|Photo credit : Will Storr for the Observer|
And then I had a phonecall. The conversation was long, tinged with anger, bitterness and laden with sadness. Ghosts from the past stared us both in the face and mocked inaction, silence. But be assured – this post is fuelled not by my inadequacies and helplessness, but rather charged by my deep burning anger at what I know now. About a woman who, several years ago, was repeatedly raped by a prison governor whilst she was in his charge. A woman whose sentence was three times longer than her male co-defendents. A woman who, despite the degradations inflicted upon her by the prison service and the spineless watchdog bodies, remains in the care of those who abandoned her to her horrible fate.
I do not know this woman. I know her friend. My connection with her is the intangible one that connects all who have had to fight their fear and powerlessness in prison. I know her through what I myself suffered, and what I saw inflicted upon others. There is a place in life for a due measure of punishment, do not err into thinking that is my complaint. It is not. My anger is fuelled by the abuses I saw, fought, and know still continue. My unnamed incarceree and her compatriots deserve – at the very least – that their abuse makes us angry.
Staff at Yarls Wood are finally being investigated. Some of the complaints go back years. The mainstream media could not discuss the story, evidence from behind bars being incredibly difficult to substantiate. The high walls may be permeable to contraband, but are quite effective at blocking the flow of information and to inculcate a sense of isolation and helplessness. Finally, The Guardian/Observer managed to break the story.....or the parts it's lawyers felt comfortable with. I will always be grateful to any journalist who covers a prison story, knowing the indifference that may flow from readers. Anyone who is not moved to a cold fury or sickened disgust by the knowledge that those we charge the State – and its private sector minions – to care for has, in reality, been abusing and degrading those women.
Yarls Wood is today’s story for us. It is also tomorrows reality for the women held there. It is also an experience being repeated below the radar at Eastwood Park prison, with women being sexually abused and racially degraded by a male Governor. Action has yet to be taken.
You will not know my anger. It is not yours, although I hope there is a common humanity that connects us in our feelings for these abuses. But my anger comes from sharing their powerlessness. Ghosts from the past for me....and yet potent spirits that stir me deeply.
When we put a person in prison we strip them of all they have. Dignity, autonomy, individuality, status, home, family...all that gives meaning to our lives is taken away on behalf of the public. That's you and I. We render them helpless. The least we can demand, insist upon without hesitation, is that these people are then cared for. Not to be beaten or raped by the guards we pay to do our sordid bidding.
Why does this happen? There must be decent guards, decent civilian staff working in these prisons, NHS staff, layers of management, watchdog bodies, and ultimately the Ministry of Justice. It happens because people are afraid to speak. Maybe selfishly, maybe pragmatically, but the end result is the same. In cells across the women's prison estate male guards are raping female prisoners. The silence may be indifference, it may be callousness, but it allows the abuse to continue.
And that goes all the way to the heart of the Ministry of Justice, the Orwellian monolith that scrabbles to hold this whole mess together. In this case, the indifference can be tracked directly back to the ruthless heart of Dr Debra Baldwin. She is in charge of "Transforming Rehabilitation" for Women Offenders. And has an office, salary band staff to add weight to her position. Dr Baldwin also has previous for her contempt for both the taxpayer. At a meeting with charities whose goal was to help women prisoners, whose goal was to reduce the female prison population – overwhelmingly a non violent collection of criminality – the good Doctor began the meeting by insisting she intended to keep locking these women up. And then chuckled.
Just a few days ago one of the warrior-women I am proud to know, who now circles the criminal justice arena like a well dressed piranha, bared her teeth at Dr Baldwin during a meeting. My friend put the charges of rape at Yarls Wood squarely to Baldwin. And the woman in charge of these prisoners and their rehabilitation looked my friend squarely in the eye and said, "it's not my problem".
It is her problem. Its the problem of everyone who knows about it and does nothing. It is certainly "the problem" for those in charge of this carceral monstrosity that allows prison guards to coerce women – disempowered at our demand, remember – into sexual submission.
I am angry. I am intensely sad. But what I refuse to feel is helpless. And if the least I can do is voice this clarion call for outrage, I have done something. To do nothing in the face of this abuse is to turn your back on humanity – and the consequences of our penal obsession.
We put these women in this situation. It is our responsibility to safeguard them. But before us and our responsibility comes that of those we pay to do our dirty work in prisons – led by the indifferent Dr Debra Baldwin.