"The hand under the black glove quivered"

Women in prison make up less than 10% of the total prison population in most countries of the world.  Women's crimes are also less likely to be violent than those of men, and critics feel t  hat many of those who are incarcerated pose no risk to society and that their situations are worsened by separation from family and home.  Over 50% of those in prison have previously suffered abuse, and many societies have been established to support these women, recognising their vulnerability in relation to men and to the wider system.  Rates of self-injury and psychological problems are far higher in women's than in men's prisons; 70% of women prisoners have diagnosed mental health problems, and 66% are either drug or alcohol dependent when imprisoned.  Since women are more likely than men to be sole carers, their absence has a great impact on their children and, where they are assigned to state care, their own chances of experiencing future imprisonment increase.

In Victorian England women constituted slightly under 20% of the total prison population, perhaps because of the greater use of prison sentences for minor offences.  In London, Newgate prison housed both male and female offenders for over 700 years until 1902.  Suicide rates for women prisoners were far higher than those for men.  Like the women described by Carter, many were abused both in and out of prison, or acted in self-defence, desperation or in an attempt to improve their children's lives.

A 1998 study found that between 30-60% of women in prison engaged in lesbian relationships, whatever their sexuality before or after incarceration.  Four theories have been developed as to why this is the case; firstly, that the prison subculture promotes homosexuality and that engaging in lesbian relationships is part of the adaptation to prison life.  The second concept, deprivation, suggests that separation from loved ones on the outside leads women to fill the void with lesbian relationships; longer term prisoners, particularly those on life sentences, are most likely to grow close to other women.

a representation of the vulva hand gesture used by some lesbians and feminists, mainly in the USA
Public Domaina representation of the vulva hand gesture used by some lesbians and feminists, mainly in the USA - Credit: AnonMoos

The importation theory looks at the attitudes and experiences which women bring into prison from outside.  Many have suffered exploitation and abuse; in prison, they adopt roles which fulfil an idealised version of their own reality, and in roles consistent with those they adopted outside.

The final and most recent theory of gender fluidity suggests that women do not turn to one another as a sexual outlet in the absence of men, as is often the case with males demonstrating homosexual behaviour in men-only prisons.  Rather, where male attention is absent and women are not competing, they discover genuine attraction to one another.   Karlene Faith's 1993 study in her book, Unruly Womenfound that women did not consider their prison relationships to be role playing, or filling a void; sexual passion is balanced with emotional interaction and camaraderie.  Imprisoned women themselves talk about boredom and curiosity as contributing factors, but also recognise the freedom of being away from men, particularly for abused women, and the emotional closeness of female relationships.