Women Prisoners: Speaking Truth to Power

What a man is like

Sirius Black: the prisoner of Azkaban

About a week ago, Toni Wood, a Criminology PhD student, asked a twitter friend for recommendations to blogs by former women prisoners and I noticed her request as it came onto my timeline. She was wanting material to give to her students. I can resist anything but temptation so, as a former management trainer and formerly “dangerous” woman prisoner with some bitter experiences of research into women prisoners, I bit. Whilst I don’t restrict pawprintsofthesoul to prison issues, there are prison-experience blogs in my archives and one of them threw psychological research of women prisoners to a pride of hungry lions. It’s an interesting test of a criminologist’s character, that blog; how they respond tests their professional ethics on a number of different levels.

Firstly; there is a personal response. Do they believe me or do they think I’m making it up? How do they respond to a former woman prisoner speaking out the way I did in that blog? How would they feel, as a professional working inside a women’s prison if a woman prisoner spoke out that way to them personally? Toni is the kind of criminologist who says “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” and later, when I inquired of her success in finding blogs, she invited me to guest lecture her students sometime in 2015. This is a CJS (Criminal Justice System) professional I can do business with any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I’ve said yes, providing my heart is up to it – I’ve recently experienced indicators of further heart failure and it’s around the same time of year as the last two times.  Since I can’t assume upon my earthly presence even unto next year, I might just as well start my guest lecturing now.

The second ethical test in the blog is about the kind of power Sirius Black understood in theory but struggled, like many, to put into practice especially with Kreacher. There is a very clear choice to be made in the Criminology ‘biz’, from police to probation, having passed through the courts and, in my case, almost five years of prison; can you see the human being beneath the labels or not? Are you open to learning or are you likely to be unsuited to working with women prisoners? This is a vitally important issue for women prisoners at the moment.

My imprisonment ended with sentence in 2010, just before this Coalition government came to power. The Criminal Justice System may have benefited from having Ken Clarke at the helm for a while but the ravages wrought by Grayling have turned the HMPS Mens’ Estate into a hellhole. I notice a deafening silence from the Women’s Estate (as usual) which will mean conditions are worse and will have deteriorated significantly since my departure. Google “prison conditions, England and Wales” – see for yourself. If Toni’s students have notions about working with women prisoners, let’s make it very plain what you are about to walk into. Whatever you think you know about prison, or prisoners, you don’t – unless you’ve been a woman prisoner. Every woman who has ever been held in prison has a degree-level experiential knowledge of how the CJS really works; long-term women prisoners have experiential doctorates of reality in it and black/brown/foreign national/Muslim women prisoners have the most thorough knowledge of all. They know a great deal more than I do. I hope, by sharing this information, some of my former black women prisoner friends might feel inspired to offer up their own unique dose of authentic reality in order to smash through the inevitable preconceptions people bring to the realms of feminine criminology in England and Wales in 2014.

Let’s be clear on one thing, though. As our tales unfold, perhaps you’ll begin to understand the depth of the truth reported by Baroness Corston, that 80% of women in prison in England and Wales shouldn’t be there.

You students, imprisoned by your tutor to listen to me, are the future for these women. Toni opened a door for me to speak to you. Excuse me while I widen this doorway for all my peers who have something to say too. We’re tired of your tickboxes. They’re too small to accommodate us and remain sane. Corston said the Prison Service was a system designed by men for men. Well, continuing to implement that idea lawfully is going to run out in a few months. Ten years – that’s what Jean Corston gave us to change the prison/CJS system to accommodate women prisoner’s needs. When you get a chance to visit a real prison, take a look around and check out how well you think that plan is working out. Then ask yourself: what are you entering this profession for? To uphold it… or help to transform it? This is the truth I am speaking power to – our future and what you might help us make of ours if you could only learn to be kind.

The best professional, compassionate working standard I was ever was given by one of the very best woman prison officers I ever met (that HMP Low Newton had a huge bouquet of them but there were some stunning blossoms in HMP Durham’s F-Wing and New Hall’s Segregation Unit). We were chatting about the attitude and approach different prison officers had towards prisoners and she told me she treated the lasses the way she hoped all prison officers might treat her own daughter if she wound up inside. Whilst some might bridle at the assumed maternity, remember she was speaking in a deeply patriarchally-cruel environment. We were of a similar mature age too; for me, she was a good friend in need on more than one occasion. Any ‘sins’ committed are forgiven for her simple human kindness and concern. If you are youthful students, agewise (soul-wise is an entirely different matter), you will not be able to get away with that but the women prisoners you encounter will still be in need of the kindness inherent in her intent. If you can’t find it within you to allow the worst prisoner of all at least one chance to show you who she is now, rather than the money-spinning stories you’ve been ‘colonised’ into accepting as true, then you are not fit to work with women prisoners.

We all have our ‘stories’. They are not the same as the ones you believe to be true, especially if you’ve gleaned your notions from the mainstream media. It really isn’t a good idea to put too much faith in our MSM, .especially given the absence of journalistic ethics now seemling replaced by monetary favour, coupled with a crippled and corrupted Justice system overseen by the most right-wing monetary government coup in Westminster I could have thought possible. Ethics is no longer of any particular interest as far as the reach of their intent is concerned. This type of attitude pervades the CJS especially where women prisoners are concerned.

What kind of changes do you think the CJS needs to make to remedy the harm that’s been done? Or, alternatively, you could try something original and ask the lasses themselves what they think they need. Remember, my information is five years out of date – things have changed for the much worse since then.


Oscar Wilde – convicted prisoner


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