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Promoting gender responsive support for women inmates: a case study from inside a prison [2019]

Purpose
Most women who serve time in prison will eventually be released and expected to reintegrate back into society. To maximize the chances of success, careful support is usually required. An example of this support work was the Healthy Relationships Program (HRP, 2016) offered to women inmates of the Adelaide Women’s Prison (South Australia) pre-release. The content of the HRP was influenced by a gender-responsive framework and constructed as a social work program. The purpose of this paper is to report on a small qualitative study that used semi-structured interviews pre- and post-program to explore women participants’ expectations, perceptions and experiences of the program. In this paper, the focus is on the women inmates’ interview transcripts where a thematic analysis was conducted. Two main research questions drove this analysis. First: How did the women experience the HRP? Second: What does their reported experience reveal about the ongoing need for gender-responsive support? The key findings are that domestic violence and relationships with children are strong motivators for participation in programs; therefore, gender-responsive support is still required in prison programs. However, the paper also advocates that future iterations of gender-responsive support and social work interventions become more consciously intersectional feminist in orientation.

Design/methodology/approach
A qualitative design was used to explore what women thought the HRP taught them. Individual face-to-face interviews were used to explore women’s perceptions, ideas and experiences of healthy relationships. Thematic analysis was used to draw out the themes across interviews.

Findings
The key arguments made are that gender-responsive support is still required but that future iterations of gender-responsive support become more consciously intersectional feminist in orientation.

Research limitations/implications
The researchers experienced strict time restrictions to conduct interviews and therefore depth was somewhat compromised. To try and compensate for this restriction, the researchers visited potential participants as part of program recruitment and information sharing to help enable and build general rapport before the interviews. Time restrictions and prison security protocols did not allow for researchers to check transcripts with the women.

Practical implications
Reporting on this case study also showed that social work practice can influence relationships with institutions, such as prisons, that perpetrate marginalization and therefore enable a setting that facilitates safe participation in programs.

Social implications
Gender-responsive frameworks provide the much needed validation of gender differences, but also require a feminist intersectional lens to more consciously aid in the conceptualization and evaluation of future programs for women in prison. It is this intersectional lens that is more likely to bring multiple experiences of oppression into focus so that personal issues and problems can be analyzed in a richer wider social context, particularly intersections between gender, class and/ethnicity race.

Originality/value
This paper has reported on women’s expectations and experiences of a health relationships program and provides insight and learnings for future practitioners intending to run similar programs. Overall, the women participants were able to articulate their own personal learnings about interpersonal relationships and were able to acknowledge the impacts of abuse and violence in their lives in the program.

Sarah Wendt, Heather Fraser
International Journal of Prisoner Health, 2019
DOI
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