World Book History #5: Jailbirds: Lessons From A Women’s Prison

Image credit: Grazia Horwitz Flickr

Between 2014-2017, UK-based writer and charity worker Mim Skinner worked in prisons as an art teacher. Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison is the product of running various creative courses for inmates in a women’s institution. The mainstream UK press is quick to cover occurrences in men’s prisons, but just like in wider society, women’s prisons are a blind spot for many and hardly ever feature in the wider discussion around the criminal justice system. Jailbirds seeks to change that.

In her introduction, Skinner writes that ‘we hear headlines and news reports and Jeremy Kyle’s views, of course, but rarely hear the individual stories of those whose lives are tangled up in the criminal justice system’. This quote entails almost everything Skinner is attempting to do with the book; change the perception of women in prison and attitudes towards prison in general.

Whether dealing with drugs, mental health or intimately feminine issues like pregnancy, Skinner focuses on tackling stigma. This is not just the stigma around women in prison, but also addiction and the decisions people make when in the most desperate of situations. It’s easy to look and judge from afar, but one can never know how they’d behave or react until they were in that situation.

An interview with a series of American female prisoners. A different country but with many of the same issues.

One of the biggest problems people face upon release is rehabilitation back into everyday life and the ongoing mental health of those struggling to adapt. As Skinner writes at one point, ‘The NHS and prison budgets, it seemed, could stretch to pills but rarely to CBT or counselling’. The problem is that oftentimes these people aren’t seen as redeemable, but they’re just as capable of contributing to society as anyone else, if given the chance.

There are consistent examples throughout the book of the residents being encouraged to form a real sense of identity for themselves and as a family. This is particularly pertinent when Skinner writes about one of her classes entitled A Stitch in Time and that ‘this was the first time anyone had asked these women what their dreams for the future might be’.

This is symptomatic of the ignorance of the ruling/upper classes in Britain; those less well-off never feel validated or cared for. This is, of course, something we’ve seen extensively in Britain over the past decade and has been highlighted by Brexit. The socio-economic issues that can contribute to women winding up in prison permeate the rest of society and restoring class balance is imperative if these women are going to be supported upon release.

One paragraph in particular is almost as a call to arms:

                                           ‘If you’re a member of the press, rest assured –

                                           being in prison isn’t nice. It also isn’t that good at

                                           rehabilitating people, because politicians don’t

                                           want to look like they’re putting money into the

                                           prison system rather than the NHS… It’s about time

                                           we acknowledge that both of these institutions

                                           deal with our national health’.

If society is going to become better at supporting women and gaining maximum equality, then it needs to start with those who have the very least. Prisons are centres of punishment, but the discussion around the circumstances that see women deprived and forced into them needs to become more widespread. Jailbirds is helping to kick that narrative into gear.

You can find out what life is really like within women’s prisons by ordering a copy of Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison today.

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