Women and Prison – lived experience from both sides of the door

I have never written a blog with a guest, although pondered and discussed the idea many times with peers. Least of all did I expect that my first guest blog would be with a former female prisoner officer, who just a few months ago, was locking the cell doors of criminalised women. Zoe and I ‘met’ on twitter, whilst she was still a serving prison officer. We instantly got on, found the same things funny, share a very entertaining experience of having our ex’s names tattooed on us!! And, Zoe and I are the definition of unmotivated fitness freaks!!! Often prioritising tea and biscuits over our spin and step classes! 

Zoe, have you even ever been to one of those step classes you signed up for….?

Anyway, as a former female prisoner who has been blogging about my experiences of criminal justice for a number of years, Zoe’s integrity, compassion and empathy touched me. I know Zoe left the prison service to pursuit an avenue in which she could have more of an impact in supporting women involved within criminal justice. I think the prison service have lost  an asset within the women’s estate however I am sure Zoe will go on to do wonderful things where ever she is. Zoe summaries her career below: 

As I clicked send on the application, I really had no idea what I was applying for, the prison officer role is not a job I had been spoken to about at school, actually I did an online test and it came up that I should be a car parking attendant, not sure I’m cut out for being in the rain all day.

My only experience of a prison officer was a man who lived 2 doors down from me as a child, he was huge had to be around 6ft 5 and seemed as hard as nails. I however at 5ft 1 and a bit decided to apply, maybe I was having a day where I truly thought I was wonder woman.

So after various role plays and maths tests I went off to college for 6 weeks, my initial training basically this started to teach me the policy’s, nothing else about working with women in custody but I passed and on my last day the CM came around and spoke to us all, asked the other poelts where they were heading back to, sharing stories of “when she had worked there” then she got to me “women’s estate……good luck miss you will need it.” Thanks Babs! 

  My first week in was a shock, a few things I think of that now make me smile as I was so new and had no idea, standing against the wall and waiting for a lady to walk past with her garden sheers, and calling for all staff assistance when a lady had sadly used harming herself as a coping technique but was not in anyway a threat. I’m sure the staff team were thinking “oh god who have we been sent” But I was determined, I wanted to be a governor!

After 2 years I became a SO on a therapeutic community and started working with an amazing team, alongside that I started working in the prisons BTI team, life changing moments for me in my career. I started to see what needed to change for women in prison to ensure not only did they feel safe but that they accessed all the help and support they could so never would they have to return, never would their children or grandchildren be separated from them. I learnt that women needed to be treated differently to men and instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with them? I asked what’s happened to them? I became trauma informed! Game changer, now I found my strength as an officer, I’m not great with the physical side of things, I was a talker, well that’s what all my teachers in primary school said. Well Ms R, it’s come in handy now! 

I was given some amazing training by some amazing external support I had an amazing team in our call centre looking office that backed me, stood by me and cried with me when things became overwhelming, when things were good and when I felt alone, they reminded me I was not alone. 

 Then as the time went on, the job became harder, the system became harder. I wanted to be kind and compassionate but it’s hard in a place that, I’m society’s view is meant to punish, humiliate and degraded. All the things that most women had experienced throughout their lives before custody. Women are sent to prison and forgotten, their families and children are forgotten. I cried driving home and soon I became anxious driving in, I needed to leave. I needed to be able to help in a different way, in a way that I could be a voice for women in custody without fear of being frowned upon. 

 I handed in my notice, without another job…. madness I know but I didn’t want to be in the prison service just because I needed a wage, that’s where staff become stagnant. I wanted to feel like me again, something I had started to lose. My colleagues and the women worked hard to try and get me to change my mind, but I knew I needed to leave. I knew this was not goodbye just see you soon. 

 A few weeks before I left, I was offered an amazing role, when I spoke to the women about it they were supportive, saying they knew I would make a difference. I believed them too, I knew that they had taught me everything I held as precious, the women had taught me everything that no amount of time at college or any policy could every teach me.

So here I am, no longer in the uniform, no longer justifying to difficult staff, why I am trauma informed. I’m working in a job where they have embraced my beliefs and know that outside my working hours I will be at rally’s and court appeals fighting for not only women but their children to treated with the respect and kindness they deserve, not having to prove they deserve it, not having to composed and hold their trauma in just in case they lose their enhanced which could result in visits with their loved ones being taken.

 My journey was only 5 years but it has been the years of growth that I will always be thankful for. The women I worked with and my amazing team I will always be thankful for”.

After reading Zoe’s blog I asked her where she was going to publish it and she said she didn’t know, so I offered to publish it on my page and asked Zoe if we could use her piece as a basis for an interview type blog….and yes, this is a real interview dynamic not ‘An interview with Zoe on a winter afternoon’, in which Zoe isn’t even present or in the knowledge of….

Why did you apply for a prison officer role?

In all honestly I applied as the wage looked good, well better than I was on and it was local, it’s sold to be a role where you can dramatically help others, where you are part of helping empower others.

Why do you think the CM wished you luck once you had told her you were going to work in the women’s estate?

There was next to nothing on my initial training regarding working with women, actually all I was shown was how to search a woman, that took around 10 minutes of the 6 week course, everyone is trained at cat b procedures. Now I think she recognised they were sending staff to work with complex women who had complex trauma and were just hoping for the best after no training. There is training for staff working with young people, but not women. It’s something that still aggravates me now.

What perceptions did you have of women in prison in your early days, and how have these developed and changed now? 

I believed the women must of done horrendous things to be in custody, things that society would only deem a custodial sentence as appropriate, they must be selfish mothers, sisters and daughters. My perceptions were so wrong, I was so wrong, they have now changed from every angle, I remember hearing that there were 7 women in prisons in the UK for unpaid tv license, well unpaid fines of unpaid tv license, and thinking, god that was me when the kids were small and I had to decide on paying the tv license or putting electric on my key!

You mentioned as time went on in your career you found it hard to display kindness and compassion, can you explain a little more about that? 

I found it hard because in settings like prisons there is already a huge divide between staff and residents, the staff open doors, we decide when people can eat, when they can talk to their children, the control staff have over the women’s lives is huge, but it’s there between staff too, cliches, the ones who thrive off the power and have no problem reminding the women of that. The ones who do the job and don’t care “if they are women or men, they are just prisoners

I once attended a trauma informed workshop within a female prison and this was delivered by a HMPPS colleague. Not many people in my learning group new I was a former prisoner. One of the first tasks on the training day was to ‘describe the women in our care’ and I’ll never forget the answers from a prison officer in her 50’s who unashamedly denounced women in her care as manipulative, liars and attention seekers. You spoke briefly of being trauma informed and I wondered what difficulties you experiences in trying to embed trauma awareness and responsiveness within the prison you worked in? 

I was called a care bear, mocked and ridiculed, colleagues would say to me “so and so is crying, you go, you care, you”re fluffy” uniformed staff didn’t want to come on my training, one even told me he would rather nail his penis to the desk than spend time having to “fuss about the women”

It really broke me at times, I became to dread the training delivery side. I am so passionate about trauma responsive care and was proud of my work, it placed me in the final 6 nominations as prison officer of the year, I attended a beautiful event, I felt proud of myself, a young single mum who had not achieved more than being a mum (that’s also amazing don’t get me wrong) ,but I told no one at work, I couldn’t face the ridicule.

You speak so passionately about what the women in prison taught you. The very dominate discourse of imprisoned women is that of a weak, vulnerable and helpless stature. Do you think these descriptions accurately reflect the women who you worked with? 

The women I worked with are among the strongest, resilient, grounded and compassionate people I have met, when I felt low about the trauma work being knocked back and shot down, they would talk about their lives and it would reignite me, because if I wasn’t heard they definitely wouldn’t be. Society silences women. Women in prison, are silenced and locked away. I needed to continue for them.

Your blog is very careful in indicating your experiences and witnessing of women’s trauma without reciting their own personal stories. You know my own interest and passion is around how and what we give voice to and how we do that safely and with vision to affect system change. Why do you talk about you own experiences whilst carefully not sharing the stories of the women that you met? 

The women are part of my narrative, it would be easy to include them, god I could write a whole book, probably several, but that’s their story to share, that’s their trauma, their families and at time’s sadly it’s their shame but also their hope to share, not mine.

I ensured the women I would be a voice, not their individual voice, they are strong enough to tell their story, but their collective voice, the forgotten and silenced voice, the voice of women who have been sentence and forgotten by all but their loved ones.

There is a culture outside of prison which is dominated by the ‘misery memoir’ of prisoners. I have researched this from a perspective of a former prisoner and lived experience practitioner, but I am interested in your observations of why people leaving professional roles within prisons go on to articulate the stories of the people they used to bang up. What do you think about this, and why it happens? 

I don’t believe that anyone sets out to shame and humiliate others by talking about what they see as “their experiences” I think it’s lack of education surrounding trauma and shame, I think it’s a desire to help but lack of willingness to see that this is what society craves, they crave the drama, they crave the desire to hear about others being worse off than them to make themselves feel better. I hope over time this changes but I’m not sure it will be in our life time sadly, society needs to change, these women have loved ones, they will be back as our neighbours, our work colleagues ones day, I think learning that a high number of women have been victims of unreported crimes is something I try to educate people on.

Zoe after completing her questions then decided to interview me!!! Haha! Thanks love… 

What was your view on women in custody before you went to prison?

I talk about this often and I will never ever forget this. Leaving court on a Friday night in November. It was pitch black, raining and I was put onto the sweat van in high heels, a tailored suit and mascara running all down my face. I remember howling on that bus in absolute fear. All I kept thinking was how the fuck have I ended up here, I’m going to prison. I am nothing like women that go to prison. How am I going to do this for 2 years? I can’t do it. My first few days on the induction wing I quickly became aware that these women were all women I shared experiences with, many of the offences committed were in situations of extreme poverty, drug dependency and ill mental health. Many were young mothers who had made a single mistake which ultimately cost them their freedom and ability to be mothers. I absolutely hated prison. But my fears and my perception that I didn’t fit the prisoner identity was well and truly gone within the first few days of being there. 

You were lucky enough to have a supportive family and made some good friends in prison, but what was your overall experience of staff in relation to them not only being trauma informed but trauma responsive?

When I was in prison from 2011 – 2013 I didn’t hear the words trauma informed or trauma responsive. I think female officers who could see themselves as my own mother, or young officers who were mothers themselves, offered me support and almost looked after me because they recognised that not all ‘criminals’ are bad people, and not all bad people are ‘criminals’. But in terms of gender specific support, trauma informed care our trauma responsive care. There was none of that. I was strip searched on my period with a tampon in. The shame of standing in the cold room after being at work all day and walking for miles sweating, and taking my clothes on in a tiny room with an officer holding my knickers is something I’ll never get over.

Do you at any time now still face negative reactions from people within the justice system due to you having lived experience? 

Yes. Not so much on a personal level but systemically, I still believe people with lived experience are from included into informing policy and strategy and making up a diverse workforce, through identification of their capability and skill as opposed to a tick box exercise. For me, that is negativity because it highlights an absence of a competent workforce who can really impact and influence systems change. 

What would you say to the ex-staff who publish books if you speak to them and be heard?

Stealing other people’s trauma without consent from a position of power, is abuse of power, does not align with HMPPS code of conduct nor professional standards. It is harmful and does nothing to hold those in power to account or to inspire change. We know that prisoners are more often than not victims of crime also, it would not be so accepted if victims of crime support professionals lifted and sold those stories. People need to educate themselves around oppression, inequalities and how the use of stigma is a socio-political tool to sustain exclusion. Deep reflective practice is required to identify how we all are, as practitioners complicit in causing harm and then making amendments to practice to ensure our practice is as harmless as possible. It is our responsibility to learn how we oppress. It isn’t the responsibility of the oppressed to teach us, but sadly that is always the case. We see that in the Black lives matter movement, the fight for women’s rights and within the LBTQ movement. 

Michaela Booth – Former Prisoner and Criminology Graduate

Zoe Thomas – Former prison officer

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