Inside Styal’s Women’s Prison

Women-only project helps offenders

The project in Oldham helps women offenders make positive choices so they can move on with their lives

Styal prison where some of the ex-offenders have been incarcerated. Photograph: Don Mcphee for the Guardian

Women offenders in Oldham are being offered intensive help by a series of agencies to help prevent them re-offending. At a women’s group session last week, I spoke to some of those involved in the project, co-ordinated by Greater Manchester Probation Trust.

They meet in a neutral location for the two-hour sessions that involve probation officers, health workers and other agencies, such as education, promoting healthy eating and positive choices. There are 100 similar groups across the country helping female offenders.

Stacey, who has received a two-year suspended sentence, admits she didn’t speak much when she first attended the meetings. “I’d just be looking at my phone, I wouldn’t speak,” she says. “I’ve got a phobia of fruit,” she says. “One of my goals has been to have a small piece of fruit and a bit of water and I’ve managed to do it. And I feel a lot more positive about the future.”

Tracy, who is 40, says five years ago she met a serial rapist and was prosecuted for assisting him by giving him a lift when he was on the run as he had committed a further offence while he was being sought by police.

She handed herself into the police once she realised what he’d done and she was prosecuted. “I got a suspended sentence and I was on probation,” she says. “I was in a financial mess and then I committed benefit fraud, for which I was prosecuted. Prior to meeting this guy, who messed everything up for me, I’d been in a steady relationship from a young age and we have a son.”

Tracy believes she was groomed by the rapist, whom she fell in love with and was controlled by. “I’m very angry,” she says. “People say move on – but how can I move on? I feel like the justice system has let me down. He should have not been let out in the first place. It’s just unfortunate I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Her life, she admits, has been turned upside down and she is living with the consequences of what happened. Her son lives with his father, her former partner, because she was “an emotional wreck” after what happened with the rapist. It was, she adds, a “crucifying decision. But I thought he’d be better off and have more stability. I had to put him first.

“I’ve lost my job, my respect and my son. Basically, I’ve lost everything. These things always happen to somebody else don’t they? And now it is me. I would like to do volunteering work but there are barriers that prevent me doing this because of what I have done. I’m struggling with my lack of employment prospects. I know it was my choice to commit benefit fraud, but at the time I was not rational and I was emotionally unstable.”

She says she’d never been in a court in her life “and suddenly I was in Styal prison on remand and segregated initially.”

“I felt vulnerable because of the media coverage of the case. As I was being transported from court to Styal, it was on the radio when I was in the back of the prison van. I’ve not slept for five years,” she adds. “I don’t sleep.”

Not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to trust people, particularly men. Despite her problems, she’s made steady progress since coming to the sessions, which have helped her confidence and social skills. “There are bits of being in Styal that I’ve literally blacked out because I was completely traumatised,” she added.

Becky, an ex-offender who was sentenced in 2009, says at the time of her prison sentence she was in a bad way. She pleaded guilty to arson and a charge of recklessly endangering life. Her partner at the time threatened to kill her and her young baby and held her five other children hostage for six hours. She was prosecuted after a fire at the house and lost custody of her children after discovering his affairs.

“When I found three pairs of girls’ school socks in a drawer, I smashed the house up top to bottom.” Then the fire broke out.

She received a three-year prison sentence as she’d admitted her involvement.

Becky says she is not proud of being in prison, but says she was in such a bad way, she felt she couldn’t breathe without her partner. For the first four days she asked to be sectioned, but soon released that she wasn’t mentally ill and could cope.

Becky has been attending the group since January 2010 when she was released from prison on licence. She was a qualified support worker and wants to work as an alcohol and drug counsellor.

“The people in this group are so nice,” she says. “It’s a trust thing, you don’t feel judged and isolated here.”

Catherine Senior, a probation officer with Greater Manchester Probation Trust, says the women often have issues with domestic violence. “But because the group is laid-back and the women support each other, it is a better environment for them. They are motivated to come here and that different approach seems to work.”

The various agencies encourage women to register with doctors and dentists, and join a gym if they want to. They are offered cooking and food tasting sessions and work is done to help address mental health issues with counselling offered and help for those who may have problems with alcohol and drugs.

Probation officer Georgina Threlfall, of Greater Manchester Probation Trust says some of the women are only compelled to attend probation once a month – but they go to the weekly sessions “of their own volition”.

“That clearly demonstrates that the group is helping them turn their lives around, so that they can once again play a valuable role in their community,” she says. The anecdotal evidence is that the sessions are making a difference.

Credit: the guardian news Link :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.