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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Institutionalised guilt in a women’s prison

By Line Dahler-Eriksen


For several months last year I was involved in coding interviews for the Comparative Penology project. Most of the interviews I worked on were with women imprisoned in HMP Send, in England & Wales. In their stories, a theme that kept surfacing was the institutional pressure to ‘admit’ guilt within the prison in order to gain access to therapy, obtain more positive risk assessments and progress through the system.

For a novice in the prison research field like me, the extent to which the length and harshness of a prison sentence is decided within the prison was in itself eye-opening. But even within this paradigm, the pressure to admit guilt that the interviewed women described, entailed very particular dilemmas and anxieties for those who did not believe that their conviction was fair.

In the interviews, the institutional pressure to ‘admit’ guilt was most often present with the women who talked about joining the Therapeutic Community (TC). This is an intensive therapeutic programme, where the prisoners live together, organise life on the wing together and participate in daily therapeutic group sessions. It is a condition for joining the program that you admit to your conviction. This is because the program is based on  the idea that, for the prisoner, admitting guilt is a necessary step on the way to accepting and dealing with her offending behaviour, which in turn will reduce the risk of re-offending. HMP Send has the only TC unit for women in England, and a lot of the women were in the establishment because attending the TC was on their sentence plan, making it key to their progression through the prison system. A lot of the women also really wanted to attend the program, because it was a chance to get therapy. The result was, that for these women, admitting guilt became instrumental, both to getting access to therapy and to progressing on their sentence.

Similar mechanisms were present in other parts of the prison system. In interviews, the women talked about how ‘admitting’ guilt resulted in better risk-assessments and an increased chance of progressing through the system in general.

This can be seen as a part of a more general development towards a “tighter” prison system, where control is no longer just aimed at prisoners’ behaviour. Through means like incentive-schemes, risk-assessments and ‘voluntary’ offending behaviour programmes, tight forms of control are aimed more intimately at the prisoner’s feelings, thoughts and relation to herself – or in this case specifically– her relationship with her own guilt and narrative around her offence (Crewe, 2011). Darcy, one of the interviewed women, summed up her experience of how rigidly and tightly the prison dealt with guilt by stating: “So the system tries to convince you that you’re here, meaning that you’ve done something wrong, whether you appeal or not. So if you’ve done something wrong, then you have to work on yourself and be better. I would say brainwash you.”

The reality for a lot of the interviewed women was, that the question of guilt was more complicated than what the prison left room for. A few of them denied that they had anything to do with the offence they had been convicted of. However, more often, they admitted to some of the crimes they were convicted for, but not others, or they disagreed with the legal category of the offence they were convicted for. Most of the women’s stories and offences were interwoven with experiences of domestic and sexual violence, that in different ways  added to the complexities of the ways in which they related to their crimes and guilt.

One of the interviewed women, Amelie was in prison on a Joint Enterprise sentence for murder. She had admitted guilt to some of the charges against her, but not others: significantly, not to having been present at the murder. Throughout the interview, she was negotiating whether or not she should ‘give in’ and declare guilt in order to get access to the prison’s therapeutic community. But as the following quote shows, these negotiations were tinged with anxiety about the possible psychological consequences this might have:

“Amelie: If I am guilty, I'm going to say I am guilty. But I'm not guilty on the bigger charge, and I probably won't ever admit it. Because it's not true. But then I suppose sometimes when it comes to your appeal, it's like you have to admit to…

Interviewer: For parole?

Amelie: Yes.

Interviewer: Or like doing TC or something. That's a bind, isn’t it? It’s hard.

Amelie: Yes. Because if you say you've done it, in your head you believe it if you say it quite a lot. But I know for a fact that I didn't do what I'm being accused of. It’s quite hard. And then I've got all the officers saying, ‘you shouldn't be in here.’ Obviously, I should. Obviously, they think I should. I just don't understand it myself. It’s confusing.”

Amelie’s words suggest that there is not a solid line between what you say and what you end up believing, between what you perform and what you become. For Amelie, anxiety arose not so much from the idea of confirming the system’s belief that she was guilty, as from the thought that she might end up believing it herself. This was echoed in interviews with other women, who, like Darcy in the quote above, talked of a fear of “brain-washing” when discussing whether or not to give in to the institutional pressure to ‘admit’ guilt. This pressure thus seemed to relate in very intimate and intrusive ways to how the women made sense of themselves and their lives.

For some women, it was the legal category of their conviction that caused resistance to admitting guilt. One of them was Bridgette, who did not want to recognise the particular offence for which she was being prosecuted - premeditated murder - because she regarded the killing of her abusive partner as an act of self-defence:“I have to confess in order to be rehabilitated. I just can't say I did it for no reason. Those are my reasons. That's why I did it. I wanted him to stop. I just wanted him to stop. So those are my reasons. But they are saying that no, that’s self-defence, and you've been convicted of murder. I understand that I’ve been convicted of murder, but what I'm saying is I didn't have a fair trial.”

The pressure to declare guilt, in the case of Bridgette, became a pressure to change her narrative about her-self from being someone who might kill to protect her life to being someone who might kill ‘for no reason’. Whether or not her case qualifies in legal terms as a case of self-defence, this was an important part of her self-narrative, that she would have to give up to comply with institutional expectations. For Bridgette, the existential or psychological consequences of this were more devastating than her current lack of support and access to therapy.

Several women who were in prison for having killed or been violent to an abusive partner, had stories similar to Bridgettes, where their claims to self-defense complicated their prison experience. Many of them told stories of feeling let down by the police and social authorities, who had stayed silent when they had reached out for help to get out of violent relationships before they came to prison. This is an important context for understanding why a lot of the women saw the killing of their partner as the only way to save their own life. In these cases, the pressure to accept their conviction was at the same time a pressure to internalize an institutional narrative in which they had the full responsibility of the situation they were in. They were asked to embody an inwardly directed remorse and guilt, that is valued by the system as a sign of rehabilitation, while letting go of a narrative, that included the wider societal context of gendered violence and institutional neglect.

The stories of these women, not only give an insight into how the institutionalised pressure to accept guilt shapes the experience of being in prison in intimate and painful ways. They also ask us to scrutinize the conceptualisations and instrumentalizations of guilt that are at work in the prison, and show us ways in which discourses of rehabilitation and therapy in prison can work to gloss over the implicit critiques of gendered structures of violence and neglect that the women’s stories entail.




Crewe, B. 2011 ‘Depth, weight, tightness: Revisiting the pains of imprisonment’ Punishment & Society 13(5): 509-529.







Line Dahler-Eriksen did a three month internship as part of her University degree on the COMPEN project mainly focusing on the data of the women’s ethnography. She is a student at the the Institute of Gender Studies at Lund University, and her interests focus on critical race studies and feminist perspectives on the criminal justice system.

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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