often impeded by a lack of basic information, as well as by the absence of a history of well-formulated thought on females and community correctional programmes.


As Chair of the conference I sometimes felt that I was witnessing a schizophrenic moment with respect to discussions of female offenders. One reason for this was the diversity of discourses and perspectives brought to the topic by participants - including psychological, sociological, managerial, journalistic, practitioner and reformist.  Another reason for this feeling was that this conference was taking place at a specific time for both feminism and female offenders. The past few decades have seen a tremendous growth in knowledge about, and sensitivity to, gender issues. But they have also seen various forms of ‘backlash’ against feminism (Faludi, 1991; Bashevkin, 1998). With respect to criminal justice, a growing awareness of the need for programming, including community programming, specific to women has been evident. Yet, and as discussed by Meda Chesney-Lind in the particular case of the USA, the 1990s also saw a fascination with a ‘new’ violent offender and specifically with “girls, often girls of color, carrying guns, and fighting with other girls.” The question of whether or not violence by females is increasing remains, I think, unresolved. But at the conference there was less preoccupation with this than with the impression that we a witnessing a transition: those working for and with females in criminal justice are dissatisfied with their continuing, despite all of the rhetoric, to be an afterthought with respect to policy, and are looking for a new, more resolute, and more specifically woman-centred focus in the development of programmes, and especially community-based ones. The observations which Pat Carlen and other feminist scholars have been making for decades still ring true, and even more strongly than has previously been the case (Carlen, 1990, p.2, emphasis added).


In view... of the vast feminist literature on the need for women to circumvent the demands of traditional gender controls and develop as persons in their own right, in view, too, of our increasing knowledge of the particular needs of women law-breakers and ex-prisoners (O’Dwyer et al, 1987), there has been an astonishing dearth of supportive and rehabilitative programmes fashioned specifically for female offenders.


Having identified this preliminary but vital point of consensus - that the dearth of programming specific to women is even more unacceptable now than previously - let us now go on to consider other points of agreement evident at the conference.




The Profile of Female Offenders


One of the clear points of consensus at the conference concerned the profile of female offenders, and especially those who are imprisoned. Here, Vivien Stern’s (1998, 137-8) observations about female imprisonment around the world are familiar in light of materials presented at the conference:


[T]he most remarkable fact about women in prison is how few of them there are. All over the world women make up a tiny proportion of those locked up. The proportions are truly startling.  On average only one out of every twenty prisoners is a woman.  Women constitute roughly 50 per cent of the population of any country, yet provide only 5 per cent of its prisoners. This is not specific to any one country or region, but is reflected all over the world.  In Spain, the proportion of women is 10 per cent, in the United States over 6 per cent, in France 4 per cent, in Russia 3 per cent, and it Morocco it is 2 per cent. But nowhere in the world do women make up more than one in ten of the whole prison population.


Not only is there a general consensus that women make up a small proportion of overall prison populations, but there is also a consensus about the kinds of women likely to end up in prison. Vivien Stern in her global profile again concisely states what has been reiterated in this volume:


Who are the women in prison? The answer to this too is similar in every country.  Women in prison are overwhelmingly poor.  Many have themselves been victims of abuse, sexual or physical, sometimes from early childhood.


While the size of the female prison population is small compared to that of men, concerns were expressed at the conference about the rapid rate at which the imprisonment of women seems to be increasing. The most dramatic and well-documented case of this is in the USA where, as Elliott Currie (1998, p. 14) observes:


[I]n 1970 there were slightly more than 5,600 women in state and federal prisons across the United States. By 1996 there were nearly 75,000 - a thirteenfold increase.  For most of the period after World War II, the female incarceration rate hovered at around 8 per 1000,000; it did not reach double digits until 1977. Today it is 51 per 100,000. Women’s incarceration rates in Texas, Oklahoma, and the district of Columbia now surpass the overall rates for both sexes that prevailed nationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At current rates of increase, there will be more women in America’s prisons in the year 2010 than there were inmates of both sexes in 1970.


Of note is that this increase proportionately outstrips that of men. As reported by Stern (1998, p.  153) where the U.S. male prison population tripled between 1980 and the mid 1990s, the female prison population grew sixfold during that period. Signs of growth in women’s imprisonment are similarly evident in England and Wales. Where there were 1,800 women prisoners in 1987 (Carlen, 1990, p. 74), by June 1997 there were 2,624 women prisoners (Stern, 1998, p.  153). Where between 1992 and 1995 alone there was a 29 percent increase in the imprisonment of men, the corresponding increase with respect to women was 57 percent (ibid). Data from other countries is less readily available. But there are the indications that dramatic increases in the incarceration of women are also taking place. For example, in Chile between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s the rate at which women were imprisoned rose by 100% (Cooper, 1998).


A further point that clearly emerged at the conference is that while poverty and social disadvantage, as well as histories of abuse, render women vulnerable to coming into conflict with the law, this situation is exacerbated for members of some ethnic minority groups.  In the USA the staggering rates of imprisonment of women of colour gives much rise for concern. As Chesney-Lind and Bloom have observed (1997, p. 51):


... women of color are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States..  African-American women are incarcerated at a rate of seven times that of white women (143 vs.  20 per 100,000), and women of color represent more than 60 percent of the adult women in state and federal prisons nationwide (American Correctional Association 1992). Women of color are also disproportionately represented on the death rows of this country relative to their proportion in the general population.


In the Canadian context similar trends are evident,[18] with the situation of aboriginal women being particularly bad. Although aboriginal people constitute less than 5% of the Canadian population, all estimates suggest that the rate at which aboriginal women are imprisoned greatly exceeds their

proportion in the population. According to Faith (1993, p. 138), for example, almost 25 percent of federally sentenced women in Canada are Native.[19]


The Limits of Our Information


Ironically, while the conference saw a strong consensus about the basic profile of women in prison - and particularly about their vulnerable status - there was also a strong consensus that we know embarrassingly little about them from a research perspective.  In the first place, many basic facts and figures about women and corrections remain unclear.  For example, Canadian participants at the conference could not readily agree on how many women there actually are in Canadian prisons. When it came to documenting the situation of women in community corrections the picture was even more murky. For, and as noted by Covington (this volume) “[r]eliable and detailed data about females in community corrections programs is not collected annually in the U.S. or in Canada...” No doubt diligent digging would produce data on women in specific community programmes - for example in the Canadian context on women in the federal parole system, or in individual provincial parole systems.  But this vital task remains to be done, and it, in turn, is only part of the picture which needs to be compiled.  Completing a community corrections profile of females in community corrections in the Canadian context would also require gathering data on probation systems, as well as on fine option, bail supervision, and miscellaneous other programmes in Canada’s 10 provinces, the North West Territories and Nunavut.


This dismal lack of information with respect to basic statistical data on the involvement of women in community correctional programmes extends to matters of substance, or of what is actually going on within those programmes. Fragments of information exist, and there are descriptive studies of individual programmes. But when it comes to assessing the outcome of community programmes the picture is obscure. Barbara Bloom’s (this volume) opening statement in her paper is apt: “The literature regarding gender-specific outcome evaluation is sparse and, for community corrections, almost non-existent.” As Meda Chesney-Lind (this volume) observes, a similar situation applies with respect to consideration and evaluation of community-based programmes for girls where there is “virtually no solid, empirical research on program effectiveness.”


Shared Perspectives on Female Offenders


While the conference was startlingly short on what might be described as ‘hard’ data about women and community correctional programmes, there was nonetheless a wealth of knowledge and insights shared by speakers, discussants and participants. Moreover, people’s diverse experiences (e.g. as researchers, managers, policy-makers, legal decision-makers, reformers and front-line workers), and ensuing reflections seemed for me, as Chair, to coalesce into what might be described as a set of shared principles. In a brief summary such as this oversimplification is inevitable. Nonetheless the principles articulated can be described as follows:

·         women offenders should be defined primarily as women, rather than as offenders (with the same applying for girls). As Stephanie Covington expressed it: “our lens should be that of women’s lives.”

·         correctional programmes for women should be gender-sensitive, but not biologically reductionistic.

·         the importance of relatedness and connectedness for women’s mental and personal health needs to be recognised. This in turn suggests that top priority should be given to the use of community correctional programmes, and that the use of imprisonment should be radically reduced. Imprisonment, by definition, fosters alienation and isolation from society. Community programmes carry the potential for positively strengthening bonds between individual women and multiple resources in the community.

·         the fact that the vast majority of female offenders have been victimized in various ways should not be allowed to inhibit recognition of the resourcefulness of female offenders, their strengths, and their capacities for survival.

·         there should be a holistic definition of the situation of female offenders, and a holistic approach in the delivery of community services. In turn this means that it is not only women’s behaviour but their feelings that should be addressed. A holistic approach involves giving attention to women’s individual and social situations, including with respect to issues of housing, employment, education, recreation and so on.


There was further a consensus that, as people working in and around the system:

·         we need to create more opportunities for discussion between, and build more alliances among, researchers, policy-makers, reformers, practitioners and females subject to the criminal justice system.

·         we need to create public awareness about the expense, waste, and dangers of incarcerating women and girls.

·         we need to become more political, and to communicate our views more effectively in the public culture - including to the media and politicians.




Discursive Dilemmas and Contradictions


... a competent feminist probation officer might know, on the one hand, that her client will gain advantage if it can be demonstrated that she is a good housewife and mother. On the other hand, by privileging that woman’s housewifely and mothering performances she will also be colluding in, and promoting, the stereotype of the criminal woman who is NOT a wife and mother, and thereby possibly disadvantaging single, divorced, childless and lesbian female offenders. That such dilemmas exist should not be surprising.

(Carlen, 1990, p. 109)


Discussion at the conference was replete with dilemmas, ironies and contradictions. This in turn gave rise to numerous important questions. Each of these could be discussed at length. However, space limitations preclude this and my purpose, once again, is to attempt to provide the reader with the tenor of the discussion.


One predicament that arose is that many people at the conference seemed to feel that they intuitively know what is ‘good’ for female offenders.  For example, statements to the effect of ‘I feel in my gut that we should...’ were not uncommon. At the same time, participants seemed to feel a compulsion to have their ideas in some sense ‘proved,’ and typically in the language of evaluation. It was as if participants hoped that a magic wand of social science might be waved over a plethora of woman-centred and community-based programmes, and the blessing to be given was that of solid proof that these programmes ‘work’ (and specifically in the form of reducing recidivism). Some of the researchers who presented papers also adhered to this kind of thinking.  For example, one of the researchers stated and questioned: “We instinctively know what works. But how do we prove it?”


In effect, there was an expectation that social scientific research would provide a mantle of credibility to community-based and holistic programmes for women, and ultimately by providing incontrovertible evidence that such programmes reduce, and carry the potential to eliminate, re-offending. In practice however, and given the paucity of relevant studies, and the lack of such evidence, related discussions periodically ended up in a vacuum. Yet the vacuum was never acutely felt because the values which most participants (including myself) shared - of caring, compassion, and empowerment - served to carry the discussion along, despite various theoretical, political and research impasses met along the way.


Nevertheless, the line of thinking that ‘we know intuitively what is good and what should be done, and we want social science research to prove the benefits with respect to recidivism’ raises some fundamental issues. I have no wish to throw sociological cold water on admirable reformist visions, but much of the history of the past few centuries of correctional reform, at least in North America, can be read as a series of well-intentioned movements followed by unintended, and often negative, consequences. As David Rothman (1980) has expressed it, the ‘conscience’ of reformers becomes the ‘convenience’ of administrators. Michel Foucault (1977) has even more trenchantly critiqued modern, and supposedly progressive, reform in the penal sphere. For him, knowledge and power are reflections of one another, and social scientific knowledge in general is synonymous with the sinister, complex, and subtle exercise of social control. In turn, Stanley Cohen (1985) has used a Foucauldian analysis in deconstructing the use of community corrections generally, and in revealing their dark side - particularly with respect to their potential of yielding ‘wider, stronger, and different nets of social control’ exerted on offenders who most likely would never have gone to prison in the first place.


While I take issue with aspects of Foucault’s and Cohen’s perspectives (McMahon, 1987,1990, 1992, 1996) they are also critically important in directing attention to, and stimulating reflection on, the ideological frameworks within which we are currently operating. Some of the immediate questions arising, and which were more or less explicitly alluded to at the conference include: What is the notion of  ‘good’ to which we adhere in discussing female offenders and community corrections? Are there intuitive views of what is good being expressed  in discussions which are at odds with those adhered to in much of the research literatures, and particularly in those which are positivist in orientation? How do we reconcile the feminist ethic of caring, empathy and empowerment articulated in discussions and in some of the papers with the mainstream criminological emphasis on ‘What Works?’ and the use of recidivism rates as a primary indicator? While Barbara Bloom (this volume) raises some questions about research preoccupations with recidivism, this is an issue which perhaps needs to be confronted more directly and extensively. It is pertinent that journalist and commentator Sasha Nyary was puzzled by the research emphasis on meta-analysis involving as many studies as possible, and by the key focus on recidivism. Who,  she questioned, is asking for this? How often do the media, politicians, and the public focus on such studies anyway? In short, the research discourse and its preoccupations often seemed far removed from public culture ones, and even those of people actively involved in corrections.


In advancing discussion about ethics and morality in relation to female offenders and corrections the words of Andrew Skotnicki[20] are pertinent. In discussing correctional reform during the past few centuries he contends that our reliance on social scientific discourse constitutes a barrier to our considering more pluralist conceptions of ‘the good.’ In his words (1998, pp. 1-2):


[T]he meaning and justification for the criminal justice enterprise has been continually appraised in terms of a set of theoretical propositions grounded in the methodologies of the social sciences.  These methodologies have been accorded a ‘de jure’ status in channelling information into the debate over the direction of criminal justice, and in setting the linguistic parameters for the debate itself. It is my contention that the weight created by the burden of crime and its cure is simply too strong for such a foundation to bear. Fundamental questions of meaning currently rest, without significant opposition, on a ‘thin’ conception of the ‘good’... our constant and relentless search for the right form will be seriously compromised, along with all other correctional innovations, until we incorporate a more pluralist conception of the good into our reformist methodologies.


It seems to me that the humanitarian and feminist discourses articulated at the conference represent one strategy for a broadened conception of the ‘good’ as called for by Skotnicki. Within these discourses perhaps the most notable feature is a relentless focus on the person as, first and foremost, a human being.[21] Where problems began to arise was in the juxtaposition of this arguably broader and deeper perspective with conventional criminological perspectives on indicators such as recidivism rates and using the latter as barometers of what is desirable. In short, the journey down a more pluralistic and humanistic route seemed to reach an impasse when the junction with positivism was encountered.


A basic question requiring further attention then is: what are the content and contours of the discourses currently being applied to female offenders - and especially in their feminist, humanitarian, and social scientific forms? How do these discourses complement, contradict, and circumvent one another? What are their points of incompatibility, and how might these be dealt with?


Dilemmas and Contradictions of Holistic Approaches in Repressive Contexts


Other dilemmas that arose at the conference could give rise to similarly extended discussions. But, for the sake of brevity, I shall express them in bullet form:


·         Many participants were aware that there is now a general tendency whereby governments have been withdrawing support for public and welfare services, and, at the same time, extending and expanding the repressive arm of the state. While it is admirable to advocate for increased programme and service provision for female offenders, such advocacy needs to be done firmly within a context of broader social, economic and political realities. This is particularly the case in the USA with its appallingly high rate of imprisoning women. If one considers, for example, the situation in New York State where there has been a mandatory minimum of ten years for a minor drug offence (Cayley, 1998, p. 27) the question needs to be raised: should one’s primary attention be directed to focusing attention on the fundamental injustice,[22] futility, and costs, of this rather than on the provision of more programmes within the prison system itself? In conjunction with this, shouldn’t there be greater protest about the decline of services and the need for more programmes within the community?

·         A related dilemma is embodied in the question: how compatible is a holistic approach and its therapeutic component with the ultimately coercive and repressive orientation of corrections? Stephanie Covington (this volume) expresses this concern, shared by some of the other speakers and participants, as follows:


Many women and girls who work in the criminal justice settings struggle daily with the contradiction that a system based on power and control is antithetical to what helps women to change, grow and heal. Creating new gender-specific programs or changing an existing program can only be a partial solution. Systemic change is essential.


Discussant Joanne Belknap similarly raised concern by questioning: What could be the “nightmare” of gender-specific programmes in corrections? Such fears have also been raised by Kathleen Kendall on the basis of her research into the contradiction of therapy behind prison walls. She states (1994): “I am concerned that the language of feminism is being stripped of its subversive potential by corrections in order to facilitate the correctional agenda.” These concerns need to be articulated more thoroughly, and confronted in more depth, than has been the case in this volume.[23]

·         Another related dilemma - which received even less attention at the conference than the previous ones - can be expressed in the question: Would a more holistic approach simply make the female correctional system more subtle and effective in exerting control over those who are already among the most vulnerable women in our societies?[24] Few of the participants paid much attention to earlier literatures embodying critiques of previous forms of the rehabilitation approach. Again, while I am more than sympathetic to the reformist endeavour it is also incumbent upon us to be mindful of historical pitfalls - including the potential linking of therapeutically-oriented programmes with lengthened and indeterminate sentences. The ethics of coerced treatment also need to be considered. Arguably, resolving these issues may again point feminist researchers in reductionist and abolitionist directions: women offenders’ problems are, for the most part, social problems and thereby best addressed, insofar as is possible, outside of the criminal justice system (Carlen, 1990).


Dissension About Definitions of ‘Success’ and the ‘Client


Where points of dissension are concerned, some of them have already been alluded to. For example, many presenters, commentators and participants were uncomfortable with the notion of reduced recidivism as the primary signifier of ‘success.’ Overall the importance of recidivism rates appeared to be simultaneously rejected and clung to. More direct confrontation of this issue, and more systematic explorations of alternative theoretical and methodological frameworks should be considered as priorities.


Another point of dissension revolved around the question: who is the ‘client’ when it comes to female corrections? For most participants it is individual female offenders.  But for others, and notably those oriented in more positivist and managerial directions, it was the public that seemed to be the client. At first glance one’s definition of the client appears to be a relatively simple matter. It is also one often resolved at that level via making assumptions. But the consequences of these assumptions are enormous. Defining the public as the primary client of corrections can lend itself to the development of increasingly punitive penal policies. This is reflected in North America where political preoccupation (often in the absence of adequate or accurate information) with perceptions of public concern about crime is used as a rationale for intensified policing and toughening of sentencing. It would be an interesting and important research project to examine how definitions of the client are interwoven with contemporary penal policy both generally, and in the specific case of female offenders.


Dissension About, and Discomfort With, Actuarial Approaches


The most important point of dissension, I think, was many people’s dissatisfaction with the actuarial approach in corrections. In this volume, the actuarial approach is most clearly evident in the article by Motiuk and Blanchette. The immediate focus of participants’ concern about actuarial justice was on the current use of, and emphasis on, concepts of ‘risk’ and ‘criminogenic needs.’ It is particularly important to address this issue given the Correctional Service of Canada’s emphasis on actuarial approaches both in research and in practice,[25] as well as Canada’s international influence in this respect. Indeed, as Larry Motiuk stated in his presentation, he had just returned from a European conference on corrections, and Europeans consider Canada as the “foremost leader” with respect to matters of “risk” in corrections.


While issues of risk and actuarial justice are extremely important, they are also, at least in my experience, not always easily articulated. I frequently find myself asking: ‘What is wrong with risk, and, by extension, with actuarial justice? This question can be difficult to answer. For, although many feminists interested in criminal justice have expressed discomfort with the notion of risk, the content of their discomfort has not been expressed in any great detail. As Kelly Hannah-Moffat (1999, p. 75) notes “feminists have not yet analysed the concept of risk as it applies to women’s penal regimes; nor have they provided a detailed critique of existing techniques for measuring risk, except to suggest that these measures do not adequately reflect the context of women’s experiences and behaviours.” As in the feminist literature more generally in criminology, conference participants’ concern about risk and related concepts as currently used were stated more implicitly than explicitly. Therefore, I will here attempt to bring some of these concerns more clearly into focus.


The first problem that many participants seemed to have with notions of risk/criminogenic need and actuarial justice is that this frame of thinking permeates the correctional system more generally and is thereby primarily focused on men. The themes ‘one size does not fit all’ and ‘equality does not mean sameness’ were frequently repeated in making this basic observation.


I agree that the uniform application of analytical frameworks across genders can be problematic. But it is also important to question - as indeed some participants did - whether it is appropriate or helpful to apply the actuarial approach to male offenders either. Indeed one might argue that the feminist approaches promoted in this volume also have much to offer in improving correctional approaches to men. Extended discussion of this is, unfortunately, beyond the present scope.


The emphasis on ‘risk’ in actuarial discussions of female offenders seems strange for several reasons. It is strange firstly because the notion of risk is - albeit more or less explicitly - in turn allied both with notions of dangerousness and likelihood of re-offending. Yet women are far less likely to engage in violently dangerous behaviour than men. Further the data presented by actuarial proponents suggest very low recidivism rates on the part of federally-sentenced women in Canada. Specifically, in the recidivism study of 219 released women discussed by Motiuk and Blanchette, only 1 had her conditional release violated in connection with a new offence. This represents an offence-related recidivism rate of less than 1 percent! While 7 other women were returned to custody owing to “technical violations”[26] and while the follow-up period of 6 months was relatively short, the image of 218 of 219 released women not being convicted of new offences is difficult to reconcile with the emphasis on risk. As Motiuk himself observed in his presentation: “we’re enjoying very low recidivism [by female offenders].”[27] Further, he and Blanchette noted in a preface to their paper: “assessment instruments for male offenders are often ‘borrowed’ which  may be contributing to over estimates of risk for female offenders.” Having said this however, they then proceed to present their research using these virtually gender-neutral instruments.


Another problem with the actuarial approach in corrections is that it is often, at least in my experience, difficult to understand what is actually being said. The terms “criminogenic” and “risks” as used in the literature are cases in point.  Therefore it was a bit of a relief to hear Motiuk state, in the context of the European conference he had just attended, that the concept of criminogenic needs is “hard for foreigners to understand.” In essence (and see Bloom, this volume, for elaboration) the logic is that certain of an offender’s needs are considered to be risk factors with respect to recidivism. In the words of Motiuk and Blanchette: “We consider need areas to be dynamic factors and a subset of an overall offender risk.” In turn the correctional system’s business is to focus on those representing high risks and to concentrate its efforts in that direction (Andrews et al, 1995; Gendreau, 1996; Bonta et al, 1995). Meanwhile, those considered lower-risk could be used as a “target... for less intensive services [expediting] their safe and controlled release at the earliest possible moment in the sentence.”


While this approach is logical at one level it carries some disturbing implications. The first is that if women are recognised as low risk (and especially compared to the higher risk believed to be posed by men), following the actuarial approach would suggest that they be a low priority for receipt of services. In short, the traditional neglect of women within corrections seems to be reinforced by the actuarial approach.


Also disturbing is the view of female offenders which emerges in the actuarial literature. As Bloom questions: “Does women’s offending relate to criminogenic risks and needs, or is it a factor of the complex interconnection of race, class, gender, trauma, or both?” To this I would add that we also need to consider the actions of criminal justice agents and agencies. Women’s actions are only part of the picture. Also important are decision-making by police, prosecutors and others in determining who actually ends up in corrections.


A further question is: what precisely are the ‘criminogenic needs’ with respect to female offenders? While Motiuk and Blanchette discuss many of the problems also discussed by other authors in this volume, I have difficulty providing specific answers based on their paper, or on the actuarial literature more generally.[28] Rather, the concept of ‘needs’ seems to merge with that of ‘risks’ and, in the process, the focus gets shifted away from the feminist emphasis on the offender as a person, and toward a focus on their potential criminal behaviour. As reaffirmed by Kelly Hannah-Moffat (1999, p. 83), within the Correctional Service of Canada there is “an interesting slippage” between needs and risks to the point that, in some cases, “these two categories are indistinguishable.”


One example of this merging and shifting is Motiuk and Blanchette’s (p. 7) unusually unequivocal statement that: “... a history of attempted suicide was found to be a potent predictor of violent recidivism in a sample of federally sentenced women (Blanchette and Motiuk, 1995). When I first read this statement I had a mental image of the Governor of the women’s prison in Lithuania[29] reading Motiuk and Blanchette’s article and finding that this was one of the most clearly understandable statements in the article. I then had the image of the Governor using the statement to direct his staff to put any female prisoners who had ever attempted suicide into the most secure section of the prison, and to make sure that they stayed there until their full sentences had been served, with no possibility of early release.  Of course no such interpretation is intended by Motiuk and Blanchette, but arguably their analysis easily lends itself to such an interpretations.


A woman who has been, or is, suicidal is a woman with problems, and needs for assistance. But putting this scenario into an actuarial, and purportedly recidivism-predicting framework diminishes the focus on her problem and shifts it into an image of her as a ‘high risk’ candidate, and not only for recidivism, but for violent recidivism. With this focus, surely the orientation of the correctional system moves towards delaying and constraining her access to the community.


A further problem with the observation that “a history of attempted suicide was found to be a potent predictor of violent recidivism,” and in Motiuk and Blanchette’s attendant observations that between one-third and half of the federal female offender population have a history of attempt suicide, is that they are difficult to reconcile with the authors’ observations elsewhere about the low recidivism rate of female offenders. Again, while not intended, the sequential observations that up to half of female offenders have attempted suicide, and attempting suicide is a potent predictor of violent recidivism among female offenders, can logically lead in the direction of linking federally sentenced women/violent/re-offending. While not wishing to dispute that some federally-released women do go on to re-offend, and occasionally violently, it is the generality of the image which is disturbing, and arguably misleading.


Meanwhile, the data cited by Motiuk and Blanchette in presenting their case about the link between attempt suicide and recidivism are sketchy. No information is presented about the basis upon which the 81 federal female offenders studied was selected. Further, the information that 17 of these re-offended, that 8 of these were for robbery,[30] that over half of the variance in the “violent recidivism” remained unexplained, and that 20 percent of the 45 percent that was explained was attributed to “[h]aving a history of attempted suicide” seems to me to greatly dilute the authors’ claim. If I am interpreting the data correctly the “most highly predictive variable” of attempted suicide explained less than 5 percent of the recidivism by 21 percent of the women studied. Meanwhile, no information is provided about the remaining 79 percent of the sample who did not violently re-offend (or re-offend at all?) and their histories of attempted suicide. This fragmentary picture seems a long way from the image of a “potent predictor.”


Also of concern is Motiuk and Blanchette’s linking of their observations about attempted suicide and violent recidivism to those on the significance of self-mutilation by women prisoners when they state: “Accordingly, other researchers found much higher rates of previous self-injury among female recidivists than non-recidivists.” Again, rather than positing self-mutilation as an indicator of a woman’s need for help the focus is on its being a potential predictor of re-offending.


Another problem with the actuarial literature produced by Canadian correctional researchers is its frequently authoritative tone. In part, this tone derives from the authors’ emphasis on the scientific nature of their approach. As Motiuk and Blanchette state, the Offender Intake Assessment process consists of “the latest generation of risks and needs assessment technology” and one which uses “objective assessment tools.” The purportedly scientific nature of the approach was more clearly highlighted by their colleague Paul Gendreau in a talk preceding the conference where he elaborated on the virtues of the ‘actuarial ‘ approach, and in contrast to the more old-fashioned, and implicitly unscientific, ‘clinical’ approach. Thus he emphasized that under the actuarial approach there is a “statistical association between prediction and outcome,” and that “predictors are measured by standardized, reliable, objective measures.” By contrast, the clinical approach relies more heavily on people and professionals and “the rules for collecting and interpreting information are subject to considerable personal discretion.” In Gendreau’s account, in terms of delivering “superior performance” the actuarial approach “is three to four times better” than the clinical one. Following his vision the argument is that computerized forms with relevant items being checked off by technocrats is far superior than, for example, having a social-scientifically trained intake officer sitting down with an offender to discuss how they might best proceed through the morass of correctional institutions and programmes.


Taken to its logical extreme one can envision a future where even the need for correctionally employed technocrats is eliminated. Why shouldn’t the offenders themselves sit in front of a computer and check off relevant items, perhaps attached to a lie detector which imposes mini electric shocks as necessary to minimize the potential for errors in replying?[31]


One can imagine the appeal of this highly assertive tone to correctional policy-makers and politicians. Consider, for example, the title of an article by Don Andrews (1996) which confidently states: “Criminal Recidivism is Predictable and Can Be Influenced.” What are in practice very complex phenomena get transmuted into appealingly simple statements, and sometimes even into slogans.


In fairness, the complexities of understanding and predicting recidivism are not completely ignored in the literature.  For example, Motiuk and Blanchette state (p. 2, italics added): “Although objective classification instruments can yield significant gains both in understanding and predicting criminal behaviour, the fact remains that the amount of variance left unexplained continues to outweigh that which can be explained for a variety of correctional outcomes (e.g. temporary absence, parole).” However, once mentioned, this crucial point is left to the side and they proceed as if their data and approach were all encompassing. Although they mention the need for a “variety of technologies” no elaboration is provided.


While the tone of the actuarial literature in corrections is often authoritative and confident, actually making sense of it can be very difficult. Some of these difficulties have already been discussed. They are in turn frequently added to by the obscurity of the language used. Consider, for example, the statement by Motiuk and Blanchette (p. 17):


While the OIA process was developed principally for assessing offender risks and needs upon admission to federal custody, the scope of our risks/needs assessment and assessment process has been streamlined. In keeping with individual ratings for both ‘criminal risk’ and ‘case need’ levels as well as for each need area, alignment of the community version of risk/need assessment process was straightforward.  This situation makes possible a systematic assessment and re-assessment process which spans admission to the end of sentence. Presently, full automation of this new community re-assessment is complete.


If I understand the authors correctly they are saying: ‘Our assessment process was initially designed for offenders entering federal prisons. It is now also used during offenders’ transition to the community. The data are computerized.’


Understanding the literature is further complicated in that many of its claims are highly contestable. For example, it is frequently claimed that the system is ‘objective.’ The first point one can make here is that the correctional system per se is in no way objective. Those offenders who end up in corrections do so as a result of a long series of decision-making by individuals where subjectivity comes into play at every step of the way - including decisions by members of the public (e.g. by victims about whether or not to report), and by the police (e.g. about whether or not to lay charges, and what charges to lay), as well as by prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges and juries. Therefore what is being studied by correctional researchers is not any objective picture of offenders, but rather a relatively small sub-group of offenders, predominantly from vulnerable groups in any given society, who have been successfully focused on, and processed by, other components of the justice system.


The claim that these newer assessment ‘tools’ are objective is further questionable in that they currently continue to rely on the mainstay of traditional clinical approaches, namely professional judgement. As Motiuk and Blanchette state (p. 9, italics added):


An overall rating of criminal risk is the compilation of professional judgements from the results of the criminal history record and offence severity record. In addition, a review of detention criteria for the current offence(s) reflects the nature of the offence(s) and the degree of harm to the victim(s) is taken into account. One should keep in mind that the establishment of criminal risk might also incorporate a great deal of other assessment information as well.


Given the acknowledgement that professional judgements are still key in actuarial decision-making as currently engaged in, issues arise of a disjuncture between discourse and practice. Although the actuarial discourse emphasizes notions of being scientific and objective, actual practices within the complex world of corrections may have much in common with traditionally established ones. As Hannah-Moffatt (p. 75) notes: “[i]n practice, the assessment and management of women prisoners’ risk is quite subjective and fluid.” Moreover while the research publications of the Correctional Service of Canada give the impression that various classification instruments determine where an offender is sent, Hannah-Moffat (p. 78) documents that in the real world of corrections other factors come into play including perceptions of ‘escape risk’ and “notoriety-likely to evoke a negative public image...” (Emphasis in original). Indeed officials of the Correctional Service of Canada have acknowledged their own departures from actuarial practice. In the words of one report quoted by Hannah-Moffat (p. 81; FSWP, 1994, p. 11, emphasis added):


[Practical uses of risk technologies are not] depersonalised or concerned primarily about independent, abstract statistical categories and populations.... when actuarial tools are used, correctional officials frequently use ‘overrides’ to adjust risk assessment scores to what they feel is most appropriate. The use of overrides means that exceptions can be made to the initial classification instrument when warranted, both to increase and decrease the security classification.


More generally, the very notion of objectivity raises deep epistemological issues which are, unfortunately, beyond the present scope. In a nutshell, my own position is that no analytical framework is ever objective, and rather represents a partial, and to some extent ideological, view of the matter at hand (Mannheim, 1936). Rather than claiming objectivity it is perhaps more fruitful, and truthful, to be reflexive about the frameworks we use, including the interests that they represent, and those that they undermine (Smith, 1999; Weber, 1949). Informed and transparent subjectivity is arguably preferable to detached and highly questionable objectivity.


Overall, while the assessment tools discussed by Motiuk and Blanchette, and by their colleagues, might be useful in matching individual offenders to correctional programmes it is arguably a dangerous enterprise to link their use to overconfident claims about their ability to reduce recidivism. Especially given the inevitability of some recidivism occurring, and current media and public culture preoccupations - in the Canadian case particularly with respect to ex-prisoners (usually males) who re-offend - the actuarial approach with its emphasis on ‘risk’[32]Space limitations preclude more detailed discussions of the ‘risk society’, but see Feeley and Simon (1994), O’Malley (1992), and Simon (1987). can easily be used in moving in a very repressive direction. At an extreme this repressive direction could lead to the totalitarian conclusion: every prisoner - male or female - is potentially a recidivist and therefore the only way to prevent recidivism is to prevent the release of all prisoners. The abolition of parole in many places in the USA, and the thinking behind ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ legislation, as well as calls for increased use of capital punishment are contemporary steps in the direction of this dire logic.[33]




[W]e have to change our belief system.

(Dave Worth,[34] quoted in Cayley, 1998, p. 362)


Perhaps the greatest challenge to be faced by those who wish to assist female offenders is to keep constant vigilance in being aware of the broader context. At any given moment in time a practitioner may be preoccupied with helping an ex-prisoner to regain custody of her children, or to recover from relapse into an addiction; a researcher may be preoccupied with tracking down an elusive piece of data; a policy-maker may be preoccupied with how to respond to a Minister’s request for a ‘quick fix’ speech in response to the latest crisis; and a prison guard may be preoccupied with evaluating the mood of those under her charge. But unless we bear in mind that crime “usually begins in circumstances of poverty, joblessness, family breakdown, sexual violence, drug addiction, and neighbourhood abandonment” (Cayley, 1998, p. 357) we are vulnerable to having our work usurped and carried off in directions not of our own choosing. A particular danger is that women-centred and holistic approaches might be accepted and used only insofar as they are amenable to the actuarial approach which is ascendant in corrections.


Here, Canada represents an important case in point. For, despite having produced a resolutely woman-centred and holistic blueprint which emphatically rejected an emphasis on ‘risk’ (TFFSW, 1990), and having established five new women’s prisons, recent developments suggest that the vision has only been partially implemented, and that a preoccupation with purported risks continues to be predominant. In short, the subsuming of needs to risks proceeds apace. As Kelly Hannah-Moffat observes (1999, p. 73):


... the implementation of this model has been marred by exclusion, and by redefinitions of the meaning of woman-centred corrections and of the experiences and realities of the female offender (as outlined in Creating Choices and by feminist researchers and advocates).  Some of the most significant of these changes include the definition, assessment and management of women’s risk and need in the new regional prisons.


Hannah-Moffat goes on to elaborate on how multiple discourses of ‘need’ are present in correctional settings - including therapeutic, administrative, feminist and actuarial vocabularies. Moreover, with the actuarial slippage between ‘needs’ and ‘risks’ the fact that women are often defined as ‘high need’ has, according to Hannah-Moffat, made little difference in how they are actually treated. She elaborates (p. 88):


The emergent needs-talk which informs women’s correctional management does not rely on feminist interpretations of women’s needs or their claims to entitlement; rather, it depends on correctional interpretations of women’s needs as potential or modified risk factors that are central to the efficient management of incarcerated women. The Correctional Service of Canada’s adoption of the premise that federally sentenced women are generally ‘high need’ and not ‘high risk’, their claims that these prisoners do not require the same level and type of security measures as are required for male offenders (TFFSW, 1990) and the subsequent development of a unique security management model to address these qualities illustrates an organizational commitment to serving women’s needs as they define them. Thus far, this tactic has co-opted and distorted the feminist critique of correctional risk assessment and risk management practices. The fact that women are now constructed as ‘high need’ as opposed to ‘high risk’ makes little substantive difference in their correctional management. Increasingly, needs are being treated in the same manner as risks in terms of defining carceral responses to women.


Keeping the broader picture in mind requires paying attention to what Stephanie Covington referred to in her presentation as our “mental maps.” As she noted every field or discipline carries its own assumptions, and, especially as we work for a long period in one area, these can often go unexamined. In turn, individuals tend to look at issues through a particular “lens” and that chosen in any given instance has a profound effect on how related problems are defined. Historically, criminal justice issues have tended to be seen through the lens of men’s eyes.[35] Whether one chooses to emphasize the ‘criminal’, ‘cognitive therapy’, or ‘addiction’, said Covington, will likewise lead one down certain routes and simultaneously away from others. Her own chosen lens - and one shared by many conference participants - of ‘women’s lives’ leads clearly in a holistic direction in assisting female offenders.


In short, one challenge is to be aware of the contours of our own ‘maps’ - including both their strengths and limitations.


But being reflexive about our own approaches is only one part of the challenge. We also need to be aware of the contours of the ‘maps’ which are actually at work within the system. In particular we need to be reflexive about the contours of the actuarial map and its emphasis on risk. The reflections offered in this paper are a very modest step in this direction. What is needed is more empirical research on how these relatively new instruments are actually being used, and how they differentially impact people in corrections on the basis of gender, ethnicity, class and so on.[36]


Another challenge facing us, and especially as researchers on female offenders, is to keep the complexity of related issues front and centre stage. There seemed to be a feeling at the conference that researchers should be able to deliver clear and unequivocal guidelines about how to proceed. For example, Richard Billack,   President of the ICCA, stated: “we want the research community to give us tools” (emphasis added). The actuarial approach, by side-stepping or ignoring issues of the broader workings of the criminal justice system, appears most able to deliver in response to this request. But, as has been argued, this is done at the expense of considering the strong tendency of the criminal justice system to focus on those who are already vulnerable. Aiming to simply provide tools arguably turns researchers into technocrats and turns them away from considering the nuances of given situations.


Perhaps the job of  the academic researcher is primarily to bring the contours of dominant ‘maps’ more clearly into focus so that in turn we can all better address the various principles, perspectives, and moral issues that are involved in definitions of, and responses to, crime. This is not to say that academic researchers cannot suggest plans of action. For, as the papers in this volume evidence, they certainly can. What is different is that the plans of action offered are far clearer in articulating their presuppositions, the context of the actions required, and their potential consequences. In short, there are no magical tools, and the task of the social scientific community is to articulate the complexity of social problems as well as suggesting potential directions in responding to them.


In conclusion, it seems to me that points of dissension and debate at the conference ultimately circulated around competing views about ‘ways of knowing’ or ‘ways of seeing’ female offenders and their behaviour, and how to proceed in responding to them. In turn these ways of knowing seemed to divide into those that emphasized an intuitive, woman-centred and holistic approach as against those that emphasized a scientific and highly rational approach.. The underlying debate then, might be described as art versus science.


How might this debate be advanced? Here the words of Leonid Ponomarev are useful, as he reflects on the strengths and limitations of science and art as two ways of knowing:


It has long been known that science is only one of the methods of studying the world around us. Another - complementary - method is realized in art. The joint existence of art and science is in itself a good illustration of the complementarity principle. You can devote yourself completely to science or live exclusively in your art. Both points of view are equally valid, but, taken separately, are incomplete. The backbone of science is logic and experiment. The basis of art is intuition and insight. But the art of ballet requires mathematical accuracy and, as Pushkin wrote, ‘Inspiration in geometry is just as necessary as in poetry.’ They complement rather than contradict each other. True science is akin to art, in the same way as real art always includes elements of science. They reflect different, complementary aspects of human experience and give us a complete idea of the world only when taken together.... we cannot assess the degree of damage we undergo from a one-sided perception of life.


In attempts to assist female offenders our efforts can be aided by intuitive insights coupled with scientific rigour. But to proceed only through one route or the other is to increase the danger of the penal system further oppressing women and girls who are already among those who are most vulnerable in our societies.





[1] I would like to thank the following people for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper: Angelika Schafft (Norway), Kelly Hannah Moffatt, Don Evans, and Dawn Moore (Canada), Kathleen Kendall (England), and Russ Immarigeon, Stephanie Covington, Barbara Bloom, and Meda Chesney-Lind (USA).  Discussions by participants at the Toronto workshop on female offenders and ‘risk’ organised by Kelly Hannah Moffatt and Margaret Shaw in May 1999 were also helpful in the course of my revisions to this paper.

[2][2] The Prison for Women is in Kingston, Ontario. It is occupied by women serving federal sentences of two years and over.  The federal system is administered by the Correctional Service of Canada. Until the early 1990s the Prison for Women was the only federal prison for women. Since then four new regional prisons and an aboriginal ‘healing lodge’ for women have opened. The context of this reform is discussed later in this paper. Female prisoners on remand and those serving sentences of less than two years in Canada are held in provincially run prisons.


[3] I presented my initial reflections on the strip-searches and their significance at a criminology conference in Tallinn, Estonia in the summer of 1996 (McMahon, 1996a). In brief, I analyse the strip-searches, and particularly their use of ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ as part of a broader trend toward the ‘McDonaldization’ of corrections and criminal justice (cf. Ritzer, 1996).

[4] In Canada, this has been also true for women on remand, and for those serving provincial sentences of less than two years. There has been minimal research attention to this sector of the female prison population. More attention has been directed to federally-sentenced-women serving two years or longer.

[5] Some of the material in this section is drawn from my book The Persistent Prison? Rethinking Decarceration and Penal Reform (1992).

[6] Rates vary from over 600 prisoners per 100,000 population in the United States of America and Russia to lows of less than 70 in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Netherlands, India, Japan, and the Republic of Ireland (Stern, 1998, pp. 31-2).

[7] For an informative investigation of why, during the decades following the second World War, imprisonment in Britain increased while that in the Netherlands decreased, see Downes (1988).

[8] Prisons did exist prior to the nineteenth century, but were primarily used for those awaiting trial, and for persons who had been fined and had not yet paid. Imprisonment as punishment evolved about two centuries ago.

[9] While the ideology of rehabilitation was gathering strength until the late 1960s, the rate at which it was implemented in practice varied enormously across jurisdictions.

[10]Those for whom the repeated finding of continued recidivism in face of a wide variety of treatment programmes did not result in a diminished commitment to rehabilitation, but rather in calls for more of the same, included theoretical criminologist George Vold. Rather than questioning the principles of such programmes, he highlighted the recursive relationship between theory, research, and practice. In his words (1958, p. 302): “more adequate theory on which to base a more adequate treatment program may only be expected with more fruitful research into, and a more complete understanding of, crime causation.”

[11] Disturbances at Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario in 1971 served to raise similar issues in the Canadian context. For a discussion of prison struggles in Europe during the early 1970s see Van Swaaningen (1997).

[12] Community corrections were initially established as a mechanism to facilitate ‘reintegration into the community’ rather than as ‘alternatives to prison’ (see McMahon, 1992, for elaboration of this in the Canadian context).

[13] In addition to contributing to the demise of the rehabilitative ideal and the rise of community corrections, Martinson’s work and reactions to it also fuelled the rise of more legalistic approaches in corrections, especially with respect to sentencing where a shift took place towards more fixed and determinate sentencing. Martinson’s work also generated reverberations within the field of criminology itself as not only mainstream, but also critical criminologists, adopted the logic that ‘nothing works.’ For a discussion of negative perspectives that prevailed by the mid 1980s about the possibility of reforming either offenders or the criminal justice system itself, see McMahon, 1992.

[14] For example, many former Soviet Republics, following the fall of communism, are taking steps to reform their penal systems in progressive directions, and in a manner more sensitive to human rights. The use of capital punishment is being reduced, penal codes are being rewritten, and alternatives to imprisonment are being established. For some of the newly independent countries a major impetus, apart from their commitment to democracy and human rights, is their desire to bring their criminal justice systems more into line with west European norms, and so enhance their prospects of joining the European Union. Yet, even in these countries, just as official policy is ameliorating in some respects, the public mood is becoming much tougher. For discussion of related issues in the Baltic countries see McMahon (1995). For information on criminal justice developments in countries of the former Soviet Union more generally see publications by HEUNI (The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations, Helsinki, Finland).

[15] For an example, see Walklate (1995). For an exception see Sommers (1995).

[16] As in the literature on women and crime more generally, the emphasis tended to be on the status of women, including female offenders, as victims. Another factor which inhibited the conference from being comprehensive was the omission of female offenders themselves as a distinct group of participants. While individuals such as Kim Pate from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies spoke eloquently on the basis of her advocacy work with female offenders, it is my belief that the conference would have been immeasurably enriched by the inclusion of some of those whom participants were working with.

[17] For an exception, see Carlen (1990).

[18] Except with respect to capital punishment which Canada abolished in the early 1970s.

[19] For poignant autobiographical and biographical accounts of one Canadian aboriginal woman’s, and one African-American woman’s, experiences with the criminal justice system see Wiebe and Johnson (1998) and Dash (1997).

[20] The conference on female offenders ran in parallel with one on the ‘Community Corrections Act’ also organised by the ICCA. Professor Skotnicki, of St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, California, presented a keynote address to participants at both conferences on 28 September 1998. His presentation was titled ‘Continuity and Change in the Pursuit of Criminal Justice.’

[21] This emphasis on persons as human beings has, I believe, much in common with the work of abolitionist criminologists, and especially the work of Nils Christie (1977, 1982, 1994).

[22] David Cayley (1998, p. 27) quotes federal court judge and former deputy mayor of New York Robert Sweet on the discomfort he has felt when applying such mandatory minimums for drugs. The are, says Sweet, “debasing the rule of law.”

[23] For historical analysis of how various woman-centred discourses have played out in practice within the Canadian prison system for women see Hannah-Moffat (1997). With respect to contemporary developments in the federal imprisonment of women in Canada,  Kelly Hannah-Moffatt has also provided informative analysis of the woman-centred report Creating Choices, and problems in its implementation (1995, 1999).

[24] This question was also raised and discussed with respect to women as victims, and in the context of aboriginal sentencing circles in Canada and the broader idea of restorative justice. Some participants were enthusiastic about the idea of restorative justice, especially given its compatibility with a feminist emphasis on the need for healing, and in a supportive community environment. But others cautioned about how such approaches, particularly in cases of sexual assault by men, can reinforce gender power imbalances which already exist in the community both through lenient sentencing and neglect of the female victim’s needs. For excellent discussion of both the positive and negative potential of restorative justice, including reflections on gender issues, see Cayley (1998, Chapter 2).

[25] Articles in the Correctional Service of Canada’s journal Forum on Corrections Research contains numerous examples of the actuarial approach.

[26] This is one pitfall which advocates of multiple programming for women in community corrections need to be mindful of: the more that these programmes are made available through conditions of parole the greater the probability of women violating and being returned to prison. For example, if attendance at a drug treatment centre is made a condition of parole, failure to attend could be cause for revoking parole. The challenge is to have the necessary programming available without increasing the coercion to which female offenders are subjected.

[27] According to Correctional Service of Canada officials at the conference the general recidivism rate of federally-sentenced- women is about 5-7 percent.

[28] ‘Criminogenic needs’ with respect to the correctional population generally are said to include antisocial attitudes and feelings, association with pro-criminal role models, low self-control, and poor problem-solving skills.

[29] I spent 1993-94 in Lithuania and since then have had some involvement in correctional reform in that country.

[30] The remaining 9 women who re-offended had the following offences: 7 assault, 1 utter threats, and 1 manslaughter. No information is provided about the nature of the violence involved in these crimes, nor with respect to the 8 women convicted of robbery.

[31] Companies vending electronic monitoring devices in the USA already promote products which permit prison staff to inflict electronic shocks on prisoners from a distance. Discussing the issue of privatization and corrections is beyond the present scope. But the rise of actuarial justice is in many ways interlinked with the growing tendency for private corporations to engage in ‘control as enterprise’ (see McMahon, 1996).

[32] Corrections is not alone in recently promulgating the discourse of ‘risk.’ Notions of loss, harm, danger, uncertainty and hazard have come to permeate daily life, and with an attendant emphasis on the need for security and protection. New homes come with burglar alarms, new cars with airbags, and condoms with warnings about AIDS. Whole communities increasingly try to protect themselves - from the establishment of ‘WalkSafe’ and anti-harassment programmes on university campuses to ‘walled communities’ in North America which employ their own private security police forces. In short, the growing emphasis on ‘risk’ within corrections is but one facet of the emergence of the ‘risk society.’


The ‘risk society’ is one where “governance is directed at the provision of security” (Ericson & Haggerty, 1997, p. 85). As Ericson (1994) has observed, technocratic and future-oriented discourses are used, and a three-fold logic is evident:


First, there is a negative logic. Threats and dangers, and fears about them, are dealt with by the construction of ‘suitable enemies’ (Christie, 1986) and attendant negative labelling, denial, avoidance and exclusion. Solidarity is based in a commonality of fear...

Second, there is a logic of controlling the irrational by rational means. Fear becomes a basis for rational action. People turn to experts to rationalize fears and make probability choices...

Third, there is a logic of insurance. The concept of risk is a neologism of insurance. In modernity the institution of insurance is central to the rationalization of risk.


[33] For reflections on totalitarian tendencies in contemporary criminal justice, and particularly in the USA see Nils Christie’s Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style (1994).

[34] Dave Worth has been active in establishing victim-offender mediation programmes in Canada.

[35] I was struck at the conference by how male-associated imagery was often used by participants in discussing issues. For example, the actuarial approach relies heavily on developing ‘tools’ and ‘instruments.’ For Motiuk and Blanchette, attempted suicide is a “potent” predictor of female recidivism. And for Richard Billack, ICCA President, the work of Paul Gendreau is a “proactive arsenal” with which one could challenge misguided public culture images of crime and criminals.

[36] Kelly Hannah-Moffat has already done much important work in this area. She and Margaret Shaw are currently undertaking a substantial research project on the topic. Their project title is “Risk Assessment/Management and its Implications for Marginalized Women in Canadian Corrections.”