Prison Buildings are Not Enough

We Need Foundations for Trauma-Informed Practice in Women’s Prisons

Gender and Criminal Justice Conference

On Friday, I attended the Association for Criminal Justice Research and Development’s 25th annual conference. The theme, ‘Gender Encounters in the Criminal Justice System’ was timely, and the diverse line-up of contributors from academia, civil society, and statutory bodies ensured food for thought as they shared research, knowledge and experience.

James Browne, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, opened the conference with a brief overview of the Department’s recently published strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the High Level Taskforce’s mental health report and other emerging priorities.

I have reflected on the planned changes to the imprisonment of women in Ireland, as outlined in the Ministers opening address, in light of subsequent conference sessions and new research from the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge.

Browne underlined the therapeutic design of the facility and how it will operate with the goals of “normalisation, progression and rehabilitation”.  It sounds like good news: a prison designed to understand the specific needs of female prisoners, utilising trauma-informed practice. Is a new dawn of progressive penal policy on the horizon?

Due to the present overcrowded situation and the current culture regarding staff-prisoner relationships, I am withholding judgement on whether these lofty goals are realistic.


At the conference morning breakout session, Durham University’s Dr Lucy Baldwin presented a moving account of her research on maternal imprisonment in the United Kingdom and the very intense, specific pains it generates. During lunch it was still the topic of conversation as participants spoke about how they had to reconsider female imprisonment and the harm caused to women and their children, in light of the session. Another contributor highlighted how the level of overcrowding—or percentage of bed capacity— in women’s prisons in Ireland is often obfuscated by just looking at the whole system. On the day before the conference began, the reported overall occupied bed capacity was 95% and the occupancy rate in the Dóchas Centre and Limerick Women’s Prison was 105% and 125% respectively. In simpler terms, there were 189 women for 174 “official” bed spaces; a situation of acute overcrowding.

Towards the end of her presentation, Baldwin outlined steps required to create a prison culture that supports women and does not exacerbate the pains of imprisonment needlessly due to maternal separation. The simplest step was the cessation of any expansion on female spaces thereby bringing in a ceiling, or cap, on imprisonment. This would incentivise the system to explore and fund other forms of sanction or restorative justice, as needed.

Limerick Women’s Prison Expansion

The additional 22 planned spaces in Limerick will increase the capacity for women to 50 prisoners. However, if the new women’s prison opened today and the official national capacity increased to 196 beds there would only be seven spare spaces based on Thursday’s prison population of 189.

With current trends in female imprisonment, the single-digit surplus would be quickly reached and overcrowding would likely being again in earnest. I have written elsewhere on how the official capacity for female prisoners will have increased by almost 50% in less than three years, which is a staggering change of direction. If the judiciary perceives the new women’s prison in a favourable light, the risk of overcrowding greatly increases as more custodial sentences may be issued to avail of an environment of “normalisation, progression and rehabilitation”.

Staff-Prisoner Relationships

A politician’s input at an event like this is frequently most significant for what is left unsaid.  The internationally recognised architectural merit of the design of the new premises deserves our praise. Yet it would be much more compelling if the people in charge of the Justice system could also speak about the more complex, ambiguous, and even negative trends in our prison system.

Recent research by a team from the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge, analysing the experience of trauma-informed practice in two women’s prisons, suggests that staff and the staff-prisoner relationships (not architecture) are the “most important feature of trauma-informed custodial care.” By understanding prisons as “highly relational environments,” the researchers argue that “the quality of prisoners’ relationships with staff are central to the women’s experiences and are key to many of the principles of trauma-informed custodial care.” Because prisoners depend on prison staff for their most basic needs, the research concludes that it is critical to the concept of trauma-informed practice how staff exercise their power and authority in staff-prisoner relationships.

If the staff-prisoner relationships are the central pillar of trauma-informed practice within women’s prisons, then the Minister and the Department must recognise that the present prevailing culture of staff conduct is incompatible with their goals. Aside from a number of unpublished investigative reports for the Dóchas Centre and public criticism by the UN Human Rights Committee in July, reporting on staff conduct within women’s prisons is troubling with complaints about verbal abuse, xenophobic remarks, threatening language, and pointed “exclusion/favouritism of others”.

While many prison staff perform their difficult role with admirable integrity, it only takes a small number to prevent the emergence of a more therapeutic culture within a female prison. What woman – and female prisoners are almost universally victims of past abuse – would risk engagement if their past or present experiences could be weaponised against them?


Overcrowding and poor staff-prisoner relationships are the two most immediate challenges to establishing a trauma-informed model of female imprisonment. A partial implementation might be worse than nothing. There is no gender-specific strategy on female imprisonment. The Irish Prison Service strategy has a single mention of “developing a best fit model of trauma informed correctional care” for prisoners in general.

As the extension of Limerick Prison opens in early 2023, the next strategy for Irish prisons requires a clear and thoughtful expansion in this new direction. It must protect against the risk of developing a two-tier prison system for women, where some prisoners receive the appropriate sensitive care and others have punitive measures used against them. It must restore the founding principles of the Dóchas Centre, which has become increasingly like a male prison. Will we have one restorative prison and one punitive prison? It must also take up the warning of the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, who raised concerns about the “prolonged solitary confinement” of two transgender women in Limerick Prison, with in-cell time of up to 23 hours per day. Such high levels of solitary confinement—based on an assessment of risk of harm to themselves or other women— cannot fit within a setting aimed at normalisation, progression, and rehabilitation.

The Cambridge researchers ultimately question the actual feasibility of a trauma-informed environment for female prisoners, due to the exceptional rates of trauma already experienced by them. Is it worth this risks involved to attempt to insert this into our prisons, when for it to have the best chance of success it should take place in the community, with supports provided as necessary?

New prison directions must be carefully considered, and difficult questions should be asked, so that the risk of harm to prisoners is minimised. This new development echoes the previous discourse about ‘human rights’, where the Department of Justice and Irish Prison Service quickly learned the lingo but omitted the spirit.