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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature

Programme Development

Existing programmes
Women-specific approaches
Non-prison based approaches and sources
Community programmes for mothers who abuse their children

The following section offers some guidance, on the basis of the literature examined, for the development of programmes which focus on women's anger, aggression and violence. As has been underlined above, it is rarely useful to talk about violent women given the diversity of behaviour involved, and the variety of circumstances and situational factors. Such programmes should more appropriately be based on the following assumptions:

1. That some women, because of their experiences, have a greater propensity to use violence than others, or in certain circumstances, and to use it against themselves. This is not the same as labelling them violent and anticipating violence on their part.

2. That the situational context in which violent incidents occur is of central importance, and there is a need to develop management practices and programmes which help both inmate and staff develop a better understanding of how to anticipate, avoid, and develop alternative responses.

3. That many women sentenced for a violent offence have rarely used violence before. For these women, as well as others, there may be value in programmes which can help to develop understanding of women's use of anger and aggression, and about how they can be used constructively in our lives, as well as dealing with the grief accompanying violence.

4. That exploring the sources of family violence and child abuse and neglect may be helpful for women who have experienced abusive relationships, as well as for developing an understanding of women's abuse of children.


Existing programmes

As with measurement tools, most programme development relating to violence including anger management or batterers programmes have been developed for men. A few programmes which touch on anger management and understanding violence do exist in women's institutions or in the community in America. In the community a number of programmes concerned with women at risk, or abusive of children have been identified, but few of them work from a women-centred perspective, or use innovative approaches. No programmes for women in psychiatric settings were identified.

Overall, there is little evidence of programme evaluation for women's programmes in terms of their long-term effectiveness. A number of programmes using a women-centred approach rely on end-of-programme evaluations, which, as Kendall (1993) identified are usually very reponsive and positive. Kendall's evaluation of feminist programmes at the Prison for Women (1993) stands apart as one of the few attempts to consider the implications of such work with women in a prison setting.

A number of the programmes cited in recent literature appear to be directed towards the immediate goal of institutional management and violence reduction rather than longer term goals. These include an anger management programme for women (Smith et al., 1994) cognitive skills training for women (Haworth, 1993) and programmes for the reduction of assaults in psychiatric hospitals and correctional institutions (Rice et al., 1989) conflict resolution training for inmates and staff (Love, 1994) and pet therapy (Haynes, 1994).

Some of these approaches appear to have been successful in reducing the incidence of assaults or aggressive incidents in institutions including prisons. However, some of the programmes which have been used for women show no evidence of awareness of gender differences. The anger management programme for women in prison described by Smith, Smith & Becker (1994) utilized the American Psychiatric Associations's DSM III to explain why people become angry, and made no attempt to place anger within the context of women's lives and socialization patterns. (A critique of the lack of scientific basis in decisions about what is `normal' behaviour for women, and of the process of development of some of the DSM classifications for women is given by Caplan (1991)).

Much of the current focus of treatment programmes in male institutions stresses the targetting of offenders, and the identification of high need as a criterion for programme entry. In an account of the characteristics of successful programmes, Coulson and Nutbrown (1992) outline what they term the structural features of programmes, such as cognitive skills training, which have shown success. These include positive reinforcement and motivation of clients (`it's your job to motivate them, don't blame the clients'); `learning by doing' with the use of a lot of structured activities; drawing material from a variety of sources; the integration of components within the programme, and the use of repetition; active participation from the teacher; working within the everyday world of the clients; monitoring of progress, and programme evaluation. All these components would appear to be useful for the development of programmes for women.

There is also a stress, however, on the use of `heavily scripted' instructions and a highly structured programme which is geared to a specific and high-need clientele. In part this is to facilitate careful programme evaluation. However, these components suggest a rigidity in the approach to programme development which is incompatible with some of the primary factors identified as important for women (Beleneky et al., 1986; Smolick 1990; Kendall 1993). These include the utilization of peer support and experiences, the development of programmes around the needs of the particular women involved in a programme, the need to have time and flexibility to deal with personal issues raised by the women, and the reduction of hierarchy between the teacher and the clients. Coulson and Nutbrown also argue that `defining and dealing with offenders as victims of putative imperfections in social and economic structures will provide nothing for them except a new set of excuses' (p. 206) suggesting that the notion of contextualizing women's experiences is not part of their aim, or that they may misunderstand the concepts of programmes developed specifically for women.


Women-specific approaches

General programme development for women's prisons in the US was extensively reviewed by Axon (1989) and more recently by Kendall (1993). Kendall has provided a clear account of the components of a woman-centred approach for both individual and group programming which will not be repeated here. She also discusses the difficulties of developing programmes within a prison setting, and some of the incompatibilities between the philosophy of a woman-centred approach and prison regimes.

Kendall outlines the principles of feminist therapy as a philosophy - rather than a method - of treatment which forms the basis for much women-centred programming. It attempts to reduce the distance between counsellor and client, focusses on contextualizing women's lives and actions, and working with their experiences. This approach can be used for both group programmes, guiding and training self-help support groups, and individual counselling.

In part this approach to programme development for women utilizes recent understanding about how women approach ideas. In their discussion of women's approach to knowledge and learning Belenkey, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986) argue that:

`educators can help women develop their own authentic voices if they emphasise connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate; if they accord respect to and allow time for the knowledge that emerges from firsthand experience; if instead of imposing their own expectations and arbitrary requirements, they encourage students to evolve their own patterns of work based on the problems they are pursuing. These are the lessons we have learned in listening to women's voices.' (p. 229)

A few feminist group work programmes in women's prisons which are relevant to women's anger and violence are reported by Kendall (1993) to which the reader is referred for a more detailed discussion. The Family Violence Programme at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (New York State) (Smolick 1990) would appear to be an exemplary and successful programme although it has not been systematically evaluated. While the framework of the programme is concerned with family violence, it includes work with women sentenced for child-related crimes. This programme is voluntary, without systematic screening apart from a history of violence in their lives, and self-determined by the individual women in terms of what needs and issues they regard as pressing. It offers a variety of groups, including a peer support group for women sentenced for killing a child, as well as individual counselling and staff training, and programme staff may mediate in situations of violence within the institution. The peer support group for women sentenced for child death (Kaplan 1988) appears to be particularly effective in providing support for the women most likely to be victimized within the institution.

Kendall also gives an account of an anger group for female offenders at Renz Correctional Facility (Columbia, Missouri) (Wilfley, Rodon & Anderson, 1986) designed to help women acknowledge, accept and release their anger constructively.

The Peer-Support Programme developed at the Prison for Women (Pollack 1993) was designed to provide a network of counselling and support for women who self-injure (Heney 1990) and clearly relates to the needs of women who act violently. Pollack's evaluation of the programme suggests that both peer counsellors and those who received counselling felt more self-confidence and empowerment, and greater trust and understanding.

Axon (1989) in her review of exemplary programmes for women outlines a number of American programmes in women's prisons which deal with issues of aggression and violence. These include an Alternative to Violence programme adapted (it is not known how well) from a programme for men, and used in a number of women's prisons. It provides two three-day workshops to develop skills in relation to the use of anger and violence, and a follow-up advanced workshop on factors contributing to violence such as fear and anger. She also notes a programme for female sexual offenders which forms part of the Genesis II programme in Minneapolis (Mathews, Matthews & Speltz 1989). The Virginia Child Protection Newsletter (1989) also provides a range of information on programmes and treatment approaches for female sex offenders.

Other American programmes which would appear to be of some relevance are reported in Immarigeon and Chesney-Lind (1992). These include a community-based programme Our New Beginnings in Portland Oregan developed by women serving time in the 1980's, which includes anger counselling services, and The Women at Risk programme in North Carolina which runs four 12 week-cycle groups teaching problem-solving and parenting techniques which do not rely on violence or self-destructive behaviour.

A family violence prevention programme Home Improvement -Tools for Building Better Relationships was recently piloted by Jane Katz and Cheryl Hall women at Burnaby Correctional Centre (Katz, 1994). The initial intention was to encourage women to talk about violence in their homes by focussing on ways of bringing-up non-violent children. The women found it too difficult or painful to talk about their children since they had little contact with them. A broader-based programme was, therefore, developed dealing with violence in any home-based relationships.

The resulting manual for a 16 session programme utilizes a wide range of information and resources, although much of it has been adapted from programmes for abusive men. The authors note, too, that most of the women acknowledged that they had been both abusers and abused, and underline that `there is little resource material available for violent women'. On the basis of their experience in running the programme, and the response of the women taking part, the authors make a number of recommendations for future programmes many of them already identified in Kendall (1993) including:

• the need for a longer programme than the 8 three-hour session piloted in order to develop trust with facilitators and within the group;

• allowing participants to have input into the programme content and format;

• flexibility for dealing with personal problems, and capacity to undertake individual work as necessary arising from group sessions;

• the importance of trust and confidentiality that personal information would not end up in their files;

• the importance of staff orientation and awareness.

A promising group programme for women who abuse their partners (Women for Change Program, 1994) has recently been developed by The Elizabeth Fry Society of Winnepeg, Manitoba and awaits funding. It locates women's use of violence within their own experience of violence and focusses on understanding abusive behaviour, helping to identify pre-violence cues, developing self-awareness of their own learning experiences as women, on self-esteem and the management of anger. The programme provides for eleven sessions using written, verbal, physical and visual material, builds upon the women's current and past experiences, and stresses the central importance of confidentiality for group members and facilitators.

An innovative programme for women in prison and the community in Halifax The Coverdale Community Chaplaincy Project (1992, 1994) included group and individual anger management work. The project was designed primarily for women with histories of abuse, and offered a service of feminist and pastoral counselling. The project was unable to get follow-on funding after federal funding ended in 1994, but developed considerable expertise and tools for dealing with women's anger, as well as experience of the difficulties of working on anger management within a custodial setting.

Other resource material may provide value in developing programmes. Nobody: Making Peace with Motherhood (1994) is a study based on the experiences of eight women in conflict with the law who had given up or lost custody of their children either permanently or temporarily. Almost all the women had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. The study provides a detailed account based on their own words, of their own childhood experiences and adolescence, of relationships, motherhood, parenting and loss. While the study does not focus specifically on violent behaviour or abuse, it provides a very readable account which contextualizes the behaviour of the women, as well as providing an accompanying commentary and discussion. Since it is based on the experiences of women offenders it provides valuable resource material for a variety of programmes including those concerned with family violence and women's use of anger.

A study based on the experiences of women serving life and long-term sentences also provides some guidance for programme development although not specifically concerned with violent behaviour, (Jose-Kampfner 1990). On the basis of discussions with 70 women serving long sentences, Jose-Kampfer examines their reactions in terms of the stages experienced by terminally ill patients (Kubler-Ross) - shock, denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance and hope - and explores these stages as a basis for working with the women. The use of such as approach elsewhere in the US is also reported in Axon (1989).


Non-prison based approaches and sources

Apart from programmes developed for women offenders, a number of writers have developed women-centred approaches to women's anger (eg. Lerner 1985; Bass & Davies 1988; Wilt 1993; Estes 1992; Miller 1994; and see Kendall 1993). Their work is part of a trend towards the recognition of gender issues in counselling psychology. Betz and Fitzgerald (1993) for example, in a review of individual therapy and counselling, stress that feminist therapy is a perspective which is congruent with any non biological-based theory of intervention. They discuss the use of individual/diversity approaches in relation to counselling women, men, racial and minority groups, and lesbian and gay clients.

A number of the approaches concerned with anger have been developed with private (often middle class) clients in individual therapy. They usually distinguish between women who suppress or internalize their anger and those who express it verbally or use violence, and focus on the positive functions of anger. Estes (1992), for example, is a Jungian analyst who uses myths and stories as `medicine' to help women understand and empower themselves. She sees anger, particularly that arising from past experiences, as a `creative force' to be used to change, develop and protect.

Lerner (The Dance of Anger 1985) writes about and for women who experience anger, providing a guide to changing patterns of relationships. She explores why women who do express their anger are seen as threathening to others, and focusses particularly on exploring family relationships. Her approach includes understanding the sources of anger, learning more positive communication skills, learning to observe and stop unproductive ways of interacting, and anticipating and dealing with resistence to change from other people. The guide emphasises practical tasks and exercises which can be used to develop a more constructive use of anger.

The Courage to Heal (Bass and Davies 1988) based on women's experiences was specifically written for women who were sexually abused in childhood. Unlike many books it does recognize that some women use violence. It discusses the links between anger, eating disorders, substance abuse and other forms of self-abuse including suicide and slashing, as responses to sexual abuse. It provides practical guides for changing patterns of response including anger, as well as an extensive bibliography of resources. The authors regard anger as `the backbone of healing' whether it has been suppressed, or acted out in violent behaviour:

`[Some] survivors have been angry their whole lives. They grew up in families or circumstances so pitted against each other that they learned early to fight for survival...Sometimes the line between anger and violence blurred, and it became a destructive force.'

`Few women have wholeheartedly embraced anger as a positive force. ....But anger doesn't have to be suppressed or destructive. Instead, it can be both a healthy response to violation and a transformative, powerful energy.'(p. 122-3)

Dorothy Wilt (in Thomas 1993) outlines an individual therapeutic approach for women who suppress, and those who act out, their anger. She uses developmental and feminist perspectives to explore the sources of anger, to develop an understanding of anger management, teach techniques for dealing with it, calming or expressive techniques, and the development of assertive rather than aggressive responses.

In Women Who Hurt Themselves Dusty Miller (1994) outlines her three-step programme of individual therapy for women who abuse themselves, rather than others, as a response to childhood trauma. Based on her experience as a clinical psychologist she considers women who harm themselves through such actions as alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, self-injury and excessive dieting or cosmetic surgery. She sees childhood traumas as arising not only from sexual abuse, but from physical or psychological abuse, neglect or invasive childhood experiences, and the self-abusive patterns as reenacting the harm the women experienced. They represent `a request for the protection [they] did not receive as a child' (p. 9). Miller terms this pattern Trauma Reenactment Syndrome (TRS) and argues that many such women are often misdiagnosed. Her programme of treatment identifies three stages of therapy she terms the outer circle, the middle circle and the inner circle. She emphasises the importance of developing supportive networks during this process, but suggests that such work requires a long time-scale.

The major limitation of some of this material is that it is community based, not designed for women in conflict with the law, and does not deal with the implications of working or being in a prison setting. In some cases the language used may require a high level of literacy and may also be inappropriate, written for a middle-class audience and about a clientele who can afford private therapy. It often assumes that clients will have access to counselling on a long-term basis, and streses that it may require a number of years for effective work to be completed. There is a stress on the need at times to find alternative outlets for anger including its physical expression (shouting, screaming, playing sports) as well as relaxation and comforting activities (taking a warm bath, going shopping, talking with friends) which assume considerable freedom and access to other support systems and resources. Such sources need to be used and adapted with care, therefore.


Community programmes for mothers who abuse their children

Finally, there exists a range of programmes in the community designed to prevent child abuse and neglect. Most programmes developed for mothers who abuse their children have a psychological basis and are designed to change certain predisposing behaviours. Treatment goals, especially for abusive mothers, often reinforce traditional female roles and behaviour. A woman who wants her children returned from placement, for example, is often required to clean up her home and improve her appearance. Even self-help groups, which tend to have greater success than treatment programmes in working with abusive parents, are more likely to focus on helping women become better wives, mothers and girlfriends than on helping them develop their own strengths and interests. While some practitioners have developed innovative approaches, such as using assertiveness training, the field as a whole has not moved much beyond the traditional ways of working with women (Washburne 1983).

An Ontario study (Hornick and Clarke 1986) used `lay therapists' who acted as helpers, role models and friends, in conjunction with social service treatment. This was found to be more effective in changing behaviour patterns and beliefs among abusing and high-risk mothers, and more cost-efficient. In a review of 21 studies that report on treatment outcomes for abusive and/or neglectful parents (almost all mothers) Wolfe and Wekerle (1993) report that parent-focussed interventions targetting child-rearing competence and stress management are the most useful. Other intervention targets included child rearing skills, general family functioning, positive child interaction skills, social skills, anger managment, social isolation and home cleanliness skills. In almost every study some positive results are reported, but only two studies followed-up cases, so that long-term effects are not known.

Apart from psychologically-based treatment, other programmes have been developed in response to the high incidence of social isolation reported among known abusive mothers. One half-day programme of 23 weeks to increase social networks involved stress management, anger management, positive self-talk in increasing self esteem, problem-solving and assertiveness (Lovell & Hawkins 1988). While social networks outside the group did not increase significantly during this period, researchers found some improvements in the quality and quantity of social networks within the group.

The most innovative programme which may have some application for in-prison group programmes is a 12-week group programme to help low-income abusive mothers build more effective bases of social support (Lovell, Reid and Richey 1992). Sessions were designed to increase interpersonal skills including basic conversation, self-protection and assertion. The project used metaphor, visual aids, humour and stress-reduction techniques. Group sessions were structured around a `relational road-map' as a metaphor of friendship. This was found to be less threathening than direct feedback or confrontation. While the group was experimental it received positive evaluation and high participation.



This review suggest there is a need and an opportunity to develop some innovative programming in the women's facilities concerned with women and violence. This includes a need to develop:

a. resource material about women's anger and violence;

b. resource material which is geared to the lives and backgrounds of the women in terms of their experience of violence, racial and cultural differences, and conflict with the law to their realities.

c. resource material about how violence and conflict develop in institutions;

d. resources which utilize the experiences of the women themselves and of women who have been through the system and who have learned to deal with anger and violence;

e. innovative ways of involving women in learning processes, using for example theatre, or film which develop alternative ways of learning, understanding, and channelling anger and energy.

Apart from individual counselling and peer-support programmes, such resources would be useful in the development for both staff and inmates of:

1. Education and awareness programmes which focus on women's ways of knowing, understanding anger, gendered patterns of socialization, class and racial patterns, family violence, child abuse, using anger constructively.

2. Group and individual programmes for women who use violence and anger more than others, relaxation, control, conflict resolution, peer support.

In conclusion, Kendall (1993, 1994) in particular raises many of the issues concerned with programme development in prison. Many of the issues faced by women with the most disruptive and violent histories cannot be dealt with in short-term group programmes or brief periods of individual counselling. They may require considerable additional support and resources. It cannot be expected that `change' will be rapid if it concerns a life-time of experiences of violence. It is unwise, perhaps to expect clear long-term results. Kendall also stresses the danger of therapeutic approaches and individual counselling which locate the problem within the individual. There is still too a major power imbalance between staff and inmates. Even if programmes are women-centred, without some choice in attending programmes, women may not benefit from them.

The issue of confidentiality and trust is also central (Axon 1989; Kendall 1993) and the extent to which women will feel able to disclose and feel trust with programmes run by prison staff is crucial. Finally, if programmes are targetted to specific women, such women may be unwilling to take part, and to identify themselves in such a way. It must be considered whether selecting out women identified, by whatever methods, as having problems with the use of violence is the best way of approaching programme development.