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

Launching our Art Exhibition

We’re exited to be unveiling our exhibition, On My Plate, which we are jointly running with Koestler Arts.

The free exhibition opens at South Hill Park Arts Centre this weekend (21st January 2023) and will run until March. It features artworks from the study as well as entries to recent Koestler Awards Taste theme from women in the criminal justice system.

Launching the exhibition, project partner Koestler Arts’ Chief Executive, Sally Taylor said they were delighted to be collaborating with Doing Porridge.

“Food is the most universal of subjects”

Sally Taylor, Chief Executive of Koestler Arts

Read our full Press Release here.

We hope to see you there!

The Impact of Covid-19 on Food in Prison

By Amelia Hoy

Covid-19 has had an unprecedented and detrimental impact on society as a whole, but prisons  have been even more susceptible to the impacts of the pandemic. As identified by the World Health Organisation (2020:1) people in prison are ‘more vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak than the general population’ due to the close proximity of individuals and unventilated spaces. As such, prison life has produced a Covid-19 death rate at 3.3 times higher than people of the same age and gender in the general population (Braithwaite et al 2021). Despite this, some incarcerated individuals have remained unconcerned about the pandemic itself, claiming that they are more likely to ‘die from the food’ in prison (Blakinger 2020). The social and cultural importance of food in prison has been highlighted in recent decades (Ifeonu, Haggerty and Bucerius 2022) yet remained a neglected area of prison life amidst the pandemic. Covid-19 has significantly impacted upon, food in prison and consequently areas of research on the Doing Porridge Project. Due to multiple and ongoing covid lockdowns, the fieldwork for the project has been delayed multiple times. This blog will explore the ways in which Covid-19 has impacted food in prison and the subsequent effects on those imprisoned.

Areas of food consumption

Covid-19 restrictions in prisons resulted in the closing of all communal facilities, including dining halls for prisons that had them. Individuals in prisons stated that this saw them ‘locked in [their] cells’ as soon as they had collected their food, ‘eating off [their] laps’ and unable to interact with a ‘real human’ to share their experiences with (Inside Time 2022). Communication and the ability to share the burden of prison had been reduced, and mealtimes were no longer an opportunity to bond with others for those who had previously been able to do so. Isolation from others was not the only concern, with issues surrounding sanitation making it harder to eat in these conditions. Individuals had to eat in their cells, with close proximity to toilets, and potentially unsanitary conditions in inadequate rooms (Portal 2021). This exacerbated concerns that had already been raised for many prisons in the 2016 HMIP Report on food in prisons (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2016).

Food in Visits Halls

Visits halls were another area of closure throughout the pandemicwhich were previously key for socialising and reuniting with family and friends. We are also exploring the importance of food for families of women in prison on our project: Food, families and visiting rooms in a women’s prison ( This project examines the role of food in the prison visit setting, exploring how it is experienced by family members and the ways in which it can enhance the interactions in the visiting rooms. Prior to the pandemic, in-person visits were an opportunity for prisoners to receive essential goods lacking in custody, such as food (Heard 2021). Consequently, the closure of these areas meant that food was restricted to canteen items that could be ordered in to the prison, when many would have relied upon those supplies provided by visitors. For some, this restriction of goods heightened the longstanding issue of material deprivation for individuals (Sykes 1958).

Effects on mental and physical health 

The changes to food consumption and practices combined with inactivity, saw negative impacts on both mental and physical health of those imprisoned(Usher et al 2020).  Sugary, unhealthy foods provided during this time of reduced activity also raised the prospect of weight gain (HM inspectorate of prisons 2021). The anxiety and stress responses as a cause of the pandemic was also associated with increased eating (Himmelstein, Beaver and Gilman 2022) so poor diets and poor health were more prominent during this time. Poor diets and over-eating may have been exacerbated at the beginning of the pandemic, when some prisons provided incarcerated people with Covid ‘comfort packs’, filled with treats such as chocolate and crisps (IMB 2021). These changes to prison life could ultimately produce further discontent and violence in prison (Ifeonu, Haggerty and Bucerius 2022). 

Whilst some of the effects of Covid-19 on society may be irreversible, attempts can be made to improve the impact on the prison population. The issue of food in prison has been largely overlooked, the Doing Porridge team aim to uncover the realities of prison food, to ultimately improve the standards of food and improve its consumption and practices within the female estate.


Blakinger, K. (2020) Ewwwww, What Is That?’, The Marshall Project, Available at: (Accessed: 28 June 2022).

Braithwaite, I., Edge, C., Lewer, D. and Hard, J. (2021) ‘High Covid-19 Death Rates in Prisons in England and Wales, and the Need for Early Vaccination’, The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, vol. 9, pp. 569–70.

Heard, C. (2021) ‘LOCKED IN AND LOCKED DOWN – PRISON LIFE IN A PANDEMIC’, Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, Available at: (Accessed: 27 June 2022).

Himmelstein, M., Beaver, J. and Gilman, T. (2022) ‘Anxiety and stress over COVID-19 pandemic associated with increased eating’, Obesity Science and Practice, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 338- 351. 

HM inspectorate of Prisons (2021) What happens to prisoners in a pandemic? Available at: (Accessed 30 June 2022).

HM Inspectorate of prisons (2016). Life in Prison: Food. Available at: (Accessed 10 July 2022).

Ifeonu C., Haggerty K. and Bucerius S. (2022) Calories, commerce, and culture: The multiple valuations of food in prison. Punishment & Society. Doi:10.1177/14624745221097367

Independent Monitoring Board (2021) ‘Annual Report of the

Independent Monitoring Board at HMP The Mount’, Available at: (Accessed 13 July 2022).

Inside time (2022) ‘Eating Alone’, Available at: (Accessed 26 June 2022).

Portal, G. (2021) ‘Covid: Prisoners like ‘caged animals’ in lockdown jails’, BBC News, 11 February, Available at: (Accessed 27 June 2022).

Smoyer A. and Lopes G (2017) Hungry on the inside: Prison food as concrete and symbolic punishment in a women’s prison. Punishment & Society, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 240-255. 

Sykes, G. (1958) The Society of Captives: A Study of A Maximum Security Prison,  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Usher, K., Bhullar, N. and Jackson, D. (2020), ‘Life in the Pandemic: Social Isolation and Mental Health’, Journal of Clinical Nursing, 29: 2756–7.

World Health Organization (2020) ‘Preparedness, Prevention and Control of Covid-19 in Prisons and Other Places of Detention: Interim Guidance’, 15 March 2020, Available at: (Accessed: 28 June 2022).

Food in Prison

Report from a Roundtable Discussion held at the BSC conference

Vicki Harman

The British Society of Criminology conference was held at the University of Surrey 29th June-1st July 2022. The aim of the conference was to enable delegates to critically engage with research and debates within contemporary criminology at a time of rapid social and economic change. As part of the conference, the Doing Porridge team hosted a roundtable discussion on Food in Prison held on 29th June, chaired by Maria Adams and Vicki Harman. The discussants were:  Lucy Vincent from Food Behind Bars, Julie Parsons from the University of Plymouth, Steph Scott from Newcastle University, Kim Reisling and Janet Bowstead from Royal Holloway University of London, Erin Power and Claire Warrington from the University of Surrey. This resulted in a lively and thought-provoking 90 minutes discussion based around the questions below.

1. How does food help to shape the experiences of men and women in prison?

Key issues raised here included the timing of meals, particularly the early scheduling of the one hot meal of the day (e.g. at around 11.30am) which was seen as reinforcing a sense of being outside of what is going on within the wider community. Also, food sitting on warming trays for long periods was felt to diminish taste, quality and enjoyment and could be experienced as conveying a lack of care towards those consuming the food.

The discussion also highlighted the significance of the space where food is being consumed, which might for example be in a cell next to a toilet. Also, the content and presentation of food was highlighted as important, which was seen as connected to a lack of control. Differences between people’s experiences of catered and self-catered accommodation were also explored.

Food and eating were seen as important parts of the human experience. Salient points were made about the wider repercussions of not eating well, particularly in terms of mental health. The importance of access to healthy food with fresh food was also highlighted.

2. What are some of the key emotions connected to people’s experiences of prison food?

Emotions discussed included anger, hopelessness, fear, resignment and disgust. Disgust related to not knowing who has prepared the food or whether it may be contaminated. This connected to concerns about cleanliness and handwashing and could be manifested in people avoiding food in sauces, for example.

In contrast to some of the emotions above, it was also argued that good food can provide hope and motivation. It can also act as a conversation-starter in the space of the prison visiting room and to help visits feel less stressful.

We also learnt that there are quantitative associations visible within HMIP data between food satisfaction and other areas including feelings of safety at mealtimes and people’s perceptions that staff respect them.

3. Can food be ‘political’ in the prison context?

It was felt that food is most certainly political, as expressed by the attitude ‘why should we be interested in whether prisoners are fed well’? From this perspective, poor quality and monotonous food can be seen as ‘part of the punishment’. Public discourses can often dichotomise those seen as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of care and investment. This also connects with the way in which people in prison feel they are seen by others. Whereas initiatives to improve the quality and funding of school food have been high profile, attracting celebrity ambassadors such as Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford, improving prison food seems to be an issue that celebrities are extremely reluctant to put their names to. Increasing the budget for prison food is also where resistance lies. This connects with a perception that there should not be increased investment in food in prisons when so many people are experiencing food insecurity in the community.  However, it was argued that food insecurity on the outside and food within prisons are not separate issues – for some in prison, there is more access to food in prisons than on the outside. The panel felt that helping the public to understand more about what happens in prison is important in terms of moving debates forward.

Despite the challenges of improving prison food, there was also some optimism around changing attitudes. It was suggested that Covid had changed people’s perceptions slightly, with the experience of ‘being locked in’ at home making them more empathetic to those without freedom of movement. The issue of waste was also highlighted as an area which could give some leverage for change.

4. What are some of the policy/practical recommendations we can identify to improve the quality of food in prison?

The first suggestion was to fully implement the recommendations and action plan from the 2016 HMIP Report Life in Prison: Food. This includes increasing opportunities for self-catering and ensuring that meal times reflect what is considered the norm in the community.

Immediate actions identified by Food Behind Bars include working with suppliers and empowering catering teams in order to make kitchens inspiring places to work and teaching people to cook  – not just unboxing food. Longer term recommendations include moving away from the current model of one national supplier towards local suppliers sourcing good quality and ethical produce. Re-looking at the layout of prisons would also be beneficial in order to shorten the journey to deliver food and to preserve its quality and temperature.

Further changes suggested included challenging public perceptions around food and punishment, for example by using arts-based methods to increase empathy and understanding in this area and educating people within prisons about food in a wholistic way.


The overall themes from the discussion included:

  • The connection between food and care
  • Practices around food
  • Opportunities for food education and cooking
  • Increasing awareness and understanding regarding food and prisons
  • Logistical changes to the food-prison ecosystem

We would like to extend a big thank you to all the speakers in the roundtable and to everyone who attended and engaged with the discussion.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day

Claire Warrington, Doing Porridge Research Fellow

As James Brown told us, this is a man’s world… prisons worldwide are a very clear demonstration of this, just 4% of the total number of people in prison are women. Since the government published the Corston Report in 2007, it has been acknowledged that women and men in the criminal justice system have different needs, but 15 years on, the needs of women are still poorly met in many respects. The National Audit Office has recently published a document as part of the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy, which seeks to improve outcomes for women. The report shows that on each of the key indices there are significant differences.  

Source: National Audit Office (2022) Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system (Key Facts: Page 4)

As the key facts above show, typically, women are convicted for shorter sentences but are more likely than men to reoffend. The Female Offender Strategy aims to offer earlier support in the community so that less women will receive custodial sentences and to reduce the number of women in prison, however the government is also planning to spend £200 million pounds creating prison space for another 500 women. It may be that these will replace existing ill-suited accommodation. However, the wording of the report does not suggest this is the intent. Currently, most women’s facilities are former men’s prisons or detention centres, that were designed for different purposes and make it more difficult for staff to meet women’s needs.

Because of the smaller capacity of the women’s estate, a major related issue is that women are often sent to prisons far outside their home area. For women requiring more specialised facilities, this can mean distances of hundreds of miles. It has long been acknowledged that community integration is a critical protective and rehabilitative factor for people in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, research conducted at the earlier stages of the pandemic indicated that the impact of loneliness and isolation may be more acutely felt by women in general.

Over half of respondents to a recently published HMIP survey of people in the women’s estate had children aged under 18. Here too, the devastating impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated, with visits at first having been stopped altogether and then resuming on a no-contact basis. The same HMIP briefing paper reported children having been bewildered and upset at not being able to hug their mothers. Fewer visits took place under these conditions as a result. Having a parent in prison is one of the recognised adverse childhood experiences that can have multiple damaging consequences on life chances, so the ripple effect of women serving custodial sentences can spread far beyond the individual.

Reports have noted the need to break intergenerational cycles of crime. If this aim is to be achieved, it is essential for significant changes to be made to the way in which being subject to the criminal justice system disrupts family life. Preventing intergenerational trauma is also vital. As with many men in prison, histories of trauma and especially experiences of being victims of violence corelate highly to those within the women’s estate. More than half of women under the National Offender Management Service in 2015 reported having been victims of domestic violence. It is also likely that there are high numbers of care leavers in the criminal justice system, however, no accurate data is collected on this.

There are well-established links between experiences of trauma to self-harm and suicide. During the pandemic, rates of self-harm in the women’s estate have been reported to have risen sharply, with one paper quoting a 14% increase. Government data suggests close to seven times more self-harm is inflicted by people in the women’s estate than in men’s establishments, and almost double the number of people entering women’s prisons disclosed drug and alcohol dependence. Substance misuse issues commonly arise from attempts to self-medicate symptoms of poor mental health, which again are often related to trauma. On arrival in prison, higher rates of depression, feeling suicidal and other mental health problems were reported by those in the women’s estate, although it should be borne in mind that rates of disclosure and help-seeking are often lower among men. The government white paper states the “primary ambition for the women’s estate [is for it to become] trauma informed and trauma-responsive.” HMP/YOI Styal is one prison commended for adopting this approach already, meaning all staff, not just those in the safer custody team, are involved in care for all women.

It is also well established that the majority of people in women’s prisons have been convicted of less serious offences, 80% of people entering women’s prisons in 2019 had been convicted of non-violent offences. Almost half of those individuals were starting sentences for theft with over three-quarters starting sentences of less than 12 months. Short custodial sentences are particularly disruptive to vulnerable people who are likely to lose accommodation, have existing engagement with support services interrupted and lose employment or benefits, all of which can be important protective factors against further offending. The impact for women who are likely to be primary care givers is also acutely felt by their dependents.  

Whilst much is known about the needs of women in prisons, there remains a lack of data on other areas, and this is one of the reasons, more research that is solely focused on people in women’s prisons is vital. Returning to the National Audit Office report, consistent issues were raised around the absence of clear outcome measures having been set in the three years after publication of the Female Offender Strategy. Without such measures being agreed upon, it will be impossible to measure the impact of the strategy, or even the extent to which it has been implemented. Successive attempts at penal reform have failed to achieve significant improvements for women. It must also be acknowledged that even more difficulties are faced by those in prison who are transgender and non-binary, where the criminal justice system is still struggling to achieve satisfactory care that meets the needs of the individuals. Here too, trauma informed environments would seem to be a fundamental first step.

Of course, whilst most women in prison have been convicted for non-violent crimes, this is not case for all women in prison. Furthermore, not all women in prison have been victims. And a history of trauma doesn’t excuse crime or mean that a woman should be exempt from consequences just because she is a woman. But the aim of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation as well as punishment, and to achieve this the system must move to a more gender responsive model.

References / Links

Corston, J. (2007) The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. London: Home Office.

National Audit Office (2022). Improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system

Ministry of Justice (2018) Female Offender Strategy.

Warrington, C. (2020). Women and suicide: the dangers of social isolation.
The Conversation  

HMIP (2022) Focus on Women’s Prisons: A briefing paper from HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

National Offender Management Service (NOMS). (2015). Better outcomes for women offenders. London: NOMS.

Howerton, A., Byng, R., Campbell, J., Hess, D., Owens, C., & Aitken, P. (2007). Understanding help seeking behaviour among male offenders: qualitative interview study. Bmj, 334(7588), 303. (2021). Prisons Strategy White Paper.

Fitzpatrick, C., Hunter, K., Shaw, J., & Staines, J. (2022). Painful lives: Understanding self-harm amongst care-experienced women in prison. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 17488958211067914.

Corcoran, M. S. (2010). Snakes and Ladders: Women’s Imprisonment and Official Reform Discourse under New Labour. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 22(2), 233-251.

8 Mar 2022

Prison Visits:  A meaningful space to reunite ties between prisoners and their loved ones

Ellie Coburn and Sophie Pavitt

Prison visits can be of great importance, including in supporting rehabilitation and incentivising people in prison to maintain good behaviour. Visits can also support healthy relationships with family networks, which may improve prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation. Factors such as having a safe place to live on release and emotional and financial help to reintegrate back into society can be vital. A lack of familial ties and the right support can lead to reoffending and ultimately re-entering the criminal justice system. However, whilst it may be beneficial for people in prison to have a support network on release from prison, filling this role can put tremendous pressure on their families. After already being susceptible to stigmas placed upon them by society due to being related to a prisoner, families carry great responsibility financially to prisoners. Many families are forced into poverty and deprivation as a result of losing an income when a relative is incarcerated (Smith, Grimshaw, Romeo and Knapp, 2007). If the family has young children, it is likely that the remaining parent is left with the burden of full-time childcare whilst trying to support the household on a single income. For those in prison, loss of access to their children can have a devastating impact on their emotional and mental health (Charles, Muentner and Kjellstrand, 2019). The greater proportion of men in prison means women are most likely to carry the burden of support (Visher and Travis, 2011). 

There are many issues related to financial deprivation and homelessness for women when their partner enters prison. Smith, et. al (2007) cite a case in which a woman was able to keep her home solely due to the support received from her extended family. Although prison is the legal punishment for the person who committed a crime, their families are often indirectly punished, causing them to sometimes feel like criminals, this is known as secondary prisonisation (Comfort et al, 2008). Family members may also experience barriers to visiting, such as financial hardship due to the cost of travel, food and overnight accommodation if they are far from home. 

Visitors, as well as people in prison, have to adapt to carceral norms. Prison visits are often used as a privilege, with good behaviour earning prisoners extra visits and improved conditions. However, this can exacerbate feelings of secondary prisonisation (Comfort, 2008) as families are punished for their loved one’s behaviour if they are unable to visit. Family members can also feel punished for a crime that they have not committed due to the ways that they are perceived and treated while visiting (Aiello & McCorkel, 2018). Control is often exercised over family members as they are subject to searches upon arrival at the prison and scrutiny, as they must adhere to strict clothing and behaviour restrictions. In addition, children may encounter social stigma and isolation from both teachers and classmates, literature highlights how this can negatively affect children’s school performance and behaviour (Weaver & Nolan, 2015). When children are able to visit their parents in prison, they won’t be able to interact in the same ways that they would outside of prison. Although some visiting environments have been developed to be more suitable for children, prisoners are still treated as such, meaning that physical contact is minimal, and they are not always allowed to engage in closer play with their children.  

It is evident that the families of incarcerated individuals receive few formal platforms of support and are often left to be the dependents of those in prison. There is a need for policy to take into consideration tailored support for families, determined by each individual situation. Further training is also needed for individuals in the community, such as teachers and employers, to understand that families of prisoners are vulnerable and require particular support. There has already been some development in the training of teachers by Families Outside who invite teachers into prisons to experience what their students are facing (Families Outside, 2015). This is essential to increase awareness of the consequences of incarceration on family members along with ways to support these individuals, which in turn could decrease the stigma surrounding prisonisation. Training for prison staff at all levels is also recommended, in order to better understand the ways in which family needs can be addressed with sensitivity and respect, to encourage a less hostile visitation environment (Action for Prisoner’s Families, CLINKS, Prison Advice & Care Trust, & Prison Reform Trust, 2007). Furthermore, it is important to continue investing in academic and policy research to improve the circumstances surrounding families associated with the criminal justice system. Currently, there are two projects in the University of Surrey’s Sociology department focused on families: the role of food in visiting rooms in women’s prisons and the role of families in youth offending services.  

Food, families and visiting rooms in a women’s prison | University of Surrey 

Developing family engagement models with front-line youth justice practitioners – Nuffield Foundation 


Action for Prisoners’ Families, CLINKS, Prison Advice & Care Trust, & Prison Reform Trust (2007). The children & families of prisoners: Recommendations for government, p.3. 

Aiello, B. and McCorkel, J., (2018). It will crush you like a bug; Maternal incarceration, secondary prisonization, and the children’s visitation. Punishment & Society, 20, (3), p.352. 

Charles, P., Muentner, L. and Kjellstrand, J., 2019. Parenting and Incarceration: Perspectives on Father-Child Involvement during Reentry from Prison. Social Service Review, 93(2), pp.4-5. 

Comfort, M. (2008). Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  

Families Outside, 2015. Good Practice Guidance for the Support of Families Affected by Imprisonment, pp.9. 

Smith, R., Grimshaw, R., Romeo, R. and Knapp, M., 2007. Poverty and disadvantage among prisoners’ families. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

Visher, C. and Travis, J., 2011. Life on the Outside. The Prison Journal, 91(3). 

Weaver, B., and Nolan., D., (2015). Families of prisoners: A review of the evidence. Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice. Available: Families of Prisoners: A Review of the Evidence ( 

The Art of Qualitative Research: The Use of Artistic Methods in Prison

By Amelia Hoy

What are artistic methods?

In recent decades researchers have begun to explore how artistic methods can be used to conduct research (Leavy 2014). Artistic methods involve the researcher using art-making as their primary method during research (McNiff 2011) such as visual art (e.g. painting), literary forms (e.g. writing) and performative forms (e.g. dance). The use of creativity to answer research questions (Leavy 2018) has created new insights to human life and previously inaccessible phenomena. While the use of artistic methods is relatively new to qualitative research (Ledger and Edwards 2011), its foundations stem from therapeutic and rehabilitative aspects of art (Nugent and Loucks 2011). Artistic methods can offer different ways of communicating experiences to a researcher.

How have artistic methods been used in research?

The use of artistic methods can be beneficial through promoting individuality and agency in a controlled environment, allowing people in prison to express emotions freely and improving overall wellbeing (Soape et al 2021). Researchers aim to avoid objectification of their participants through promoting freedom of expression throughout the research process (Piotrowski and Florek 2015). Therefore, artistic methods allow participants to express themselves, tackling barriers to building relationships and connecting with individuals.

How have artistic methods been used on the Doing Porridge project?

We have experienced first-hand the benefits of art in prison, through attending an art exhibition at a local women’s prison, witnessing the emotion that can be translated through artistic expression. Women were able to express happiness through fond memories from their past, or discontent from their current experience in prison. We are using artistic methods in the Doing Porridge project through multiple stages of our research. Creativity is encouraged through our diaries which include stimulating questions and activities surrounding the topic of food in prison. Through freedom in how the women use and fill out their diaries, they aim to be accessible to most women and promote expression and choice in how aspects of the diary are completed. Participants are encouraged to draw or write, giving them the choice to complete the diaries in their own way. This data will allow for further interpretation, as stated by Sullivan (2010) discontent expressed by people in prison suggests wider issues within prisons as well as larger structural levels. Creativity for the women is maintained in our two art workshops at each prison. With help from artist Erika Flowers (, women can create a piece of artwork surrounding the theme of food. The project aims to open up conversations about food in prison by promoting dialogue directly between participants, researchers, and the general public. Our exhibition with Koestler Arts ( next year will showcase art from the workshops as well as pieces from this year’s Koestler Awards, which has the theme of ‘Taste’.

Artistic methods introduce a new, creative way of engaging with research participants by promoting agency, freedom and improving mental wellbeing. Using artistic methods is mutually beneficial, where participant and researcher work together to achieve aims which were once out of reach, creating new knowledge, social change and reform.


Anderson, H. and Bedford, C. (2017) ‘What I Know Now: Radio as a means of empowerment for women of lived prison experience’, Journal of Alternative and Community Media.

Gussak, D. (2006) ‘Effects of art therapy with prison inmates: A follow-up study’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 33, no. 3.

Horneman-Wren B (2021)’ Prison art programs: Art, culture and human rights for Indigenous prisoners’, Alternative Law Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 219-224.

Leavy, P. (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, Oxford University Press: New York.

Leavy, P. (2018) Handbook of Arts Based Research, The Guildford Press: New York.

Ledger, A. and Edwards, J. (2011) ‘Arts-based research practices in music therapy research: Existing and potential developments’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 38, no. 5, pp. 312-317.

McNiff, S. (2011) ‘Artistic expressions as primary modes of inquiry’, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, vol. 39, no.5, pp. 385-396.

Nugent, B. and Loucks, N. (2011) ‘The Arts and Prisoners: Experiences of Creative Rehabilitation’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 356-370.

Piotrowski, P. and Florek, S. 2015 ‘Science of art in prison’ in Ostrowski, T. M, Sikorska, I. and Gerc, K, Resilience and Health: in a Fast-Changing World, Krakow: Jagiellonian Press, pp. 93-108.

Soape, E., Barlow, C., Gussak, D. E., Brown, J. and Schubarth, A. (2021) ‘Creative IDEA: Introducing a Statewide Art Therapy in Prisons Program’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, doi:10.1177/0306624X211013731.

Sullivan, G. (2010) Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in Visual Arts, SAGE Publications: Los Angeles.

Observing Ramadan in Prison

Isabel Beaumont

Approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide fast during Ramadan (IOPG, 2019). Muslims all over the globe will have spent the last month taking part in Ramadan. This is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and it involves a focus on prayer, reading the Qur’an, community, self-reflection, and abstinence from impure thoughts. Muslims will also fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset. The end of the month of Ramadan is celebrated with Zakat, the giving of charitable donations, and a day of feasting, seeing family and friends and the exchange of gifts, called Eid-al Fitr (Muslim Hands, 2022). Muslims only represent 5% of the UK population, so Ramadan may not be widely understood among non-Muslims (ONS, 2018).

However, compared to the general population, Muslims are vastly overrepresented in the Criminal Justice System, making up 16% of the prison population (IOPG, 2019). Common standardised practices to mark Ramadan in prisons include broadcasting an imam over National Prison Radio throughout the month and a Ramadan activity booklet (Takwani, 2021). The activity booklet is provided annually and is comprised of 30 pages of reflections to help guide Muslims throughout the month. In general, the evening meal will be delivered at the same time as those who are not observing Ramadan, but in insulated containers, ready for them to break fast later that evening (Inside Time, 2022).  Finally, prison catering staff ensure thatbreakfast and lunch are combined for their meal before sunrise.

However, the experience of Ramadan can vary significantly from prison to prison. For example, HMIP describe how food delivery protocols are based on conversations between catering staff and imams (RR3 Special Interest Group, 2021). Furthermore, they mention that in prisons with a higher Muslim population, there have been recruitment difficulties, so the number of imams does not always reflect population changes.

Third sector parties have raised concerns about insufficient recognition of the importance of Ramadan in prisons and the poor treatment of Muslims at this time. Maslaha is a charity advocating forthe rights of Muslims, publishing reports on their discrimination within the Criminal Justice System. When it comes to fasting during Ramadan, they highlight accounts of the meals being cold, tampered with, or intercepted and not reaching their intended recipients (Maslaha, 2021b).

 In 2021, during Ramadan, Maslaha released short audio clips and comic strips after interviewing people in prison to highlight their experiences. One man explains in his audio clip that, in his experience, in prisons with a lower Muslim population, insulated boxes containing meals to break the fast after sunset have shown up empty. He claims that the food was taken by those working in the kitchens. This can be difficult to resolve as by the time this is realised, cell lock up has already occurred, so no alternative food is provided. He goes on to highlight the performative nature of the complaints process who often dismiss these issues.

Timekeeping is an essential element for opening and closing fast. One interviewee spoke about the variation of this between prisons. Sometimes alarm clocks are provided, or available to buy from canteen, whereas in other prisons Muslims are reliant on prison staff waking them up to eat before sunrise. There are inconsistencies between prisons and the efforts gone to by individual staff to ensure that those fasting are awake at the right time. He referred to this as a “postcode lottery” (Maslaha, 2021a, para 14). This highlights that the right support is possible, but there should be processes at each prison to ensure that no Muslim is refused the right to observe Ramadan.

A third interviewee described the discrimination he faced during Ramadan. Due to having to wake early to open his fast, he made arrangements with his cleaning work to start later. These arrangements are often made, and most Muslims can be excused from having to be present at breakfast with others in prison. However, this is ultimately up to individual prison staff, and when it came to his shift, these arrangements were revoked, and he was fired for being late. This was followed up with accusations of him having a bad attitude, an all-too-common stereotype heard when discriminatory behaviour is questioned (Maslaha, 2021a).

Important social elements of Ramadan have been put under even more pressure recently, increasing the importance of fasting. Coronavirus continues to disrupt UK prisons in 2022 with many restrictions still in place. This has affected how Ramadan has been observed in prisons. Group activities are reliant on what stage of restrictions individual prisons are in. The different approaches taken by prison governors greatly affects each of these issues (RR3 Special Interest Group, 2021).Ramadan is usually a time spent connecting with family, friends, and the community. The isolation felt from imprisonment is particularly poignant for Muslims during this time. Social visits have for the most part been prohibited, with short video/phone calls taking place instead. Furthermore, being confined to their cells has made the unofficial support systems within the prisons near impossible and meetings arranged by imams have also nearly all stopped (Maslaha, 2021b). With the social elements of Ramadan not being possible in prison at this time, fasting is brought more to the fore.

There needs to be greater recognition of the needs of Muslims in prison when they are observing Ramadan. HMPPS should circulate and enforce more standardised practices, so it is not such a “postcode lottery” (Maslaha, 2021a, para 14) for Muslims. They should provide appropriate training about different religions, so staff are not “learning on the job” (Mohammed & Nickolls, 2021, p.10). Prisons need to start sharing their best practices with each other to ensure observing Ramadan is accessible to all Muslims in prison. This helps to ensure there is a more widespread understanding to reduce this cultural and religious discrimination at this important time for Muslims.

Reference List

Inside Time (2022) Charity Raises Ramadan Concerns. Available at: Charity raises Ramadan concerns – insidetime & insideinformation

Maslaha (2021a) Raising the voices of Muslim People in Prison. Available at:  

Maslaha (2021b) The Realities of Ramadan in Prison. Available at:

Muslim Hands (2022) What Is Ramadan? Available at:

Mohammed, R. & Nickolls, L. (2021) Time to End the Silence. Available at:

ONS (2018) Muslim Population in the UK. Available at: Muslim population in the UK – Office for National Statistics (

RR3 Special Interest Group (2021) Notes from the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) Special Interest Group on Covid-19. Available at: Notes from the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) Special Interest Group on Covid-19 | Clinks

Takwani, M. (2021) ‘Observing Ramadan in Prison’, Prisoners Abroad, 30 April.  Available at:

A Taste of Christmas Behind Bars 

Isabel Beaumont and Amelia Hoy

Image Source:

Food plays an important role in celebrating many holidays and cultural events. In prison, research has shown it can also provide an opportunity for socialising, strengthening of relationships and a way to express cultural and religious identities (Smoyer 2014; Godderis 2006). Although not everybody observes Christmas, the national focus on food intensifies at this time of year, making the importance placed on both the quality and social aspects of food even more prominent.

Despite widespread increased spending on food around Christmas, there is no alteration to the England and Wales catering budget, at approximately £2.02 per prisoner per day. This has raised concerns over the quality and nutritional value of the food (HMIP 2016). In comparison, Public Health England calculated that a balanced diet in prison would cost £5.99 per individual per day (Scarborough et al 2016). 

Literature demonstrates that women in prison can associate food in prison with extra forms of punishment, through a lack of choice and control restricting ways of expressing identity and agency (Smith 2002; Godderis 2006). A review of the literature demonstrates that prison food has broadly negative connotations both in the UK and in other countries, with studies reporting the social, temporal, and spatial environment in which food is consumed experienced as punishing (Ugelvik 2011). This causes prisoners to feel both “rushed” and “watched”, thus exacerbating existing feelings of discontent, not only with the food itself, but the experiences surrounding eating and preparation of food within controlled environments (Smoyer and Lopes 2017). 

Christmas in prison is not experienced in identical ways by those incarcerated; each individual adopts a unique approach to make it through this season. For some, the experience is relatively positive, through receiving cards and gifts from their loved ones, but others will rely on the ‘listeners’: prisoners trained by the Samaritans and/or mental health support officers (Prison Reform Trust 2016). One thing that remains consistent is the traditional Christmas dinner served, as demonstrated by the Ministry of Justice (2016) who published a Christmas day menu which demonstrates the food served in all prisons throughout England and Wales on Christmas day. People in prison may be provided with traditional meals such as roast turkey, with roast potatoes, a portion of vegetables and gravy. There are also options for all dietary requirements, such as vegan nut roasts, and Halal options offering a portion of roast turkey or roast lamb.

Where possible, people in prison will eat together socially to replicate the togetherness of families celebrating outside of prison.  Women in particular may seek to share or cook food for others in order to demonstrate a nurturing, caregiver role and reinforce their identities as mothers within this environment (Stearns 2018). Thus, in comparison to the rest of the year, a more extensive selection of food at Christmas can bring women in prison together and create an atmosphere of solidarity.  

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Christmas 2020 was a much less sociable experience. Those in prison spent longer in their cells, had reduced visits and communal eating areas were forced to close (Public Health England 2021). A simultaneous decline in mental health seen during this time emphasises the importance of the social dynamic during the festive period, which has been reinforced by voices from those in prison (Howard League for Penal Reform 2021; Inside Time 2021).

Almost as traditional as the Queen’s speech at Christmas is the periodic release of media reports condemning the Prison Service for providing people in prison with a special meal on Christmas day. Many media reports suggest that Christmas food is a ‘treat’ for undeserving prisoners, who should not be provided with such food and ways of celebrating the festive period (Inside Time 2019; Himelfield and Jolly 2021). PrisonPhone (2018) revealed public discontent through the father of a murder victim: “Christmas is a difficult time when tears are flowing, and here we have the perpetrators of this misery being rewarded”. This quote highlights the heightened grief experienced by victims’ families during holidays and times of celebration. Their perception, in part due to reports that those incarcerated are being given a treat, exacerbates feelings of anger, with the potential to reinforce their loss.

What the media rarely reports is the vulnerability and loneliness felt by those in prison at this time, with suicide rates noted to have risen in the run-up to Christmas 2020 (Howard League for Penal Reform 2021). Therefore, where public perception is that those in prison are being treated on Christmas day, arguably Christmas dinner should instead be viewed as important for increasing morale and comfort during a difficult time for those in prison. As such, it is important to acknowledge other cultural celebrations at this time and keep in mind the significant role food plays in allowing those in prison to share and reinforce aspects of their identity, and the contribution this makes to maintaining morale.

A Christmas wreath hangs on the gate of a dorm for foreign prisoners in a prison in Qingpu County of Shanghai, east China Friday, Dec. 24, 2004. A Christmas party was held for the foreign prisoners here on Friday. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Chen Fei)


Godderis, R. (2006) ‘Food for Thought: An Analysis of Power and Identity in Prison Food Narratives’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 50, pp. 61–75.

Himelfield, D. and Jolly, B. (2021) Murderers and rapists at ‘Monster Mansion’ jail to enjoy tasty Christmas meals, Express [Online] 25 November, Available at: (Accessed: 9 December 2021).

HMIP (2016) Life in Prison: Food, London: HMIP. 

Howard League for Penal Reform (2021) The new lockdown announcement will bring desolation to prisoners, Available at: (Accessed: 14 December 2021).

Inside Time (2019) ‘Insanely appetising’ Christmas prison food, Available at:  (Accessed: 7 December 2021).

Ministry of Justice (2016) Christmas Lunch Menu for All Prisons and Spend Per Prison. Available at: (Accessed: 8 December 2021)

PrisonPhone (2018) Should inmates be given a Christmas dinner?, Available at: (Accessed 8 December 2021) 

Prison Reform Trust (2016) Christmas in prison, Available at:  (Accessed: 7 December 2021).

Public Health England (2021) The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Business Closure) (England) Regulations 2020, Available at: (Accessed:  9 December 2021.

Scarborough, P. et al(2016) ‘Eatwell Guide: modelling the dietary and cost implications of incorporating new sugar and fibre guidelines’, BMJ Open, vol. 6, no. 12.

Smith, C. (2002) ‘Punishment and Pleasure: Women, Food and the Imprisoned Body’, SAGE Journals, vol. 50, no. 2, pp. 197-214. 

Smoyer, A.B. (2014) Good and Healthy: Foodways and Construction of Identity in A Women’s Prison. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 525-541.

Smoyer, A.B., Lopes, G., (2017) ‘Hungry on the inside: Prison food as concrete and symbolic punishment in a women’s prison’, SAGE Journals, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 240-255

Stearns, A.E. (2018) ‘Baking Bittersweet: Mothers’ Dessert – Making Behind Bars’, Feminist Criminology, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 612- 632. 

Ugelvik, T. (2011) ‘The Hidden Food: Mealtime Resistance and Identity Work in a Norwegian prison’, Punishment and Society, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 47-63.