My very dear Jules,
Warning: I really need to vent what’s inside. Blue-touch-paper is already lit, so stand well back from this firework 😉
Thank you so much for your intuition. I could do with a thoughtful woman’s response to this. Dusty provided the warrior-response by commenting that there was a lot of pain in the post which, through all the confusion and memories that were swirling through my psyche, I hadn’t actually felt – although I probably did at the time. That’s how trauma gets its hooks into me.
The problem I seem to be having is finding a way to comfortably bridge the abyss of understanding that seems to exist between the desistance Criminal Justice professionals I want to impress and me. Why do I want to do I want to impress them? Firstly, because they are impressive people themselves and they are unlikely to take any notice if I don’t! Secondly, because my ambition to return to paid self-employment has just come one step nearer. My work has attracted an admirer who might be willing to invest in me financially while I pursue the issue of women’s desistance. The impact of that possibility has turned up the pressure on my professionalism – which is great, in one way, and proving to be an absolute disaster in others.
In every tough experience I’ve ever come through, I’ve always had a ‘crack-up’ point and, interestingly, it’s never been the battles themselves but either some unexpected kindness or cruelty afterwards. With the latter, I’ve normally crumpled into overwhelming emotional pain much to the alarm of my better ‘handlers’ (the memory here comes from New Hall, where the officers tried to stop my tears by telling me how strong they thought I was – I am strong, but I’m not invulnerable). The melt-down I’m in now is the result of a long sequence of kindnesses that have supported my desistance ambitions. There’s my potential benefactor and her willingness to consider funding me. There are people like you and James and Dusty who, after I’ve made certain you all know the worst there is to know about me, have become friends of profound creativity. There are my longer term friends from the Guardian; all now in exile on Twitter. But the ‘big names’ of desistance, like No Offence and all these University professors are new to their ‘experience’ of me. They are the ones I am going to need if I am to really return to public service in my own way and here I am in a global public melt-down apparently confusing the hell out of them. Each time I open my mouth, all I seem to be doing is changing feet.
I feel very passionately about women’s desistance. I feel very passionately about how women prisoners are treated generally. This country has a whole bunch of women in prison – mainly for acquisitive crimes – who, according to Lady Jean Corston, shouldn’t be there – they don’t belong in prison. She said that in her Report five years ago and, I understand, there has been a great deal of work done to divert women offenders from custodial sentences since then but nothing is being done for those already in the system.
The women’s estate is very much a poor relative within the Prison Service. We account for between 4-8 prisoners for every 100 incarcerated. The Criminal Justice system knows very little – apart from those officers who take the trouble to learn – about women. Corston described the system as designed by men for men, and she’s absolutely right. For a woman, this means ours is the experience of highly-controlling condemnatory paternalism coupled with an absolute refusal to engage on the emotional level or, sometimes, to even recognise its existence. Remember I am looking at this with a psychotherapist’s eye.
The women’s response is to self-harm, suicide or, in some way or another, go quietly insane. We lose our bearings emotionally and the punishment regimes can be continuous over long periods until whole wings are screaming, which means something has to be done to ease the pain and a woman dies. The levels of emotional pain these 4-8 women prisoners carry is enough to fill around 50% of the self-harm statistics for the entire 100 – that’s how bad it is. These figures rise and fall, but in no significant degree away from half the pain for the whole bally lot of them. There are those who understand how bad it is but I’m not certain these statistics quite sink in with the best of the criminal justice ‘family’.
Jean Corston’s Report wanted the women out of prison within ten years. We have five years left and we haven’t even looked at what to do for the women still imprisoned. It’s as if everyone has found something more important to do. That’s not to say that there aren’t more important things – there seem to be so many of them these days, I have to be very selective where I put my energy. But I do think we need more energy around Corston and women’s desistance because while everyone is faffing around elsewhere, 4-8 living breathing women are carrying the emotional burden for 100. As the justice system swings into attrition mode, this burden will increase as will the cutting, ligaturing and inevitable suicides. Women’s prisons – at their best – are relationship-heavy. The Prison Service is cutting staff across the board, so this reduces the capacity for relating between women prisoners and staff as well as placing an impossible burden on the good staff themselves. They are the ones who see our distress and it hurts them when they can’t help us because we are being systemically abused. These are the staff who arrive in the ‘nick-of-time’ to save a woman’s life and they are being set up to fail. Fail to implement Corston, and the suicidal women who succeeds in dying may have cause to be grateful because the alternative is no life worth living. It is an argument I had with all the prisons I was in and I knowingly put my health and life at risk in my refusal to accept what was on offer. The need to implement this empty-prison aspect of Corston is becoming more urgent every day – these women don’t belong in prison. So why are they still there and why are they now being subject to a heavier level of systemic judicial punishment through the criminal neglect of their needs purely on the grounds of gender? These women are already recognised as having a far higher chance of being victims of abuse than the general population – so these victims are now being further victimised by a system that doesn’t know how to relate to women and demonstrates no interest in learning.
You may not know this, but research into women offenders ‘in their own right’ is relatively new. For years, all research on offenders was based upon male offending. The researchers were just beginning to take notice of us women when I was in prison in 2008/9 and they found they had to go back to the drawing board. The reasons women offend are totally unrelated to anything men do – we have our own reasons. When women are imprisoned, families break down and children end up in care – men don’t seem to have that problem so much. Issues around housing and work are harder for women offenders. As far as I can see, because the Criminal Justice system doesn’t know how to deal with women, they are doing what they usually do by putting their heads in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. They won’t take any real notice until the death toll gets embarrassing. Evidence? It’s what they did with the women’s wing at HMP Durham, eventually closing it down altogether but not before one last suicide. When the last lass died, the number of women being held in that prison was in single digits. That fucking regime couldn’t muster any compassion for a small handful of women when just ordinary compassion would simply be to treat women with the same level of consideration given to men. It illustrates just how bad it can get in prison on a very bad day.
I’m pushing women’s desistance because I think it would be a way to implement Corston. It could look out for the lasses on their terms and still meet reparative justice demands but it would have to be reparative on both sides. I have this fantasy of a women’s desistance project in my village. We have unused allotments, impoverished villagers and a global famine on the way. In my mind, I see women desisters earning their freedom by growing food; by ensuring there is a free breakfast club at the local school; by any number of other ways we could identify to contribute to the community – with the eventual aim of sending our ‘graduates’ out to teach other people how to do it, either as employees or paid consultants. Such a project would, by its very nature, be labour intensive but it would be a fixed term thing. Once the women are out of the system, there’d be no need for more unless the men steal our ideas because the methodology might work for them too. Before then, in my mind, desistance women would have taught themselves about social enterprises and creating their own work. Homes, work and a new social worth might go some considerable way to enabling these women to let go of their past.
The women emerging from these prisons have been living in emotional concentration/death camps – some have been in them all their lives. They are going to be disoriented and suffering from extreme emotional damage. I suppose that’s why I thought it so important to ‘do’ my melt-down in public – if people can begin to get a grasp of how I continue to be affected, then that might elicit some compassion for those women who have come through much, much worse. Example? How about Naz (eventually transferred to a psychiatric hospital (what was needed from the outset)) who performed her own mastectomies – not once but on several occasions? That was not her worst behaviour. When I talk about the women who cut, I’m talking about those whose arms, legs and probably elsewhere consist of scar tissue. There is no place on their arms where they haven’t cut. My sweetest friend, Melissa, has arms like that. The women’s obvious distress is so bad it disturbs the sleep of independent witnesses.
I wonder if part of the reason criminal justice finds this so hard to get to grips with are due the levels of professional complicity in not only creating but perpetuating this situation. They can’t say they don’t know anymore because Corston told them. She was shocked by what she saw five years ago. It seems some women’s prisons still refuse to learn today. As far as I am concerned, this report about New Hall suggests that they continue to use psychological torture on some women prisoners held within the Segregation Unit.
I wonder if they still fuck with our meds, like they used to. Or put newly remanded, first-time-in-prison, first night woman into solitary confinement at BASIC C&C and keep her on that regime for a month (without induction). I had to put in an app asking what it was I’d done wrong to be treated in such a way so that I could correct it, before I was brought up to STANDARD (the automatic entry point for all new prisoners). But that won’t show up on the prison’s computer in just the same way that my correct conviction didn’t either. New Hall transferred me to Durham with a record that claimed I’d been convicted for attempted murder. No – I was charged with attempted murder, based on fraudulent documents; I was convicted of wounding-with-intent after I successfully defended myself in court by demonstrating the documents were frauds. I had to write to Hull Crown Court and ask them to inform HMP Durham about the facts of my convictions because we can be certain that the prison would never have taken my word for it. They certainly thought I was lying about my psychotherapeutic past because they told my vulnerable young friend from New Hall solitary this after they’d ghosted me out. Fortunately, I had a good enough relationship with Toni to be able to laugh it off by saying that perhaps they could fill in this missing seventeen-year gap in my history where I’m convinced that’s what I was and can produce witnesses. Toni ended up cutting badly and now has a long history of suicide attempts including one very near miss indeed. It is profoundly unethical to lie to someone with existing mental health problems. Fortunately, Toni made it to hospital too – there are many who don’t.
Jules – is it alright for me to be blisteringly angry about all this? Or did I have it coming because I’m a criminal? This is the criminal justice mind-fuck. I know how I feel and I hear the other trotted out often enough even from the criminals in the men’s estate. But the biggest perpetrator of the “had-it-coming” mind-fuck, as far as I am concerned, is Probation. This is where desistance becomes necessary on all sides. Whilst the Criminal Justice system fails to desist in its profoundly cruel and unjust treatment of women prisoners, nothing gets done to stop it. The system is so busy looking round pointing its fingers at us, it forgets three other fingers point straight back. But I’m not going to help matters if I join in the blame game too, even though the desire to deal with some of those bastards is, at times, overwhelming.
HOW DARE YOU TREAT WOMEN – TO WHOM YOU OWE A DUTY OF CARE – IN THIS WAY!!!! HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU HAVE TO BE TOLD THAT WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS ABUSIVE AND CRUEL????
I’ve been a desister from the moment of my offence. If I can do it, so can they. We simply have to be professional about it. You’re a wise woman, Jules. How is a woman like me supposed to feel in the face of this stuff? How is she supposed to behave? And how am I doing in my ambition to be professional around women’s desistance?
And, just thank you, thank you, thank you for asking and, more especially, my friend.
All my love