Alcohol Screening and Brief Interventions: Making it work for women in an open prison

Written by

 Jennifer FergusonResearch Associate – Teesside University Project manager in the Co-producing Alcohol, Criminal Justice and Public Health Research Team.

Dr Maggie LeeseHead of Department, Humanities & Social Sciences – Teesside University, Deputy Theme Lead for Co-producing Alcohol, Criminal Justice and Public Health Research Team – Centre for Social Innovation, Member of Vulnerable Victims and Offender in the CJS – Centre for Applied Psychological Science.


The psychological impact of imprisonment remains a concern and one key aspect is the impact of multiple transitions into, between, and out of prison. The ability of individuals to manage these transitions can be linked to the process of identity transformation (Strauss,1962). It is suggested that people experience ‘turning points’ or ‘critical incidents’, where they can move between their old status as an offender and their new pro-social identity. Many people serving custodial sentences attempt to address factors that have contributed to their offending and this frequently includes the use of drugs and alcohol. This blog post reports on a research study that examined what factors need to be considered when implementing alcohol screening and brief interventions (ASBI’s) within a female open prison. ASBI’s are used to detect and prevent alcohol problems and have been shown to reduce alcohol intake and associated harm.

This study built on previous research on ASBI’s in various settings, including the male prison estate (Holloway et al., 2021; Holloway et al., 2017), but focused on the specific needs of women in prison. Before implementing any intervention, it is essential to understand the psychological impact of custodial sentences Crewe et al. (2017) identified the gendered pains for women serving sentences that include losing contact, power autonomy and control, mental and physical well-being, and trust, privacy and intimacy. Crewe argued that these ‘pains’ differed from their male counterparts and this is possibly due to the influence of pre-prison traumatic experiences, including inward facing violence due to guilt, regret, anger or grief; or being unable to trust, but longing for intimacy in the absence of outside relationships. Women’s experience of imprisonment can also be made more difficult because they are often located a significant distance from their home, meaning receiving visits from family and friends can be more difficult, and for some, it can be impossible. The small number of prisons also means that women are held in either closed or open conditions, with no separation based on the seriousness of the offence.

Whilst alcohol education courses have steadily increased in UK prisons since 1980, interventions tailored towards women are under-researched. This study builds on work that has been carried out in a range of settings, work in men’s prisons, and it explored how the ASBI could be tailored for delivery in a women’s open prison.

The findings of the study identified that although the participants have difficulty trusting people, this did not necessarily impact the relationships that they had with prison officers and other residents. When asked who they would choose to deliver an ASBI, they suggested that this should be the prison officer. The research also explored at what point in their sentence there would be what is described as a ‘teachable moment’, a point in time when they would be more willing to consider positive behaviour change. This study found that the women often had two ‘teachable moments’. One when they first find themselves in prison serving a custodial sentence, and one in the open estate when they are preparing to return home.

It makes sense that a woman who is drinking in a risky way will not consider an alcohol intervention a priority in the closed estate because it can be more difficult to access alcohol and they often have more immediate concerns such as being separated from their families. The second teachable moment can happen when they reach the open estate and can leave the prison for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), usually for work or to spend time short periods at home. ROTL is an important part of the move to open prison conditions because it provides an opportunity for the women to prepare for release, but it comes with some level of risk, including more access to alcohol. At this point in their sentence, the participants were anxious that they would do something wrong that would see them returned to closed conditions making them more likely to respond positively to an ASBI.

The findings of this study suggest that the use of ASBI’s within a female open prison would be acceptable to both the women and the staff that support them. The time in open conditions represented a ‘teachable moment’ and therefore an intervention at this stage in their sentence has the potential to bring about positive behaviour change. These interventions need to be informed by our understanding of the journey women experience during their sentence and need to be adapted to specifically meet their needs.

Reference List

Crewe, B., Hulley, S., and Wright, S. (2017) The gendered pains of life imprisonment. British Journal of Criminology, 57, pp. 1359-1378.

Holloway, A., Guthrie, V., Waller, G., Smith, J., Boyd, J., Mercado, S., Smith, P., Stenhouse, R., Sheikh, A., Parker, R., Stoddart, A., Conaglen, P., Coulton, S., Stadler, G., Hunt, K., Bray, J., Ferguson, J., Sondhi, A., Lynch, K., Rees, J., and Newbury-Birch, D. (2021) A two-arm parallel-group individually randomised prison pilot study of a male remand alcohol intervention for self-efficacy enhancement: The APPRAISE study protocol. BMJ Open, 11, e040636. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-040636.

Holloway, A., Landale, S., Ferguson, J., Newbury-Birch, D., Parker, R., Smith, P., & Sheikh, A. (2017) Alcohol brief interventions (ABIs) for male remand prisoners: Protocol for development of a complex intervention and feasibility study (PRISM-A). BMJ Open, 7, e014561. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2016-014561.

Strauss, A. (1962) Transformation of identity, in Rose, A. M. (ed.) Human behavour and social processes: An interactionist approach. London: Routledge, pp. 63-85.

Sykes, G. M. (1958) The society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. Woodstock: Princeton University Press.