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The history of women in prisons


This research presents a revisionist prison history which brings to the forefront the relationship between gender and policy. It examines women’s prisons in England from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century, drawing attention to the detrimental effect the orthodox closed prison has on penal reform.

The project investigates the clash between what was conceptualised as desirable prison policy and the actual implementation and implications of such a penalty on the prisoner. It challenges previous claims made about the invisibility of women prisoners in historical penal policy, and provides an original analysis of the open prison, taking HMP Askham Grange as a case study, where the history of such an initiative is explored and debated. The project’s findings were used to inform a collaboration with two artists which resulted in an exhibition illustrating the impact of incarceration on women prisoners (see Outputs and Outcomes below). 


The object of this research study is threefold: to construct a historiography of women’s prisons, to assess the experimental nature of imprisonment, and to argue that the ‘reformation of the prisoner’ is a myth.

There has been little research that has shed new light or that has challenged previous claims made by historical studies on the development of women’s prisons. I argue that unchallenged historiographies of female imprisonment has led to a stagnation in the discipline; historical findings not only cast doubt on the discourse of women offenders’ invisibility, but their examination also suggests a possible contribution that the population of women prisoners had in shaping mainstream prison policy.

Moreover, this study explores the experimental nature of the prison penalty. I argue that this issue has caused the prison system to experience a permanent state of crisis: the crisis reflects the clash between what was conceptualised in penal discourse as desirable prison policy and prison regime, against the actual implementation and implications of such a penalty on the prisoner. Despite this crisis, however, the prison system has become firmly embedded in the fabric of society.

Lastly, prison discourses have developed the understanding that ‘reformation’ stands for the process through which the prisoner is rehabilitated or ‘untrained’ from her criminal or deviant tendencies, thus facilitating social integration as a ‘new’ law-abiding citizen. However, this historical examination reveals that although ‘reformation’ came to be seen as one of the core aims of imprisonment, in reality, its implementation was almost impractical. This argument is supported through the following three examinations: first, an assessment of the experimental nature of imprisonment as a primary penalty; second, an assessment of the policy of training; and finally, an assessment of the role and function of the open prison within the context of mainstream prison policy.


  • “A History of Women’s Prisons: an artwork exhibition” in the Crypt Gallery, London, 24 May - 2 June 2019. A collaboration with artists Noriko Hisazumi and Fabiana Vigna, the aim of the exhibition was to problematise imprisonment through visual representation, and its theme was the reform of the prisoner during nineteenth-century England. The artwork drew upon Dr Menis’ crimino-legal history research, focusing on the emotional tension between the penal aim of reformation and the effects it may have had on the prisoner; and Dr Menis contributed the explanatory notes for the exhibition catalogue. The exhibition was made possible by the award of an Art Council National Lottery Project Grants of £3380; and funding from Birkbeck School of Law Research Committee.