The past year’s lessons and this year’s ambitions
It’s hard to believe that a year has already gone by since I joined Women in Prison, new to being a CEO and new to criminal justice. It’s been a year of deep learning, a lot of reflection, some successes, some mistakes, some fun, some hard times, and a lot of support from the people around me.
At 3 months I wrote my early reflections about power. I had a lot of questions about how this might show up in my role, in our work at Women in Prison and, in the systems, we operate in. One year on, and I am still in the midst of learning about the role and the sector. I still feel ‘new’.
I thought now would be a good time to share some of what I have been learning. For those who might read this from within the criminal justice sector, this won’t be revelatory. But for me, coming into a sector that I didn’t know or understand before has given me some insights that I hope don’t become jaded with time so that Women in Prison can continue to be an organisation that speaks truth to power and works side by side with women affected by the criminal justice system.
This is such a loaded term. I have spent my career fighting for social justice in different ways and in different sectors. If we were to close our eyes and dream about what a justice system might do, how it might work, and who it would exist for, I strongly doubt we would create it the way it has evolved today. So many people in society are treated unjustly and inequitably. Women bear the brunt, always, of an unjust society and unjust policies.
The Corston Report (a seminal and important report published 16 years ago) is still as relevant today as when it was written. The experience of women in contact with the justice system and the need for a gendered approach to meet their needs is well documented. The Female Offender Strategy was published in 2018 – and yet it is predicted that the women’s prison population will rise over the next three years despite a commitment for the opposite to take place. It’s well known that women are unfairly discriminated against, particularly those from black and minoritized backgrounds, and that so many women in prison just should not be there – justice is a word that too many women caught up in the system cannot relate to.
Intimately linked to justice are rights. Prison by its nature is a denial of rights. Denial of a right to liberty and the right to vote are legislated if you are imprisoned. We are all born with rights, including the right to a standard of living adequate for your health and wellbeing including food, clothing, and medical care.
When it can take 2 weeks for a woman in prison reliant on medication to access it, when she is not enabled to earn enough to be able to afford the clothes that bring her dignity and has to wear second hand underwear – these fundamental rights are being denied. If a woman leaves prison and due to the stigma and discrimination, she faces from being criminalised can’t access adequate housing or is unable to find employment her fundamental rights are being denied. Our frontline staff have heard these and similar stories time and time again.
Women whose rights were already threatened having faced violence and abuse, who have not had adequate support for their mental health needs or drugs misuse who are then drawn into the justice system often face further indignity and rights denials. How can we, as the 6th wealthiest, supposedly developed, country in the world bear to let this happen? As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it ‘No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.’
We all too often send women to prison who have experienced complex disadvantage for low-level offences, remove them from their families and communities, deny them their rights, take away their agency and decision making over their own lives.
Communities must be empowered and resourced to support women’s urgent needs such as mental ill health and homelessness. And to provide the services that are so desperately needed that would prevent women from offending in the first place. Women must have opportunities for economic empowerment; for agency in their lives; for being able to access the right support at the time when they need it the most; to access adequate, safe, and affordable housing and to live lives with dignity and free of fear.
For these reasons, and many more, it is a privilege to work at Women in Prison with a staff team with deep expertise, an award-winning diverse board, and dynamic women with lived experience. Because change can and must happen. Because we cannot stand by while women’s rights violations affect those most excluded in society.
Across the organisation, on top of the impactful and important work that we do in service of women in contact with the criminal justice system, we have been reflecting and dreaming. We have been reflecting on our roots and why we came into existence. And we have been dreaming about the organisation we want to be to help create a future where women are no longer unnecessarily criminalised, where we all have real justice and can access our rights.
Over the coming months we will be launching our new vision and purpose, and our new organisational values. We have been developing plans to recognise our 40th Anniversary, to deepen our learning from our heritage so that we can develop a new strategy in 2024.
We could do none of this without the support of our partners and donors, and I’d like to acknowledge and thank each and every one of you for continuing to support women who have found themselves facing multiple disadvantages.