Women’s prison education

Hannah Bentley
Case Manager (Previously Education Programmes Adviser), Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Hannah has worked within the Department of Corrections for two years, starting as an Adviser in the Education ProgrammesTeam then moving into Case Management recently. She holds a Master’s Degree in Criminology which explored female prisonerreintegration, focusing on women’s lives before, during and after imprisonment.


Education and subsequent employment act as protective factors associated with a reduced likelihood of re-offending. Providing women in prison with education so they can gain meaningful, sustainable employment, life skills and increasing confidence and motivation, plays a crucial role in reducing reintegrative barriers when women are released (Case & Fasenfest, 2004; Rose, 2004). Therefore, the education, skills and qualifications women gain prior to their release are pivotal to the success of their reintegration.

Women’s education and training opportunities in prison (both nationally and internationally) have historically been limited. The number and type of opportunities  can be significantly less than those offered at men’s prisons. Similarly, female access to rehabilitation, life skills programmes and reintegration services has often been inadequate, gender neutral and/or restricted due to sentence lengths and eligibility criteria (Carlen & Worrall, 2004; Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004;

Bentley, 2015). Those education programmes which are available arguably over-emphasise traditional femininity and do not sufficiently skill women for the labour market. For example, the training industries available across the three New Zealand women’s prisons have tended to focus on the domestic spheres of cooking, laundry and sewing. Other opportunities currently available – to both men and women – include an intensive literacy and numeracy programme, the Tertiary Education Commission funded New Zealand Certificate of Educational Achievement, self directed learning (commonly through Te Kura) and secure online learning.

International research highlights the lack of education women have prior to their imprisonment. Within New Zealand over 50% of women in prison left school before year 13, with many of them (around 60%) identifying government benefits, cash work or crime as their source of income before imprisonment (Department of Corrections, 2003). On entry and exit from prison, women tend to also lack educational and vocational skills that will allow them to compete with men in the labour market (Flower, 2010). Around 60% of the total female prison population and 70% of Mäori women in prison have levels of literacy and numeracy lower than that which is deemed appropriate to complete NCEA level 1 (Tertiary Education Commission Literacy and Numeracy Adult Assessment Tool, 2017). Reaching the appropriate literacy and numeracy competency is essential to women’s successful engagement in rehabilitation programmes. With low levels of educational achievement and limited employment histories, women who leave prison are less likely than men to find meaningful employment upon release.

These issues are further exacerbated by women’s complex vulnerabilities, inequalities, marginalisation and histories of abuse, mental illness, victimisation, addiction, child rearing and familial responsibilities. Such histories, although evident in male prisoners, present with significantly higher rates of comorbidity for women (Carlen & Worrall, 2004; MacIntosh, 2011; Sheehan, 2013; Bentley, 2015).

For female prisoners, a number of factors such as the relatively smaller population size, traditional gender stereotypes, prioritisation of risk and security, competing intervention demands and staff resource constraints further contribute to the issues described.

In response to growing domestic and international research on the importance of acknowledging gender in the treatment and management of women on sentence, the Department of Corrections has developed a Women’s Strategy and Action Plan. As part of the Strategy we will focus on improving women’s access to services and interventions to meet their needs, including education needs, and which will enhance their employment opportunities on release.

Focus groups: Why is education so important?

The following sections provide an overview of proposed education initiatives within New Zealand women’s prisons. These initiatives were developed from focus groups of female prisoners which were held in all three women’s prisons. The purpose of the focus groups was to ascertain women’s perspectives about current education and training opportunities and give women a voice in the development of future education and training opportunities in female prisons. In collaboration with the Department of Corrections Quality and Performance Team, semi-structured focus group questions were developed to aid three staff members in facilitating sessions. Women from each of the three women’s prisons were asked to participate in education/learning themed focus groups and were given the option to opt out at any time. The 12 focus groups lasted for one to one-and-a-half hours and an average of eight women participated in each.

Education and training focused findings

Women discussed “learning” and “education” as a holistic concept that encompasses qualification-based education and training, rehabilitation, life skills and reintegration needs. Similar to research on female offender populations (Carlen & Worrall 2004; Rose, 2004; Carlen & Tombs, 2006), focus groups highlighted the comorbid nature of women’s needs rather than the prioritisation of specific education, treatment and reintegration interventions. Drug Treatment Units, such as that at Arohata Prison, have begun to identify the important role education and literacy and numeracy play in the success of treatment programmes. For example, women are engaged in intensive literacy and numeracy support programmes that enable them to fully participate in writing and reading exercises such as developing safety plans in parallel with their offence focus treatments.

Of concern, however, was the lack of knowledge women across all three prisons had about the learning opportunities available in the prison (and upon release).

Furthermore, women were not aware of how and when they were eligible for learning programmes and what criminal convictions may hinder which employment options upon release. Women were often either resigned to the fact their convictions would mean unemployment on release or were aiming to find employment in roles such as social work where restrictions are placed on those with criminal convictions.

Women were further concerned that the current education and training opportunities would not provide meaningful outcomes on release as they do not link to their aspirations, needs or the employment market. Most commonly women spoke of the desire to engage in learning linked to the hair and beauty industry, neither of which are specifically supported by education and training programmes in prison. Although a traditionally feminine industry, this work provides women with desirable skills and qualifications for use outside of the traditional domestic domain. Additionally, such qualifications provide women with transferable skills to support parenting, communication, and employment/ interview readiness.

With the above findings in mind, the following section outlines education initiatives that are being developed within the three women’s prisons as a result of the women’s focus groups and what we know from domestic and international research.

Women’s education and training initiatives for development

Learning expos:

Provide an interactive learning experience that will inform women of learning opportunities available in prison and upon release, as well as preparing them for employment. Such events would enable women to gain knowledge, skills, motivation and contacts that would be valuable while in prison as well as once released. For example, women suggested having stalls, speakers and mock interviews. The first learning/education expo is taking place at Arohata Prison on 28 July 2017 and expos for the other two women’s prisons are planned

Increase in training and industry opportunities:

As part of the Women’s Strategy further training and industry opportunities for women in prison are being investigated and pursued. The first options being pursued in 2017/2018 are: securing qualifications in hairdressing and beauty therapy; development of construction industry training including plumbing, electrics and carpentry; and extension of the partnership with the People’s Coffee barista industry at Arohata Prison so that it leads to release to work opportunities and jobs on release.

Education induction packs:

Develop an education induction pack to give women information regarding the education opportunities available and the entrance criteria. Such a pack will help inform conversations between women and their designated education tutor or case manager. It is important to involve women in the design of the induction pack to ensure it is tailored to women’s needs and to create a sense of ownership and purpose. An induction pack is currently under development which will include information about education opportunities in prisons.


A number of initiatives were proposed by focus groups of women prisoners to help target the educational needs of women in prison. Corrections is developing three of the proposed opportunities identified by the women: learning expos, induction packs containing information on educational opportunities, and increased training and industry opportunities. Because these initiatives were suggested by the women, and supported by research, this will help engagement and support meaningful outcomes.

These initiatives should be seen in the wider context of the department’s existing education opportunities for women (e.g. the intensive literacy and numeracy programme), and the department’s new Women’s Strategy and Action Plan which acknowledges that education plays a crucial role in the success of women. Under the strategy, over the next four years the department will increase access to gender responsive treatment, interventions and services. There will also be a focus on women’s management becoming trauma informed, empowering, and relational. The strategy will help to ensure that women are given opportunities to build the skills, strategies, and resources on release to build positive futures for themselves and their children.


Bentley, H. (2015). The Cycle of Female Prisoner (Re) integration: Pathways, criminal justice and imprisonment. Wellington: Victoria University.

Carlen, P., & Tombs, J. (2006)Reconfigurations of Penalty: The ongoing case of the women’s imprisonment and reintegration industries”. Theoretical Criminology, 10(3), 337-360.

Carlen, P., & Worrall, A. (2004) Analysing Women’s Imprisonment. Cullompton: Willian Publishing.

Case, P., & Fasenfest, D. (2004). “Expectations for opportunities following prison education: A discussion of race and gender”. Journal of Correctional Education, 24-39

Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2004). Girls, Women, and Crime: Selected Readings. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Department of Corrections (2003) Census of Prison Inmates and Home Detainees 2003. Accessed from, https://www.corrections.govt.nz/resources/statistics/corrections-volumes-report/past-census-of-prison-inmates-and-home-detainees/census-of-prison-inmates-and-home-detainees-2003/9-children-and-marriage/9.2-living-with-children, on March 25th 2010.

Flower, S. (2010). Employment and female offenders: An update of the empirical research. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

McIntosh, T. (2011) “Marginalisation: A Case Study: Confinement”. In T. McIntosh and M. Mulholland (Eds.) Maori and Social Issues 1, 263-282. Wellington: Huia Publishing.

O’Keeffe, C., Senior, P., & Monti-Holland, V. (2007) “Barriers to Employment, Training and Education in Prison and Beyond: A Peer-Led Solution”. In R. Sheehan, G. McIvor and C. Trotter (Eds.) What Works with Women Offenders, 240-261. Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing.

Rose, Chris (2004). “Women’s Participation in Prison Education: What We Know and What We Don’t Know”. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(1), 78-100.

Sheehan, R. (2013) “Justice and Community for Women in Transition in Victoria, Australia”. In M. Malloch and G. McIvor (Eds.) Women, Punishment and Social Justice: Human rights and penal practices, 121-135.