Women’s needs on probation, should be, but are not being addressed…

Published 07/02/2020
Author(s) Rachel Goldhill


In the article for the BJCJ, “Challenges of gender-responsivity in probation work”, I report on findings from my PhD research (2011-2015), examining the supervision of women probationers in England. My research took place during a period of substantial change and uncertainty in the probation service, prior to and during the implementation process (January 2014 to February 2015) of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR). Included is a focus on Corston’s (2007) recommendations and subsequent guidance documents which argue (not for the first time) that women in the criminal justice system (CJS) have different and more complex needs to men which should be, but are not, being addressed.

Videoing supervision sessions

Through the videoing of supervision sessions and interviews with probation workers and women probationers my research explored whether practitioners are aware of and valued gender-responsiveness within the supervision process. Gender-responsivity is particularly relevant because of the widely acknowledged extensive victimisation and subsequent trauma experienced by women probationers and prisoners. It seems that even where practitioners are aware and committed to a gender-responsive approach, they find themselves compromised by organisational barriers.

Key areas for consideration

A number of areas are examined in the article to gauge practitioners’ awareness of issues surrounding gender:

  • probation workers’ knowledge of relevant guidance documents following on from Corston’s review
  • how positive officer/service user relationships can be established, maintained and concluded
  • whether holistic ways of working are being incorporated
  • how women-only groupwork is enabled

how safe all-women environments are facilitated both within probation offices and outside in the courts and within the voluntary sector.

The challenges for probation work with women

As might be expected in a large organisation there is a range of responses from workers, with some passionate about their work with women and others displaying less interest, not necessarily in the individual but weighed down by structural constraints such as the emphasis on risk and heavy caseloads. I am arguing that a common pattern of probation work with women involves short-term (often helpful) initiatives which survive on a shoestring, championed by a person (or people) at field level or in senior management (so it is the equivalent of an organisational post-code lottery). When these ‘champions’ move on, leaving the agency or changing role, the project disappears because budgets and support are withdrawn.

Privatisation – no steps forward, several steps back?

At the start of this research study in 2011 (pre-TR), notable positive attempts were being made to put Corston’s gender-responsive drive into action. By the end of the research period, as TR became established, these initiatives disappeared, shrank, or were re-defined in a punitive direction. The privatisation focus brought with it further cuts to funding both in society generally and within the CJS, meaning that interest in and adherence to women’s issues took several steps backwards. I am suggesting that approaches aiming to confront the complexities in women probationers’ lives appear incompatible with both societal and probation institutional male dominated discourses, practically restraining and emotionally frustrating practitioners in this area of their work.