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Worlds Within Worlds


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CRIME | Life in prison

Worlds within worlds
Prison is an accepted form of punishment that we tend not to
think about whether it does any good. Chris Tchaikovsky describes
the world inside the jail and how she is trying to change it.

[image, unknown]
Photo: Wurtz / AFM / Camera Press

My criminal career began at 17 when, with three other teenage girls, I broke into a tobacconist’s shop. It continued for over 12 years during which I was imprisoned for six months in 1963, six months in 1967 and for two years in 1973. Over the years I became increasingly professional in my chosen way of life and - in material terms at least - I became a highly successful criminal.

I enjoyed the excitement of crime although I did not think much about what I was doing. I did believe that as it was only the banks which were losing, and as no-one was actually hurt by my activities, my crimes did not matter. I also believed that everyone else was endlessly corrupt and only remained law-abiding because they were afraid of getting caught.

I went along with the villains’ credo ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime’ because I thought, along with most, that imprisonment in a regular means-end world was a fair penalty for breaking the laws laid down for the protection of us all.

The philosophy behind the punishment of the few by the State seemed to gell around the following ideas: those who are dangerous to others must be contained and those who engage in criminal activities must be deterred. Prison was designed to allow those who are law-abiding to extract some retribution from those who aren’t, and also to deter others from breaking the law through the fear of being locked up.

So far, so fair. Prisons probably do instil fear into - and keep docile - a labour force that, on the whole, obeys the law. And certainly prisons are such filthy and brutal places that retribution is more than met. But they do more than this: having lived within a system where the punishment massively outweighs the crime, I am convinced that prisons actually feed their own future. That is, they create the very people from whom they purport to protect society. The recidivism rates show this to be true: 60 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women are reconvicted within two years of leaving jail.

No such thoughts occurred to me as I stepped outside the Old Bailey court to begin my two-year sentence. I was more concerned about whether the officer on duty at the prison reception would insist on a strip search and what sort of a deal she might strike for guarding my contraband tobacco. Already I was into prison-thinking - cunning and devious this may be, but it is the only way to get through a sentence. The reception area of Holloway, a women’s prison, had not changed since the last time I was there. There were cubicles like rabbithutches where you sat with your knees touching the door, and, underneath, a wiremesh strewn with used sanitary towels and empty cigarette packets. The dirty baths held just four inches of tepid water. The officers barked their orders in the usual contemptuous tone ... ‘Here you: get dressed/undressed/stand here/this one’s got lice . . They shout above the din as they itemise and bag your every possession ... One yellow metal ring, one St. Christopher, fifty-two pence...’ Then the dreaded search... ‘Do a twirl - come on now - don’t be shy’ as you stand naked before them and whoever else might be passing by or dropping in. Later you are called for the doctor who asks without looking up ... ‘Are you fit?’ ... ‘Yes’ ... ‘Next’.

Later still you pick up your bundle of grey blankets, nail brush and soap. Half your smuggled tobacco is secreted in the folds, a cause for winks and smiles between us - the cons. From them - the screws - our cards. White cards for the Anglicans, red for the Catholics. The colour seems the only difference between us as we note our prison numbers. We are in prison now and in so deep that by the time we have been searched, numbered and processed and step onto the allocation wing, it is impossible to wish for anything but the seclusion to cry quietly and the illusory freedom of sleep.

When the degradation of reception is over, a prisoner soon learns that there are two sets of prison rules. One set is issued by the Government, while the other is formed by tacit understandings between prisoners which have built up over the years as a reaction to the hardness of prison. Both sets brutalise.

One of the most important of the prisoners’ unwritten rules, for instance, is never to show anyone that prison can get through to you. If a prison is tough it becomes important to prove that you can withstand it, by hiding your real feelings. Of course this creates in the officers the impression that we are hardened, impervious to the punishment and the separation from what family and friends we might have. This fulfils their beliefs about criminals and probably increases their desire to punish as well.

When one is living within a system where everything one says is disbelieved, lying becomes a way of life - almost an art. In a system where violence is expected at every turn, violence becomes a real and constant probability. And in a system which is ugly, punitive and brutish, one can easily become an ugly, punitive brute.

It took two appalling incidents to jolt me out of this vicious downward spiral and to begin my fight back. I had been allocated to ‘D’ Wing and I was getting on with my sentence when I heard that Pat Cummins, a young prisoner, had burned to death. She had banged on her door and rung her emergency bell for some time. But her bangings went unheeded and, I was told by other women in her unit, her bell had been bent back by prison officers to stop it ringing.

Less than two weeks after the death of Pat Cummins there was another incident. A young woman spent the night begging the officer on duty to get her to hospital because she thought she was losing her baby. The response of the disbelieving officer was to pass a towel though the Judas Eye (spyhole) and tell the woman she should have booked to see the doctor. She miscarried in the early hours of the morning and lost so much blood that she was lucky to be alive.

This miscarriage, coming so soon after Pat Cummins’ death, turned my shock to anger. All previous thoughts of spending my time quietly were gone. I wanted nothing more than to see the prison pay for two cases of neglect which had, I believed, led to an avoidable death and a miscarriage. I called a meeting and we drew up a list of demands and a petition which was signed by almost every woman in the wing. We called ourselves the Prisoners’ Action Group and, after taking our demands to the Governor, we went on strike.

The strike lasted for just one day. Woman after woman was called into the Governor’s office and threatened with the loss of her parole. Some women said that they had been forced to sign the petition; others told the Governor that the officers should answer the emergency bells as we had demanded, but they also withdrew their support rather than lose their parole. Those of us who did not withdraw our demands were charged with ‘incitement to mutiny’ and lost pay and privileges for a month. During this month I received more chocolate from the other women on the wing than I could eat. They were feeling very guilty about backing down, but I understood the reasons. Some had their kids to think of, others could do no more time without cracking up. We all felt miserable about being defeated so easily, but blaming the others would have been pointless. I was released soon after.

Almost a decade later when crime and prison were long behind me and I was a member of the Greater London Council Women’s Committee, I met someone who had served a sentence alongside me all those years before. She told me that another prisoner, Julie Potter, had burned to death in Holloway and that the newly built ‘model’ prison was far worse than the old. Women were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and the prison was crawling with fleas and cockroaches. I talked to other ex-prisoners and I prepared a report for the Women’s Committee. Later I began a campaigning group called Women in Prison. Soon I was joined by other ex-prisoners and we opened an office and drop-in centre for women and girls newly released from prisons and Borstals (Youth Custody Centres).

Women in Prison has been working since March 1983 and has publicised many cases of mistreatment and neglect. Some of the more tragic deaths have received extensive media coverage. But little has actually changed in the units and on the wings of Britain’s closed and secret prisons. Perhaps because nothing can change until people realise that the kind of punishment that prison offers is counter-productive.

Prison brutalises people: it takes away what little responsibility a person had and engenders a deeper irresponsibility; it erodes an already small self-esteem and leaves a humiliated, broken sense of self. What is needed is for people who have the imagination which springs from caring and not the desire to punish, to set up centres where the young and disaffected can be educated, cared for and put together again.

Women in Prison can be contacted at:
Unit 3, Cockpit Yard,
Northington Street,
London WCJN 2NP, UK

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New Internationalist issue 154 magazine cover This article is from the December 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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