The realities of prison life
I’m currently enjoying a fascinating first-hand account of women’s imprisonment in modern day Britain. “Breakfast at Bronzefield” by Sophie Campbell is published today and you get it from all good bookshops as either a paperback or download.
Ms Campbell (not her real name) has written a work of “creative non-fiction” based on her real-life experiences of being in prison in both Bronzefield and Downview prisons. Her stories of her time inside are sharpened by an analytical eye and set in the context of the latest research and penal statistics.
It’s an excellent read, combining a warts and all perspective of the (frequently grim) lives of women in custody with a passionate and well-informed argument for reform.
I’m not going to attempt a proper book review here, but rather share 10 things that have taken my eye so far. I hope that the quotes I have included will give you a flavour of the book’s engagingly direct style.
"I often found that when visitors came to the prison, they expected prisoners to put on a cheerful display and say things like 'I know I've done wrong, miss but I've learnt my lesson' - a performance that was both false and deeply patronising."
"It seemed strange to me that being a barrister has so much prestige when it's the solicitor who does most of the groundwork. You can have a mediocre barrister and get by, but if you have a so-so solicitor, you're fucked before you even get in the court room."
10 things about women’s imprisonment
Here are 10 of Ms Campbell’s views which have struck me.
- Ms Campbell is clear that her rehabilitation (she is in the last year of her social science degree as well as publishing Breakfast at Bronzefield) is in no way due to any help received from the prison or probation services.
- She is critical of the “one-size-fits-all” approach to rehabilitation which fails so many women.
- Most prison officers do not wear or use their body-worn video cameras.
- Sexual harassment by staff and other prisoners is commonplace and generally ignored by the prison system.
- She expresses great concern about the quality of mental health treatment in general and the (over-)prescribing of psychotropic medication in particular. Intriguingly, she also suggests that many women decide to invent or exaggerate mental health conditions in the hope of more lenient sentencing or better treatment inside.
- One of the recurrent themes of the book is the pressure that many women prisoners feel to express remorse in a way which will help them navigate the system and, they hope, be released earlier.
- Ms Campbell is also very interesting on the fact that the stigma and identity of being an (ex-)offender is very difficult to shake off in the internet age when everyone can look you online and find out what crime you have committed. She says it is common practice for people to call family and friends and ask them to Google her fellow prisoners.
- She also discusses the particular issues that being a Black woman offender who did not fit any of the usual stereotypes created with both white and BAME staff across the criminal justice system.
- Ms Campbell expressed a strong view that most illegal drugs are smuggled into prison by corrupt staff.
- She also talks about the frustration of spending so much time without anything meaningful to do in prison and then being confronted with doing “reducing reoffending” work with probation officers on release when many people want to focus on building a better future.
You can follow @SophieCBooks on twitter.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.
"On the one hand, it was made clear that I needed to take responsibility for my actions. On the other, nothing was someone's fault if there was a man, abusive childhood or mental health condition to hide behind. And if that wasn't the case, it was very easy to make up a story like that."