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Resisting confined identities: Women’s strategies of coping in prison

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(Dissertation) Ph.D.
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This study analyzes the self-injurious behaviours that women in prison adopt as coping strategies, the ‘psy’/medical practices and policies that govern such behaviours, and constructions of prisoner identity. Correctional officials and feminists have been aware of self-injurious behaviour among women prisoners since the 1970s, but little Canadian research on the topic has been conducted to date. By centring self-harming behaviours a nd examining the experiences of both federally and provincially sentenced women, this dissertation contributes to feminist and criminological knowledge. Findings are based on twenty-six in-depth interviews with ex-prisoners and social workers who work with at risk and criminalised women. An integrated theoretical framework that links citizenship and identity literatures with feminist critiques of ‘pathologisation’ is used to track the relationships between several dichotomies, including constructions of fixed/fluid identity and choice/disease models of addiction. Adopting a feminist lens allowed me to centre the voices of my participants while conducting a critical discourse analysis of their narratives. This research produced two important findings among others. First, criminalised women have a broader conception of self-injurious behaviour than do most researchers and correctional authorities. Participants discussed not only cutting, but also disordered eating, and su bstance use (illicit and licit) as forms of self-harm they inv oked to express their emotions and cope with life stress. Second, classical and positivist languages co-exist in prisoner as well as correctional discourse. For example, some women used positivist descriptions of their addictions to generate distance between constructions of selfhood that reflect negative components of their identities. The women’s use of classical and positivist discourses often reflected their feelings of empowerment and their ability to resist carceral control strategies or, alternatively, a sense of powerlessness to their addiction, their imprisonment, and even their roles as mothers. Policy responses to self-harming behaviours were relegated to threats for or immediate removal to segregation. While the women viewed segregation as punishment for harming themselves, correctional authorities reconstructed self-harming behaviours as threats to institutional security. This study also highlights the incongruity between correctional officials’ responses to licit versus illicit substance use and the problematic over-prescription and medicalisation of women in prison.
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