Following an eventful few days in the run up to beginning my degree, I feel more motivated than ever. Firstly I am humbled by the outstanding achievements I have witnessed and heard off at the Prisoner Learning Alliance conference. I have said before and I’ll say it again, I truly believe that the key to any kind of reform and rehabilitation is in the hand and power of former prisoners and I had the pleasure of hearing first hand stories of some great men and women leading the way, with the help and support of some fantastic organisations and individuals.
Reflecting and considering all that I have seen and heard over the past few days has got me thinking about slow progress, but progression nonetheless. I understand that for anybody to progress, it’s never quick and it’s never easy. This is the same for the middle class, privileged and educated people. That’s not what I am here to talk about, as I am none of the above. I am the child of addicts, the girl who left school at 16 to work to Woolworths, the teenage mum and a former prisoner, with bigger dreams than the life I was born into 27 years ago.
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting up with my Longford Trust mentor on Wednesday evening and during conversation she asked me “How do you think you are able to keep doing what you do?” The simple answer is, I have no choice, but I didn’t want to say that and after some deep thought, I understand that I do have a choice, but for me to choose to not do what I do, I wouldn’t be living my truth.
As far as my childhood goes, this part of my life was not a choice. Survival was day to day. I described my transition to the best of my ability, from life as a citizen to a prisoner overnight. I’ve never really previously considered how my childhood shaped me, my mind or my abilities but could it be that from my experiences from a child that I had no choice but to experience, meant that my ability to adapt to prison life was easy….and if that is true. That is tremendously sad. When I say transition to prison life being easy, I don’t mean separation, life as a prisoner or living in prison, I mean in terms of being able to quickly change my way of thinking, to survival mode. Being able to accept that reality was now in prison, my life was in prison and that was that for the next two years. I knew that after my two years, I would never be back, I knew that for me, prison life was far from normal and that prison life was not for me, but I was here….and wasn’t going anywhere.
Within a few weeks of arriving to HMP I remember drawing/writing a mind map!! I binned it after it served a purpose to my way of thinking but I remember clearly what it was for…..on this mind map I considered my options, 1) f*ck the system, f*ck my sentence plan, I’ll sleep for two years and doss, then get released. 2) Yes girl, I could become a yes sir no sir three bags full girl, smile and say all the right things to tick these boxes and get me out easier, being an ass kisser. (Hell NO) 3) I could be compliant with rules, do what was required of me and question and query the reasons and expected outcomes of these things. Being a yes girl was a laughable but viable option but I’m far too proud and stubborn to ever be a yes girl. That left me with option 1, f*ck the system or option 2, be compliant but questionable. I would say that option one was also viable and bloody hell I need two years of sleep right now, but for my families sake despite my own feelings and beliefs of the system that held me, they wanted me home so I was forced into choosing option 3 (haha).
Being compliant but inquisitive about the prison system and regime was a hard job let me tell you. I think many a times the officers would have preferred a yes girl or a f*ck the system type. Lets face it, that would make their job a lot easier. Here I was, asking and agreeing to do things and then following the agreement with, how is this beneficial? What is this for? How does this work? My questions where more often than not, considered a hindrance to the regime rather than an opportunity to inform me of why I was doing what I was doing and conversing about it.
Let me here give an example of a yes girl, take for instance a prison inspection from the IMB. I recall in my two years having two inspections, it may have been more but I can’t remember. So, daily regime on my wing was unlock at 8am, off the girls go to their jobs for the morning, we should, according to timetables, be issued with our keys and return back to our cells at 11.45am. On a normal day, the cleaning girls went to sign into work and hand in their room keys. No-one ever handed in their keys. If so, very very rarely. Most went to do their jobs and went back to their rooms as soon as they had rapidly finished. Obviously, some just signed in and went straight back to bed! This from day to day was normal. Prison officers knew and it was ‘allowed’. I remember early on, working in healthcare off the wing. I had a good job, away from the wings with the healthcare team, printing and distributing the appointment slips as well as sitting with a few of the nurses and having a bit of a laugh and joke with them. I never gave them my key, I went and did what I had to do then went back to my cell, for months. Now, inspection day. I did my usual routine, went back to my room and after 20 mins I heard my name being called over the tannoy by a member of the health care team, asking me to report to their office. Off I went, to have my key taken and to sit in a room until 11.45am. I was later informed that the cleaning girls had all gone to the cleaning office to sign in that morning and had all had their keys taken. Yes, I agree that it should be daily practice, after all they say that these are the rules. FYI you made the rules so why do you not stick to them every day, only when there is an inspection so you give the impression that on a daily basis this is the working life of a prisoner. This false impression was hilarious, a few women were placed by staff in certain places around the prison, the officers showing around the inspectors, followed a certain route to insure, they crossed paths with the ‘yes girls’ they had distributed across the estate, for a brief conversation about our daily working life. I am pretty sure I was kept in that room over in health care so I wouldn’t be able to converse with the inspectors about how we never pass over our keys at work in the morning and for many, the working regime is to sign into work and go back to bed AND the officers know this and turn a blind eye.
Later on in my sentence while I was out of the prison at work every day, the washing machine on our wing had broken and wasn’t being fixed for a period of time. The wing was full of girls who were working outside of prison and going on home leaves. We had no facilities to wash our clothes as this certain wing was independent and the laundry was done on our wing by ourselves. A house meeting was called, which I was absent from but I was later informed that a deputy governor had given the girls on outwork permission to use a washing machine on a different wing to ensure we had clean work clothes. I had been out at work from 6am until 10pm for three days, on my day off I needed to insure I had three clean shirts for the next three days at work because when I arrive back at 10pm it’s too late to be doing washing, and we had no machine. On my day off I went over to a different wing to find the machine in use, I noted that it was due to finish in twenty mins so I went back and after the girl had emptied it , I put my clothes in and left it washing my work uniform, knickers, socks etc.
Well, all hell broke loose when I returned to get my clothes! I was greeted my an officer with a very stern face and attitude, questioning why I was on the wing using the washing machine. My response, reasonable I think… I have work tomorrow, today is my only day off, the washing machine on my wing is broken and we have been told we can use this one to ensure we have CLEAN KNICKERS! The officer proceeds to tell me, she doesn’t know anything about us being able to use this washing machine despite me informing her of the house meeting and naming the deputy governor who gave us permission. Ok, I see the next stage being, either tell me off again or say you will check up on my information. Its not my job to be informing the prison staff of the governors permission, I am simply doing as I have been told and ensuring I have clean clothes for work. Fast forward to 6pm and I hear my name being called over the tannoy to the block, by said officer. The woman gave me a IEP warning for using the washing machine. I asked her had she managed to gain any clarification from the governor, she said no she hadn’t and it would be for me to appeal the warning and resolve it myself. WHAT!!!!????
This was a good year and a half into my sentence and the warning would have had no effect on me what so ever BUT that is not the point. I then wasted a whole night writing a bloody appeal for an IEP warning for washing my clothes. Needless to say, the governor removed this warning because it was absolutely ridiculous. A uniformed, power mad, dehumanising prison officer, with the unwillingness to clarify if I was bullshitting her or not! I wasn’t. I could have been a ‘yes girl’ and took the warning and many did, because to challenge the wrongs and incompetence of some staff is a huge, time costly effort. I could have spent the night writing a letter to my daughter or mother, instead I was having to appeal an IEP warning for washing my clothes.
When we talk about positive relationships, successes, progression, reform and the impact of an officer smiling and encouraging prisoners, we need to talk about, address and deal with the officers who can’t be bothered to engage, who can’t be bothered to source information and the ones who smile in your face while giving you an IEP warning for their laziness. It’s all well and good sharing positive stories of officers and prisoners alike but let’s not forget the daily struggles serving prisoners are facing on a daily basis, in the care of HMP, for the most petty reasons.