Life in Prison: Time for a new point of view

by Farah Damji

I helped to set up The View Magazine, a publication by and for women in the criminal justice system, with three other women with conviction because nothing like it exists.  The current prison publications are aimed at men and women are only mentioned as an afterthought. The View Magazine is a voice and a campaigning platform for women who have no say in their treatment.

Our objectives are three-fold: We aim to raise awareness of the issues particular to female incarceration by humanising women in the criminal justice system. We want to showcase their creativity, through art, prose or poetry and to encourage them to own their narratives and tell their stories in their words and art. All contributors are paid for their work.

We actively campaign for safer and more compassionate prison sentences for women in particular as women generally have primary childcare issues and are carers. We also shine a spotlight on the services available to female prisoners including mental health support as well as other charities, NGOs and legal advice specialists who can help with issues specific to them.

English prisons were designed by Victorian men for men – not to rehabilitate women. The UK locks up more women per capita than any other western democracy and we have the highest reoffending rates of any country in Europe. Women make up around 5% of the overall prison population in the UK. They are forced to comply and fit into a system that simply is not designed for them.

Life in prison is grey and boring. There is nothing sensible or sane about it and you are forced to comply with rules that are stupid and have no purpose. Prison governors are given responsibilities to manage the lives and consequences of what happens to hundreds of women, and budgets that run into tens of millions yet most have no skills to do so and couldn’t run a corner shop if they had to. This is why reoffending rates are so stubbornly high, the wrong managerial technocrats are being promoted. We need to look at the prison system with fresh, entrepreneurial eyes and adapt new methods, because the old ways are not working.

The View gives people a chance to learn first-hand what incarceration feels like. We need to hear from women in the criminal justice system so that effective changes can be made to facilitate decent mental health services and rehabilitation. In his evidence to the Justice Committee on 11 May 2020, Steve Bradford, director of the Women’s Estate admitted that most women in prison do not need to be there. He also droned on about how the prison service treats women with a trauma informed approach. This is ridiculous! You can’t have a trauma informed or enabling environment where women are brutalised and constantly re-traumatised. He said that judges use prisons as places of safety, which is alarming. Judges need retraining about mental health and about domestic abuse. There is a vast intersection of women in prison who have been the victims of domestic abuse but aren’t considered as victims because that is too difficult for us to comprehend. Tribes like labels, they have to be dangerous or mad or bad. We need to learn to show some compassion towards these women who are trapped in the cycle of re-offending. Re-offending costs the public in excess of £15bn a year – we can’t afford it as a compassionate decent society and we can’t afford what it is doing in terms of inter-generational offending.

Amplifying the voices of female prisoners can only be a good thing. The hope is it brings about positive and inclusive change. Nothing else will work. By showcasing women’s creativity their lives are cast differently. They are now seen as artists, makers, mothers, women who need help, not just the terrible labels that society needs to put upon them.

The View is hosting a fundraising auction #IncarcerationNation which is supported by some of the UK’s best known artists including Anish Kapoor, Conrad Shawcross, Helen Beard and Charlotte Colby.  I have donated a piece. Andrea Hadley Johnson of the National Justice Museum and Fru Throlstrup and Jane Neal who curated  the fantastic 21st Century Women exhibition last year in  London have curated it. There is also a virtual exhibition, created by AI specialists V21 artspace. It goes live on 21 May until 31 May 2020.

Featured image: Bella VI 2019, Ink on paper, by Bella Caroline Walker