Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Banged up

Michele Hanson wrote an impassioned piece in yesterday's Guardian about the realities of life in 'the country's biggest women's correctional facility', as a corrective to recent claims by the Prison Officers' Association that prisoners have a cushy time of it. One of Hanson's friends worked for a time in the prison:

I trailed round the prison one day with Rosemary and it didn't look much fun to me. It was baking hot, and as it was the officers' training day, all inmates were locked up sweltering in their cells, the air growing increasingly foetid, what with the sweat and the open lavatories. In their despair, inmates would crap into plastic bags and hurl them out of the windows. Who wants to live through summer stuck next to a filled lavatory? Outside rats gambolled among the piles of muck thrown from the windows: leftover dinners and all sorts of nastiness.

About twenty years ago my job involved visiting prisoners due for imminent release at the very same 'correctional facility', as well as at its male equivalent just down the road, where conditions were if anything much worse. Reading Hanson's complaints about cancelled education classes, or lack of officers to escort prisoners to them, made me think that very little had changed.

Tony Blair was right to steer Labour away from pseudo-leftish romanticisation of offenders, and to call for equal toughness on 'crime and the causes of crime'.  Crime impacts disproportionately on the poor and the vulnerable. But one of the marks of a decent society is surely the way it treats prisoners, and the conditions in many of our prisons are still frankly inhumane.

Most people walking down Parkhurst Road or Caledonian Road in north London probably don't give much thought to what goes on behind those high walls. But, as Hanson says, once you've had a glimpse inside, it's hard to be complacent: 'Pop into the library or walk to the shops in the sun, and there is the ghastly hulk of a building with all those women stuck inside wasting their lives'. 

According to the excellent charity Women in Prison, 70% of women prisoners have mental health problems, 37% have committed suicide, 20% were in care as children, and at least 50% claim to have been victims of childhood abuse. The most common offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods - which often means (particularly in London) being duped into being a drug mule. 

Read the whole article here.

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