The other day I got slightly lost in Camden. This in itself is not surprising. I get lost in my own head sometimes, I can’t read maps and I have a terrible habit of not looking where I’m going, all of which has lead to enough death experiences to make me grateful I’m not a cat, what with their whole nine lives thing.
My getting lost isn’t that interesting; it’s pretty standard fizz behaviour. What is important, however, well to me at any rate, is where my getting lost left me. It left me in a place called Holloway, in front of a sign directing me to ‘Her Majesty’s Holloway Prison’. The combination of the words Holloway and Her Majesty left me temporarily convinced I’d somehow managed to wander back to RHUL. Indeed the building I ended up facing was huge and red bricked as Founders is, the only difference was that this massive red monster had no windows. And it was then that my slow, confused brain processed the word prison and I realised where I was.
Telling people I went to Royal Holloway had led to this ‘mistake’ many times. Plenty of frankly annoying people with a deluded sense of their own comedic value had asked me where I was studying, and on hearing me say Royal Holloway had responded with a ‘haha, in prison are we?’ remark as if they thought they were guest starring on ‘Mock the Week’; to which I had learnt to chuckle obligingly while secretly wanting to pull out my own eyebrows and wear them as ear muffs. However, only once I saw the prison did this dislike of the joke reach new heights. Women prisons in themselves are far from funny, they are a horrible reality.
For most of us, our understanding of women’s prisons goes as far as the second not-quite-as-good-but-meh-it-still-had-Colin-Firth-in-it ‘Bridget Jones’ film. It appeared on that to be more like an American sorority house than a prison, just with fewer fairylights and a very different kind of bars. The women would sit around sharing life stories and bra sizes while singing Madonna, it didn’t look so bad. However, much as I’d love to believe this fiction it simply isn’t true, like most things in these sort of romantic comedies it is a lie, told to make us feel better and more comfortable. Prison itself is a very real thing and therefore so are prisoners; it would be wrong for us to ignore them. Indeed, ex prison officers have come forward with some startling and upsetting stories about the reality of women prisons that we simply cannot ignore.
Clive Chatterton, who used to be Governor of the women prison ‘Styal’, has told the Guardian some harrowing stories about his experiences there; most strikingly, the shockingly high level of self harm. The number of instances of self injury in 2010 reached 12,663, and considering women make up only 5% of the prison population, they account for nearly half of all self-harming instances. Though this is incredibly upsetting it is hardly surprising considering that, on Chatterton’s estimation, 6 out of 10 female inmates have a significant mental health problem.
A lot of the women in prison are not the mouthy teenagers society paints them to be but vulnerable and ill young people, often who have been severely physically or sexually abused. Many of them have never had a stable home or a proper education; since childhood they have been caught up in an illegal world of drugs and crime where they have never properly learnt how to look after themselves or be independent.
I can’t generalise, and I won’t. There are plenty of women in prison who have committed terrible crimes. However, what Chatterton and other prison officers have a problem with, is the high number of first time or minor offences which women are being jailed for. Many magistrates and judges, Chatterton argues, have acknowledged that these women serving two or three weeks in a jail should not really be there, but say they don’t know what else to do with them. There is a far too ready assumption that once you have been convicted as guilty you should be marched straight from the dock into a dungeon and deprived of the sky for an appropriate period of time. Clearly this isn’t working and it is time we asked whether this was the best thing to do, not only for our society, but for the prisoners themselves, who, however much we may like to dehumanise them, are still, and always will be, real people.
There are examples of vulnerable, mentally unstable women being sent to jail for 12 days for stealing something as small as a three pound sandwich. Some will argue that the price of the sandwich is irrelevant, it is the principle. I would argue that we need to stop dealing with principles and start dealing with people. Surely the emotional cost to that young woman is far higher than the three pounds that Tesco, or some other multimillion company lost. Prison should be a last resort and it should never be a replacement for hospitals or other mental health institutes. There are too many examples of female inmates, recognised as needing Psychiatric help, but deprived of it simply because the hospitals don’t have enough beds. While missing out on crucial psychological treatment is in itself disgraceful, the idea that these unhappy and unwell women aren’t even at home being cared for by their loved ones but are in an isolating, unnatural and often upsetting environment seems shocking.
Ever since I started watching Judge John Deed with my mum I have had a terrifying fear that I will be walking along the street one day, humming to myself, when I’m suddenly arrested by a police officer and falsely accused of a crime. No seriously, I really do worry about this. I try to counteract this fear by befriending as many successful lawyers as possible, hoping then that should my worst nightmare come true I could just ring up Steve on speedial and he’d whip me out in an instance. Bridget Jones, for example, had the ever so lovely Colin Firth to fall back on when she had cocaine hidden in her suitcase, and I am, unfortunately, build from the same mould as Bridget Jones.
This silly, childhood fear built on my excessive paranoia and the fact I can’t live without having something to worry about, has changed now though, into something darker and deeper. It is far too easy to fall far too far in today’s society and we aren’t given enough help getting back up. Drugs and alcohol is rife, it is easy to get sucked into a gang culture, and somebody as ditzy as me could easily walk out of Boots and forget to pay for her tofu wrap. It is easy enough to say ‘I will never go to prison’, and yes, as long as you behave yourself you probably won’t. But that doesn’t mean the people that do don’t matter, or that they deserve to be forgotten about and given up on completely. Many female inmates are actual criminals; but there is plenty of evidence showing that a lot of them are more victims than anything else. They say we’d all be vegetarians if Slaughter houses had glass walls; maybe if prisons had them too we wouldn’t be as quick to send vulnerable people there to be punished when what they really need is help.