The history of researching women in the criminal justice system

This month saw two important dates: International Women’s Day and Mothering Sunday. As March draws to a close, this blog from our placement student Maddy Hunt brings us a topical reflection

Historically, criminology was largely governed by male theorists researching men (Newburn, 2017), due to this when researching prisons, it can be noticed that majority of studies revolve around male prisons. As a result of this there was a large gap in literature surrounding women in the criminal justice system and women in prison and how their experiences and needs differ in relation to men. Until the late 1960s women were generally invisible and disregarded when it came to the study of crime (Newburn, 2017). The research which was conducted prior to this was often based on sexist stereotypes and backed with little to no evidence. An example of this being Lombroso, who argued that women commit less crime as they are less highly developed then men, alluding that women who do commit crime are primitive and lack intelligence due to their biology (Lombroso, 1898). While Lombroso’s research in female offending was largely discredited soon after, Smart argued that due to the relative invisibility of female offending, many of his theories had lasting influence on the way female offenders and prisoners were treated from the perception of women in society to their treatment in prison (Smart 1976, Newburn 2017).

The late 1960s brought about the development of modern feminist criminology. With women’s role in society shifting to be more economically, socially and politically independent, the prominence of female led crime rose and became more visible, leading to a rise in interest from academics (Wright, Voorhis, Bauman, & Salisbury, 2012; Newburn, 2017). This led to an abundance of academic research exploring the treatment of women in the criminal justice system and critique of previous research based around women in the criminal justice system. An example of this is the work done by Carol Smart (1976). Smart suggested that female offenders were treated as doubly deviant by the criminal justice system, this is because these women were not only judged for breaking the law but also for transgressing their traditional gender role within society (Smart, 1976). Edwards supported this by stating how female defendants were processed in accordance with the crime they committed and ‘the extent to which the commission of the act and its nature deviate from appropriate female behaviour’ (Edwards, 1984). 

The 21st century has seen an abundance of new research into women in the criminal justice system and prisons. A huge turning point was the release of the Corston Report. In 2006 Baroness Corston was commissioned by the government to review vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. The report highlighted areas within the criminal justice system that were not adequately supporting the needs of women. It went on to propose ways in which the system could be altered in order to provide greater support: the downsizing of female prisons, the implementation of gender equality duties across all public bodies of the criminal justice system and the expansion of women’s centres  (Elfleet, 2018). Women’s centres offer support for mental and physical health, wellbeing, domestic abuse, housing, substance abuse and child and family matters (Advance Charity, n.d.). The Corston report was viewed as so ground-breaking as it was one of the first reports to identify the characteristics of female offenders and their complex needs (Working Chance, 2021). Over 15 years since the publication of the Corston Report it is evident that it has had some impact on women in the criminal justice system, such as achieving increased funding and the expansion of women’s centres, there now being 50 across the UK (Working Chance, 2021). The report also motivated a plethora of new research based on the experience of prison as a woman (Booth, 2017; Gelsthorpe & Russell, 2018; Annison, Brayford, & Deering, 2015). But there is still more that needs to be done to make greater change to support women with complex needs who are vulnerable to criminalisation or who have previously offended. There is also a need for greater translation of research into policy agendas to support these improvements (Working Chance, 2021).

Overall, it can be said that the study of female offenders and women in prisons has come a long way since the 19th century. However there is definitely room for more. Our research project, Doing Porridge, aims to understand women’s experience of food in prisons by talking directly to women and gaining their perspective. With the overall aim to improve the quality of food and eating experiences in women’s prisons. Taking us one step closer to understanding the female experience of prison.


Advance Charity. (n.d.). Women Centres. Retrieved from Advance:,access%20to%20other%20community%20services

Annison, J., Brayford, J., & Deering , J. (2015). Women and the Criminal Justice System: From the Corston Report to Transforming Rehabilitation. Bristol: Policy Press. 

Booth. (2017). Six: Maternal imprisonment: a family sentence. In J. Hudson, C. Needham, & E. Heins, Social Policy Review 29 (pp. 105-126). Bristol: UK: Policy Press. 

Edwards. (1984). Women on Trial. Manchester: Manchester Univeristy Press. 

Elfleet, H. (2018). Women’s Centres: Gender Responsive Services for Formly Impirsoned Women Post Corston Report. Howard League for penal reform

Gelsthorpe, L., & Russell, J. (2018). Women and Penal Reform: Two Steps Forwards, Three Steps Backwards? The Political Quarterly, 227-236. 

Grierson, J. (2021, January 23). Ministers criticised for plans to create 500 new UK prison places for women. The Guradian. 

Heindensohn, F. (1989). Gender and Crime. London: Palgrave. 

Jewkes, Y. (2019). Designing ‘Healthy’ Prisons for Women: Incorporating Trauma-Informed Care and Practice into Prison Planning and Design. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Lombroso, C. (1898). The Female Offender. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 

Newburn, T. (2017). Criminology: Third Edition. London: Routledge. 

Schön. (2010). Recovery from severe mental illness, a gender perspective. Scandinavain Journal of Caring Sciences

Smart, C. (1976). Women, Crime and Criminology: A Feminist Critque. London: Routledge. 

Working Chance. (2021, March 22). Corston report: what’s changed since it was commissioned 15 years ago. Retrieved from Working chance: 

Working Chance. (2021, March 22). CORSTON REPORT: WHAT’S CHANGED SINCE IT WAS COMMISSIONED 15 YEARS AGO? Retrieved from Working Chance:,of%20five%20Residential%20Women’s%20Centres

Wright, E. M., Voorhis, P. V., Bauman, A., & Salisbury, E. J. (2012). Gender-Responsive Lessons Learned and Policy Implications for Women in Prison: A Review. Criminal Justice and Behaviour

Published 29th March 2023

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