Today, you are more likely to go to prison for an offence that you did not commit than at any other time in the modern criminal justice system.
What prison isn’t is a holiday camp. What it is in reality, is one big psychiatric unit, full of dustbin kids.
Let me quantify dustbin kids. Many of the women in prison had been in care. Long before they entered the criminal justice system, they were almost destined to end up there. They had been tossed aside by society from a very early age. Their home lives prior to being removed, were littered with neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse on top of alcohol and drug problems. Added to that was the constant stream of convictions of one or both parents.
Their lives in care weren’t much better. Many foster placements followed up by highly dysfunctional care homes and ever changing social workers. Chaotic lives does not even begin to describe the sheer hopelessness of their backgrounds. Textbook, failure was inevitable. No significant adult role models to turn to, no boundaries, no consistency, no nurturing, no love. It is a recipe for disaster. They didn’t care about themselves, they were hardly going to care about wider society.
I went into prison as the ‘odd one out’. I had a stable home, I had a long term relationship, I was a non drug or alcohol abuser and I was significantly older than most of the women I was inside with and I was going home, back to a roof over my head and a family. I was also educated.
These ‘qualities’ alone made me stand out from the crowd and were exploited by the system. I was designated to look after everyone on my wing. I became the mother that most of them never had. HMP loved that, I took the strain off the prison officers by ‘being there’ for the inmates. Of course it is a role that was instantaneous, I was afterall a mother of 8 children, they could have been my kids. They became my kids, I invested emotionally. I wanted to help, I wanted to undo the harm they were subjected to. It was almost pathological.
It was also the single most psychologically damaging episode in my life. I went to a convent boarding school in a foreign country that was abusive and very strict, I was a military kid. Regimentation, following orders, being locked away were all things that I could comply with standing on my head. What I couldn’t cope with was the desperation, the hopelessness, the acceptance that being prison was normal and that this was to be their destiny. It was tangible and believe it or not, smell it. I was totally unprepared for the overwhelming sadness. It is something I still carry with me to this day. A weight that I haven’t been able to shift.
I rarely talk about my time in prison. I find myself unable to put any of it into words that can adequately describe what it’s really like and I get frustrated when people seem not to understand what it is I am telling them. That is not to say that I hide, I don’t. Everybody around me knows. I don’t keep it a secret, it is part of my past and part of who I am.
Just for a moment imagine this true scenario. Multiply it by 100 and you will have some idea about what it is I am trying to convey.
‘Vicky’ came onto the remand wing at HMP Low Newton. I was being kept there for my ‘own safety’ having been ‘accidentally’ labelled a schedule 1 (finally removed with profound apologies from HMP and probation 6 months later with no adequate answers as to how that had happened). The then governor of the prison had already been to see me on several occasions as he was extremely concerned about the labelling knowing it to be wrong. When ‘Vicky’ was remanded, I was asked by the governor to take her under my wing. She had come straight from court, she had been living rough, was drug and alcohol addicted and extremely vulnerable. She was filthy.
‘Vicky’ asked me to help her when I suggested a bath or shower. She wanted me to nit comb her hair, she explained that she would be very badly bullied if she didn’t get rid of the nits. This was her biggest concern funnily enough. So off we went having got some clean clothes. She was just 22 but looked about 14. Gaunt, thin, under nourished, covered in sores. As she stripped I noticed she had blood caked all over her tracksuit bottoms and streaked down her legs. Being a little naive about drug use and periods, I asked her if I need to get her some sanitary ware. She laughed and told me she couldn’t remember the last time she had had a period. Of course I then wanted to know where the blood had come from, physically preventing her from getting into the bath, holding her shoulders and asking what had happened to her conscious she may be a ‘crime scene’. Without batting an eyelid, she told me she had been raped, she didn’t call it rape, she said ‘they got me I could get away this time’. I asked who had ‘got’ her she said that she didn’t know, but it was OK because it wasn’t as bad as last time because they hadn’t beaten her.
I was beyond shocked. Not shocked that this had happened, shocked that she was so blasé about it. I immediately went into ‘forensic’ mode and told her I was getting a prison officer who could call the police and she could be helped properly. Examined, treated, her clothes taken into evidence. At this point she started to scream at me. Told me to get the ‘fuck out’ and mind my own business, if I wasn’t going to help her nit comb her hair then I could just ‘fuck off’ and leave her alone.
‘Vicky’ subsequently explained that her own parents had sold her from the age of 12 to fund their drug habit. Her file, which she let me read, as she wanted me to help her get access to her child taken from her as a toddler when she was 18, had all the evidence in. Her father was imprisoned for what he did, her mother ‘got away with it’. ‘Vicky’ was taking drugs and drinking from the age of 9. In care by the age of 13. All documented. All so predictable.
In that one defining moment, I realised what prison was really like. It had nothing to do with rehabilitation, it had nothing to do with keeping society safe, it had everything to do with street cleaning. HMP is a metaphor for those vehicles that sweep the roads of debris.
I immediately backed off, I apologised and I nit combed her hair, she thanked me profusely for that. Nit combing a rape victims hair. I cried most of that night. Not because I was in prison, because nits were more important than rape or abuse. And that was pretty much replicated throughout the three prisons I was in.
People think having your freedom taken away from you is the worst possible punishment. It isn’t. Being amongst so much human misery and being unable to change it is the worst form of punishment. Being amongst people who have no hope, no future, no plan, no goals, no aspirations is the punishment.
You do not come out of that unharmed if you are human.
The law is broken. This can only mean one thing. More and more people are going to end up in prison as a direct result of the current failings. Innocent people. That fills me with horror and that is not too strong a word. Horror because I lived it. I know what they are going to face and conditions are significantly worse than when I was inside.
We have to fight to save ur justice system, the alternative is something I can’t even begin to contemplate.