“In them one sees the most hideous picture of all human weakness”. Political rhetoric and it’s reinforcement of harm and damage; Women’s resistance.

Criminalised women have for centuries, had their identities examined, explored and scrutinized in the pursuit of qualitative research. More often than not, research conducted on criminalised women does little to improve the criminal, social and political justice issues by which they are affected. My undergraduate study aimed to move away from research for the sake of research, and purposefully excluded damaging and harmful depictions of criminalised in women. Depictions which contribute to their oppression. It was my intent to forefront criminalised women’s strength, resilience, voice and power, in the face of patriarchal and state subjugation. By giving criminalised women space within the academy to tell their own stories, in their own words.

Three women who hold leadership positions within the criminal justice sector, provided personal accounts of their experiences as leaders within a sector which, at one point in time rendered them powerless through their imprisonment. These personal stories shed light on desistance, self-authorship of identity and stigma resistance as a form of personal power. The ‘voiceless’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘helpless’ narratives which dominate much of criminalised women discourse, will be challenged and corrected, by women with lived experience of imprisonment who are now leading systemic change across the criminal justice sector, and beyond.

Historically it was argued that women in prison were offered little opportunity to gain employability skills which would increase their chances of independence upon release (Smart, 1997). Additionally, research indicated that socially constructed views of women impacted on penal regimes, which were delivered through misogynistic views of women and their ability to contribute to society (Hall-Williams, 1970). Hall-Williams (1970, p. 224) stated:

“It is not seen as necessary or desirable to give women prisoners training for semi-skilled jobs. In any case, the quality of the population is not thought to call for any such tasks other than fairly simple repetitive tasks, such as assembling kits of stationary”.

This standpoint reflects a perception of women in prison as incapable of fulfilling leadership positions within a workplace. Further descriptions of imprisoned women were offered by Mayhew (1862) cited in Zender (1998, p.298) who stated:

“In them one sees the most hideous picture of all human weakness”.

Such perceptions formed debate that criminalised women faced gendered oppression due to the patriarchal nature of state punishment (Hannah-Moffat, 2001). Moreover, policy makers failed to view criminalised women as potential bread-winners, therefore penal regimes reinforced socially constructed gender roles of women in western culture (Davies, 2018). Hannah-Moffat (2001, p.23) suggests that penal regimes for women were guided by “maternalism”, whereby opportunities provided to women in prison were underpinned by ideologies of “motherhood” and “womanhood”. Viewing criminalised women through the lens of socially constructed gender roles feeds into the oppressive rhetoric that women should be nurturers, aspire to domestic responsibility and be dependent on the state or dominant sex (Davies, 2018).

Imprisoned women during the 1980s were deemed to “have fallen from the ideal of femininity” (Zedner, 1988, p.305), with reform efforts attempting to coerce them into forming aspirations of becoming the feminine ideal. Importantly, Zedner (1988) noted that reform efforts did little to understand or address the realities of their lives outside of prison. As such, most expectations and standards placed upon imprisoned women were unrealistic and unachievable to sustain upon release.

Contemporary research identified that jobs for female prisoners include cleaners, cooks and laundry workers (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020), indicative of penal regimes still reinforcing gendered roles and asserting domestic responsibility onto women. Further, rehabilitative practices within prisons were considered “unlikely to engender change” (Bullock and Bruce, 2018, p.1) due to not addressing the “real” problems faced on release (p.8). As such, employment outcomes for women existing prison remain poor (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020).

Corston (2007) suggested that prisons were built by and for men, resulting in harsher experiences for women due to regimes functioning through patriarchal delivery. As such, educational opportunity for imprisoned women was basic, with women asserting their participation was simply to pass time (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Corston (2007) depicted imprisoned women as vulnerable and victims, with limited control over, and choice in, their lives. Arguably, attributable to the previously identified notion of patriarchal punishment failing the needs of women (Hannah-Moffat, 2001).

Corston (2007) noted that almost half of women entering prison had no employment history in the 5 years prior to imprisonment. With many women still entering and exiting prison financially dependent on men or the state (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Further, the need to provide for children was highlighted by women, who explain their offending derived from inability to support families financially (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020). Therefore, women’s financial independence gained through employment would reduce the likelihood recidivism.

Crenshaw (2012) asserts that the incarceration of women acts to positions them as objects of social control, whereby institutional practices produce and sustain social categories and gender roles. The nature of patriarchal punishment increases the dependency of women, reducing their opportunities of employment and becoming financially independent (Moore and Tangney, 2017). From that standpoint, the very nature of imprisoning women is a state tactic to ensure women’s social mobility is decreased.

Corston (2007) identified that 75% of women released from prison were unemployed 6 months after their release. The tripartite positionality of ‘woman’, ‘ex-offender’ and ‘unemployed’ function on an intersectional level and perpetuates marginality for those of whom it is ascribed to (Tyler, 2013). In a world that is designed for men (Perez, 2019), being a woman, in addition to owning ascribed deviant labels such as ‘offender’, the unemployment rate of criminalised women is not surprising.

Maruna (2013) identifies there is an attached stigma to the ‘ex-offender’ label, which perpetuates the exclusion of certain groups, as a form of punishment. Importantly, ‘offender’ and ‘ex-offender’ labels are used by others, way past the incident(s) of committing a crime, therefore stigma as a form of punishment is illegitimate (Hart, Healey and Williamson, 2020). It is through illegitimate punishment caused through labelling and stigmatising discourse, that discriminatory employment practices are deployed (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020), negatively impacting upon women’s abilities to secure employment.

Justifiable and legitimate punishment must be a direct result of an offence, and only administered by those who hold state power to punish (Flew, 1954). It is through unjustified and illegitimate punishment, caused and sustained through labelling and stigma, by those without state power to punish. That criminalised women’s opportunities within the labour market are reduced (Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, 2020).

Kohm (2019) asserts humiliation and shame are a formal part of state punishment, rather than a by-product of it. Thus, the labelling of ‘ex-offenders’ is a purposeful and intentional form of punishment, functioning to sustain gender and societal inequality. As such, stigma can be recognised as a political tool embedded within criminal justice practice, to assert control over the lives of formerly imprisoned women, long past their court imposed punishment is over (Tyler, 2018; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020). The longevity of unjustified and illegitimate punishment has far reaching consequences (Beales and Wilson, 2015), including lack of housing and employment opportunities (Hoskins, 2014). All of which negatively impact on a desistance.

Adding to women’s oppression, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (2018a) released the Female Offender Strategy, in which it depicts women in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) as vulnerable, victims, mentally ill and chaotic. Depictions reflective of Corston’s (2007) over a decade before. Indicative of imprisoned women continuously presenting with the same characteristics. That said, state depictions of criminalised women do not accurately reflect who they really are (Tuck, 2009; Sandhu, 2017; Criminal Justice Alliance, 2019). Cecil (2007) asserts that criminalised women rarely get to tell their own stories, in their own words. Instead, representation of them is fed to the public by media out-lets, tabloid news and entertainment television. Often reciting the narrative of criminalised women as ‘mad’ ‘sad’ or ‘bad’ (Kohm, 2019).

However, it is not just media narratives that negatively portray criminalised women, evident in the stigmatising depictions offered by Corston (2007) and the MoJ (2018a). Describing women using stigmatising discourse such as offender or ex-offender often results in the formation of stigma management mechanisms, whereby social withdrawal and isolation are deployed as a form of personal protection from the consequences of stigma (Winnick and Bodkin, 2007). Such stigma management mechanisms negatively impact on desistance. Tyler (2013; 2018) positions stigma within a socio-political context arguing that stigma acts as a form of social control, whereby stigmatising discourse is fed to the public through media, political speeches and policy documents. In turn, legitimising negative public opinion and authorising punitive state control through law, policy and practice. This standpoint is reflective in the title of the Female Offender Strategy (2018a) as it ascribes the ‘offender’ label to thousands of women. Tuck (2009) suggests that the continued use of narratives and language which describe communities as broken and helpless, reinforce systemic and socially inflicted damage on those same communities. Thus, the strategies (MoJ, 2018a; 2018b) and reports (Corston, 2007) produced by the state, framed as ‘support’ or ‘guidance’ to improve criminalised women’s oppression. Actually, play a crucial role in, at best maintaining, or at worst increasing that oppression.

MoJ (2018b) data indicates over 50% of women released from prison between April to June 2016 went on to reoffend within a year. A contributing factor to women’s re-offending was lack of employment opportunities (Hoskins, 2014). Further, Sered and Norton-Hawk (2019) identify that women face a triple jeopardy of legal, health and economic obstacles which impact on their abilities to function within society.

In recognition of the need to vigorously change the way in which prisons and criminal justice policy supports people with convictions into employment, the MoJ (2018b) released the Education and Employment Strategy in which it notes that prisons have not been adequately preparing prisoners for release. Which has contributed to high recidivism rates. Importantly, the MoJ (2018b, p.5) state:

Work can provide a foundation for a different kind of life”.

However, whilst identifying that employment can contribute to changing lives, the MoJ (2018b) refer to people in prison as ‘offenders’ and former prisoners as ‘ex-offenders’. This suggests that people with convictions can have a ‘different kind of life’ but they will not be afforded a different kind of identity, other than the intentionally used stigmatising labels, ascribed to them by the state (Tyler, 2013; 2018; Kohm, 2019). Significantly, the MoJ (2018b, p.24) acknowledge the impact of stigmatising labels, stating:

“Many employers are still sceptical, at best, about recruiting ex-prisoners”

Despite this, the continued use of stigmatising language is evident through-out the strategy (MoJ, 2018b), sustaining the exclusion of the people it claims to support.

Desistance theorists have positioned desistance as a three-stage process, indicating that all stages must be reached in order to desist. Briefly, act desistance simply means acts of law-breaking stop. Second in sequence comes identity desistance, whereby individuals create and sustain a non-offender identity. Finally, relational desistance is reached through others recognising and supporting that change (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Act and identity desistance can be acquired through individual change, however as Weaver (2012) highlights, individual action is governed by external forces. Relational desistance needs receptivity and response to individual change (Weaver, 2012; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020) on a meso and macro level (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Simply, once acts of law-breaking stop and a person internalises a non-offender identity, there are conditioning structures (Weaver and McNeill, 2014) within society, out of individual control (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016) that impact on individual change being recognised. If change is not recognised within society, then act and identify desistance are compromised (Stone, 2015).

External factors which compromise the desistance process, are evident in the very system which uses desistance framework to form its policies, strategies and legislation (Cid and Marti, 2015). However, The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 places a legal duty on adults who have received a prison sentence of over four year, to disclose their previous convictions to potential employers for the rest of their lives. This restrictive legislation works on a macro level to exclude certain groups for the labour market and in doing so, increases the likelihood of recidivism (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). Moreover, the previously evidenced use of stigmatising language through MoJ strategies (2018; 2018b) is indicative of a system that will not be receptive to, nor recognise identity change. Thus compromising the desistance process. Sandhu (2017, p.7) suggests “deficit and problem-based narratives” contribute to the oppression of certain groups. As Nugent and Schinkel (2016, p.575) argue:

“Without significant changes in policy, the way in which offences are disclosed and perceptions of ex-prisoners in society

true relational desistance is unachievable.

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) (2019, p.3) have attempted to reframe perceptions of criminalised people, from vulnerable, and victims with chaotic lives, to:

“resilient, highly motivated, empathetic and knowledgeable”.

The CJA (2019) propose that individuals with Lived Experience (LE) of imprisonment can make effective leaders within the CJS but opportunities are rare. Impacted by systemic, cultural and structural barriers (Weaver, Lightowler and Moodie, 2019; Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020). Beales and Wilson (2015) argue that the longevity of the criminal identity results in perceptions of LE leadership being unrealistic. This highlights a systemic refusal to recognise identity change, and to support individuals through the desistance process. Contrary to the systems own recognition that employment reduces re-offending (MoJ, 2018b).

Ironically, the same system that dismisses the idea of LE leadership, calls on individuals with LE in voluntary and consultancy capacities (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, 2019), recognising the value of LE to effect change (Sandhu, 2017; CJA, 2019), but fails to offer opportunities to put them of the payroll (CJA, 2019). The practice of offering voluntary or consultancy type ‘work’ implies that those with LE are valued, but not valued enough to earn a wage, and not valued as much as professionals without an ex-offender label. Sandhu (2017, p.7) suggests consultancy methods of involving those with LE in debate, is recognising people as ‘informants’ as opposed to people who attain the skills and knowledge to effect change. This standpoint was eloquently crafted by Lorde (1982) cited in Lorde (2017):

“Whenever the need for some pretence of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes”.

It is not only the state who are complicit in exploiting those with criminalised identities by offering ‘informant’ opportunities. The voluntary sector also collude with this practice. Sandhu (2017) suggests that there is conflict in a ‘who knows best’ debate and utilising LE is often viewed as tokenistic (Buck, 2019). Revolving Doors Agency (2018) released an Impact Report, which names the CEO and former prison ministers. Significantly, the report identifies that various work streams within RDA have been developed by those with LE, however it fails to recognise and acknowledge their work by name, instead referring to people as a ‘forum member’. A further report published by RDA (2019, p.3) used a quote attributed to a ‘peer volunteer’. The attribution to the unnamed results in their contributions to epistemology being unrecognised, sustaining the power imbalance in knowledge production. In turn the work of the unnamed supports the development of organisational reputation. As Fisk (2006, p.1) captures eloquently:

“The reputation we develop for the work we do proves to the world the nature of our human capital”.

When people with LE of the CJS are involved in research or work, referring to their contributions namelessly does not show the reader, or the world, the nature of their human capital. Instead, it gate keeps their contributions and results in credit and attribution being offered to the organisation (Fisk, 2006). Cotterell and Morris (2012) propose nameless people are rendered powerless when their contributions to epistemology are not recognised. Suggestive of the existence of a hierarchy of credible knowledge, where knowledge gained through academia or professional practice is favoured over knowledge gained through LE (Sandhu, 2017). This assertion is evident within reports that include people with LE in debates, research and as ‘informants’ but only name CEO’s and government officials in reports.

There is a significant gap in research that explores pathways from ‘informant’ to LE leadership within the CJS (Sandhu, 2017). The CJA (2019) suggest there is an acute need to enhance our understanding of the pathway into leadership positions, for people with LE working in the CJS. Sandhu (2017) identified that development opportunities tend to target audiences such as millennials or emerging leaders, however, when considering leadership development opportunities, there was a reluctance to consider ‘ex-offenders’ as potential leaders.

Northouse (2019, p.5) defines leadership as:

A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”.

Additionally, Northouse (2019, p.9) suggests that power is related to leadership:

“Power is the capacity or potential in influencing change”.

The historic and dominant narrative of criminalised women suggests that they do not have the power, capacity or ability to fulfil leadership positions within the CJS. Due to their vulnerable status depicted by the state (Corston, 2007; MoJ, 2018a). Further, women are less likely be hired or promoted into senior level jobs (European Commission, 2019) due to male dominance across leadership roles. As such, the study focused on formerly imprisoned women’s experiences of leadership roles within the CJS. The lived experience accounts offered shed light on ‘living desistance’ and question, for even well-established desisters (Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020) are the bars ever truly removed?

The findings of the study indicated that authentic LE leadership emerges from agency, intrinsic motivation and a vision for systemic change. These concepts intersect to reconstruct stigmatised identities into strong, resilient and motivated LE leaders (CJA, 2019; Buck, 2020; Sandhu, 2019). This strength and resilience was captured by P14 who narrated LE leaders as ‘warriors’. One’s ability to transform “a life if shame into something of direct and explicit value” (Maruna, Porter and Carvalho, 2004) is a characteristic of a reformed identity within the desistance literature. All participants articulated how they felt they had transformed a shamed identity into that of an identity which bought direct value to the CJS. Maruna’s identification of “redemption scripts” (2013, p.87) provides the context in which this study argues that LE leadership positions within the CJS must have a distinct and different position, to that of a ‘success story’ of an ‘ex-offender’ (Hall and Rossmanith, 2016). As Gibbs (2019) asserts, personal success stories, although powerful, can contribute to wider personal and systemic harm as “individualised depictions of social problems are less likely to consider society responsible and more likely to consider individuals responsible for the problem”.

Maruna’s Liverpool Desistance Study (2013, p.87) conceptualises redemption scripts as the beginning of a criminalised identities reformation, which starts with an external force ‘believing in’ an ‘ex-offender’ and offering them space and opportunity to reconstruct their criminalised identity into something of value, where they can “give something back to society as a display of gratitude”. P27 narrated being ‘let in’ by her employer and articulated a sense of gratitude for that. Problematically, by being ‘let in’ P27 has been positioned within an environment which seeks to utilise her ‘success story’ as an ‘ex-offender’ to enhance organisational reputation as opposed to developing a role that utilises P27’s LE to effect systemic change (Thapar-Bjorkert, Samelius and Sanghera, 2016). Importantly, although the location of P27’s role within a prison is evident of a systemic change in the employment of previously imprisoned women, to work within a prison in a profession role. P27 asserted that she was never intrinsically motivated to change employment practice, or indeed to even work in a prison. The role was offered to her by her employer and after a yearlong bureaucratic vetting process, P27 noted that she did not want to work in the prison.

Of further significance, the utilisation of personal stories for organisational reputation as opposed to authentic LE leadership development, P27 identified that women’s ‘success stories’ were displayed on the wall where she works, after the women had been out of prison for a year. Although she did not specifically identify the reason for this, it is suggestive of ‘evidence’ of the organisation’s commitment to and delivery of rehabilitation, whereby rehabilitation is confirmed through statistical data of no further offences within a 12 month period after release (MoJ, 2020). A critique of the definition and evidence of rehabilitation within the CJS is relevant here but beyond the scope of the current study.

Another prominent feature which differentiates between ‘success stories’ and LE leadership narratives, is the resistance of self-labelling or acceptance of external labels of ‘ex-offender’. As Stone (2015) asserts, the desistance framework is underpinned by individuals being able to craft a non-offender identity. However, she goes on to identify that social structures can determine the “availability of certain identities, social roles and resources” (p.956). P14 and P21 showed a strong resistance to stigmatising labels. In contrast, P27 self-identified as an ex-offender and praised her employer for employing ‘a lot of ex-offenders’. Lack of attention has been paid to external responses to identity change within working relationships within the CJS (Hart, Healy and Williamson, 2020).

The findings within the study evidenced that women with LE of imprisonment can and do work within the CJS and are positioned as LE leaders in the sector. In absence of recognition of identity change by their employer. Thus, sustaining their confinement within a rigid and damaging discourse. Moreover, the act of positioning a criminalised woman as a leader without choice or ownership is evident of a dominant external force exercising its power to constrain personal agency (Hall and Rossmanith, 2016). As such, reinforcing the metaphorical bars which keep captive criminalised women’s stigmatised identities.

The definition of leadership provided by Northouse (2019) within the introduction of this research failed to capture the leadership narrative provided by P14 and P21. The need to re-consider the definition of LE leadership became significant when analysing P27’s narrative within the wider narrative accounts, and in line with Northouse’s (2019, p.5) definition:

“A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”

This however fails to capture the need for goals to change, as articulated by P14:

“It’s an immense role for me to fulfil what I believe is a primary purpose of me activating my lived experience to build a social movement of people with convictions to create social change”.

Further supported by P21:

“I want to effect change on a strategic scale, you know, impact on lots of people even if it’s not directly”

Both participants indicated that their leadership roles involved innovative change within the sector. The application of these narratives to the previously identified leadership definition, although fitting with ‘influencing a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, fails to capture the utilisation of LE to change the goals of criminal justice practice, which P14 notes, was about ‘fixing’ people as opposed to changing systems (Robinson and McNeill, 2008). Further, P27 stated exclusionary criteria which prohibited participation on her project:

“If they’re on methadone it’s got to be 30mls or less” (they can participate)

The acceptance of this exclusionary criteria within a service that provides purposeful activity within a female prison evidenced P27’s position as a leader which “influenced a group of individuals towards a common goal” (reducing methadone consumption to meet participation criteria) however, LE leadership should require a challenge of participation criteria which excludes cohorts of women who are in recovery from addiction.

The identification of Northouse’s (2019) leadership definition not fitting within the LE leadership discourse offered by the study participants, resulted in an acknowledgement that for LE leaders, a definition of leadership which captures the utilisation of their LE was needed. Sandhu (2019) defines an LE leaders as:

“Change makers, innovators and leaders who activate their lived expertise to inform, shape and lead their social purpose work, to directly benefit the communities they share those experiences with”

In recognition of the above, the findings of the research strongly support the use of Sandhu’s (2019) definition of LE leadership within the CJS. As such, leadership positions for those with LE should be grounded in the ability and space to utilise LE to innovate and change the CJS, not simply work within its current constraints as an ex-offender success story (Pollack, 2019; Jones et al, 2020).

Concluding thoughts

Women in the study clearly identified ways in which they were able to re-construct criminalised identities into that of identities of value, through their positions as leaders within the CJS. A strong sense of stigma resistance within 2 women’s narratives provided the context in which this study argues that personal and organisational acceptance of stigmatising labels, impedes effective LE leadership. As it reinforces and sustains marginality and exclusion.

The study further concluded with a recommendation that organisations who want to develop and sustain effective LE leadership positions, adopt Sandhu’s (2019) definition of LE leadership. To ensure that LE leaders are supported in their roles to utilise their LE for the benefit of their peers, and wider social and criminal justice improvements.

Finally, the absence of adequate critical reflective practice for one participant in the study supports the final recommendation, that organisations should adopt the definition of critical reflection offered by Brookfield (2009) and embed critical reflective practice within LE leadership positions across the sector, to help examine and dismantle harmful and dominant practice. Practice which, contributes to sustaining the invisible bars which continue to entrap criminalised women within leadership positions across the CJS.

The shift of the penal gaze; From sites to bodies.

I’m fascinated by trauma tourism, a concept that is routed in the politics of pain, spectatorship and consumerism. For those of you who are watching this concept develop, and also helping me in theory building, you’ll know that my ideas of trauma tourism have stemmed from space in the criminal justice sector as someone with lived experience of imprisonment, and within the disciple of criminology and an undergrad and postgrad student. My earlier thoughts on trauma tourism can be found in previous blogs on this site for new readers of seek more context.

In brief, there were two main drivers that led to my intense interrogation of wielding the pain and trauma of those who have experienced imprisonment. First it was through a sheer frustration born from seeing systems and organisations capitalise on trauma stories with no lasting benefit to those enticed with sharing their pain. Secondly, it was through the popular culture of prison based publications which capitalise on sensationalism and narrating other people’s pain.  

The ethic of this caused me discomfort. Anyone who knows about prisons knows they are places bound by the use of power. Often abusive power. Take for instance Doctor Amanda Brown whose professional role as a GP in a women’s prison resulted in The Prison Doctor publication. Brown openly disclosed confidential medical information, gained through her professional capacity, for the world to read. Supposedly a name change in the interest of anonymity redresses the sheer abandonment of her professional code of ethics. Why? Because the subject was a prisoner.

As I have been actively thinking through trauma tourism, what it is, how to define it, how is it relevant and who perpetrates it, lots of reading recommendations around trauma, ethics, power and prison came flooding my way. I picked up The Culture of Punishment by Michelle Brown today and read the Prison Tourism chapter. Drawing parallels from this work seems like a good starting point in helping to defining trauma tourism. Definitions of trauma and tourism already exist, and joining trauma and tourism together paints a fairly accurate picture of what it is. The act of moving trauma depictions, whether it be from prison to mainstream through books or through lived experienced story telling. But this doesn’t get to the root of power, ethics or consequence. So this is not enough. Who has the power to elicit trauma stories, who consents and how is that consent sought, and who is helped and harmed in the process? These are the complex questions I continuously battle with. There was a small break-through today. Not all of these questions have been answered but I think I’ve rooted trauma tourism as an expansion of prison tourism. In doing so, found more questions than answers!!!

Empty Spaces

Brown (2009) discusses two different dimensions of prison tourism. The tourism of former prisons which mirror museums and ‘incarceration live’ which offer tours in prisons where prisoners are currently held. These two dimensions of prison tourism I think, importantly underpin the development of trauma tourism.

Undoubtedly, prison tourism on its own raises ethical and moral question. Many of which Brown (2009) addresses. The aim here isn’t to critique prison tourism (I do do that too, just not here!) but to map out progression from prison tourism to trauma tourism.

Touring old prisons ultimately is about exploring the empty space and architecture of penal sites. The important thing to note here is the emptiness of the sites. Brown (2009, p.106) notes “prison tours are about the practical concrete details as well as the most sensational aspects of incarceration”.  Providing the reader with examples of prison Halloween tours where actors are enlisted to portray ‘mentally ill’ prisoners for tourist entertainment. In the absence of real prisoner presence. In essence, these tours provide space where people can ‘look at’ prisons without a look back.

‘Incarceration live’ tourism adopts a similar approach to showcasing the space and architecture of penal sites but includes the display of prisoners. Making it that bit more real, than empty penal sites. Brown (2009, p.116) indicates that visitors “are given firm instructions, often justified in frightening ways, to stay on the opposite side of the wall as inmates and to avoid eye or verbal contact”. Notably, prisoners being in the location but being rendered silent and invisible only exacerbates these tours as a means to look at pain and misery and slightly increases the chances of the penal spectator being looked back at.

Both of this prison tour contexts give rise to power, imagination and dominance. The popularity of them gives rise to shaping consumerism. What is supplied is demanded. Significantly, the tours underpinned by geographical space and architecture with the added opportunity to glimpse at a prisoner by avoid eye contact has resulted in further demand for access. This is where trauma tourism sits, where access to penal space has evolved into unconsented access to penal lives. Where penal sites are no longer the only places of tourism, but the bodies of those who have been denied engagement through incarceration live tours. Where just looking wasn’t enough.

The ever increasing prison based publications authored by those who have held profession positions of power within prisons, sits within the realms of incarceration live tourism by proxy. Hindered by lack of access in to UK prisons, the penal spectators become the penal workers who make a side buck by selling the trauma of other people. With sensitive and confidential information they are privy to as a core part of keep people safe. Where access to prison is denied, these publications become the sites of tourism, filled with trauma content as opposed to traditional prison tourism where empty penal sites are explored.

Take for example Samworth (2019) who left the prison service and then capitalised of the trauma he had witnessed in his professional role. In the knowledge of that fact that prison tourism is restricted in the UK, Samworth (2019) utilised his access to penal space and transformed prison tourism into trauma tourism by virtue of a publication ridden with sensationalist, fictional and exaggerated accounts of the traumatised penal body. In contrast to prison tourism, where penal space is experienced. Samworth provides a publication where the ‘creatures’ and ‘twats’ behind bars can have their trauma toured by the turning of every page. This is a shift away from the space of the penal system to a focus on the gaze of the penal body.

Similarly, Dr Amanda Brown sensationalised her GP career in prison when opting for a publication title of ‘The Prison Doctor; My time inside Britain’s most notorious jails’. Setting the scene of penal space but providing content on the penal bodies. Dr Brown discloses imprisoned patients tendencies to self-harm, their medications and their diseases. This book became a Sunday Times best seller and became replicated by another penal worker, this time a prison teacher. In a rebranded book launch earlier this year Skinner’s 2019 publication ‘Jailbirlds; Lessons from a women’s prison’ became ‘The Prison Teacher; My time inside Britain’s most notorious jails’. With the new book face almost exactly replicating Amanda Brown’s book. Pertinent here is that book content had no changes, only to title and book face changed. In recognition of the successes of Amanda Brown’s trauma tourism publication, replication of this has already began to continue to meet consumer demand of access to penal bodies.

On the flip side to publications providing access to penal space and trauma, which notably offer the reader at look at penal bodies being narrated by people they don’t belong to, without giving space for their characters to look back. Is the wielding of trauma across the CJS through the utilisation of lived experienced stories. Where prison tourism creates an absence of engagement, trauma tourism relies on it. Whether that be through eliciting unconsented information through professional roles of power or through actively seeking out trauma stories to share in blogs, on websites or at conferences. It can be seen as an act of resistance to a system for those with lived experience to share the sheer environments in which they have been forced to endure in the name of justice. As already noted, access to UK prisons as sites of ‘live incarceration’ tourism is very rare. What’s the next best thing, enlisting those who are generally looked at to tell us all about the trauma of prison when they get out? Literally, putting trauma stories on tour. Often under the pretence of ‘awareness raising’ or ‘change influencing’. We (criminalised bodies) have not only come from penal spaces of tourism, our whole bodies as become penal bodies of tourism, and then we are actually put out on tour with our trauma. We become the tourists.

As trauma studies show “systemic trauma is the repeated, ongoing violation, exploitation, dismissal of, and/or deprivation of groups of people” (Haines, 2019). As such, the exploitation of penal bodies in pursuits to raise awareness of our suffering by pleading to a moral consciousness actually form a part of the systemic trauma we face. Prison tourism violates us, trauma tourism publications exploit and violate us. Touring our trauma under misguided and false pretence, exploits us.

Brown (2009) states we must not only connect visitors (tourists) to experiences and conditions of imprisonment but also to “their own complicity in current penal practices and their own agency in altering those trajectories”. It isn’t quite good enough to take a standpoint of ignorance when ‘trauma-informed’ campaigns actually collude with systemic trauma. It isn’t quite good enough to say ‘it’s just a book’ or ‘harmful intent’ wasn’t there. We all know the impact of stigma, if we are consuming the publications full of stigmatising trauma discourse from the comfort of our mortgaged homes, while positioning ourselves as advocates for equality. We aren’t really understanding how inequality is sustained, and our own complicity in the maintenance of privilege.

Informed Debate and Authority; Criminalised persons’ vilified through a ‘helping narrative’.

As a formerly imprisoned person, woman, in addition to being a former mentor to those leaving prison, and a student currently studying for an MA in Crime and Justice. I’m somewhat excited, and somewhat disturbed, that a fellow captive asserts the lives of imprisoned people have “demonstrably failed, failed in their lives in a big way” and their imprisonment indicates that they have “messed their lives up so badly” (Martin, 2020).

To begin, I’d like to turn to Tuck (2009) who’s work underpins and drives much of my thought around damage-centric discourse. In her address Tuck (2009)

“Calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a flawed theory of change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless”.

In the opening of If Criminals Can Change…Then so should society and our prisons, Martin (2020) asserts a motivation for the publication is for “promoting informed debate around the prison system” and “supporting the reintegration of ex-offenders into society”. I call to question the authenticity of these statements, in the knowledge of the impact that stigmatising and damaging discourse has on oppressed groups. I’d go further, and state that the dominant labels which people attach to criminalised people are a form of invisible violence. The World Health Organisation define violence as:

The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”.

In this instance, the use of ‘power’ to label ‘a group or community’ that ‘has a high likelihood of resulting in deprivation’ can be defined as violent. The discriminatory practices deployed systemically and by society to those labelled ex-offender, is well documented within much literature surrounding prison, desistance and rehabilitation discourse. Tyler (2020) situates ‘stigma as the machinery of inequality’ and positions labelling and stigma within a socio-political lens, whereby the state are powerful owners of the deployment of stigma depictions, which result in the public being mere recipients of damaging and dominant discourse. As such, legitimising the oppression of those impacted. My own research with formerly imprisoned women who now work within the criminal justice sector, indicated that a strong sense of stigma resistance for self and others, was a characteristic of lived experience leadership. In short, we simply can not be and will not be passive recipients of stigmatising labels enforced on us by others, because they lead to our psychological harm and deprivation.

My interest in this discourse comes from theorising Trauma Tourism (see previously blogs), and the issues of purpose, power, intentionality and consequence of using the narratives and painful experiences of those in prison. The front cover of Martin’s (2020) publication indicates the content is “from thousands of one-to-one, heart felt conversations with people in prison”. As such, this sparked interest in the book as a case study. Importantly the only note within the publication regarding the content is that “the majority of stories, testimonials and quotations have been anonymised and identifying information has been removed”. Given that there is currently no way of verifying how these stories from prisoners were sought, links to the ethicality and morality of using them isn’t currently within scope. I have asked the author how the interviews were conducted and stories were obtained and I await an answer. The author indicates to want to “increase transparency” and I would hope that extends to information regarding consent and ethical frameworks guiding interviews and publications using prisoner ‘stories’.  

Although the content reading didn’t produce much thought around trauma tourism, it did ignite a consideration to what ‘informed debate’ looks like within the criminal justice arena. Firstly, and probably most obviously I’d take the position the ‘informed debate’ would, or at least should, resist the dominant and harmful labels that sustain oppression and inequality. However, it was evident within the first few pages that this wasn’t the case. I struggle to comprehend how a publication positioned as a resource to “support the reintegration of ex-offenders into society” can have any meaningful impact of criminalised people, if it contributes to violence against those same people.

Secondly, as Tuck (2009) argues, damage-centric work that aims to bring attention to peoples pain in attempts to influence change through authoritative redress, doesn’t work. In fact, it enables and again sustains the inequalities stigmatised people face. Damaging discourse within the publication is evident through-out the book where criminalised people are depicted as having ‘demonstrably failed’, ‘ex-offenders’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘incapable of living a crime-free life’. Further, it must be noted the Martin (2020) has indicated this book isn’t aimed at Criminology Graduates but more the general public who “already have numerous preconceptions and media propaganda to overcome”. In light of that, and as a Criminology Graduate, I would assert that this book plays well and truly into the hands of public dominant preconceptions and is a contribution to media propaganda.

Thirdly, the author states that the publication has been created with an absence of pre-conceived ideas. However, he states

“we must begin to differentiate between criminals; there are differences in crimes and differences in intentions. We can not justifiably group more that eighty thousand people in prison as all as bad as each other, all the same ‘lags’ or ‘cons”.  

From my interpretation of the above, the author is asserting a pre-conceived idea that we can justifiable group some, but not all, criminalised people as ‘lags’ or ‘cons’. Further to this, Martin (2020) asserts:

“It is possible to differentiate between violent and non-violent offenders”

Followed by and insinuation that people in prison convicted of non-violent crimes should be offered “protections” from people in prison convicted of violent offences. This is justified through suggesting that those convicted of non-violent crimes are “only in prison for a temporary period of time whilst they serve their sentence”. Lots could be said here but im going to keep this short, two keys points in the interest of informed debate:

  1. Unless you receive a whole life term of imprisonment, those convicted of non-violent AND violent crimes, are only in prison for a temporary period.
  2. This black and white thinking in the name of informed debate, ignored the issues of joint enterprise conviction, wrongful conviction and past violent convictions but not the index offence. (As well as many more issues).

Perhaps the most concerning from my perspective as a criminalised women and scholar, is the authors position of the female estate and experience whereby he asserts:

“The content of this book is very relevant to either gender in the U.K”

Despite being a male author and confirming his “experiences were gained in 5 men’s prisons”. I wonder, can we reliably and morally accept that a male authored book, with male participants, can be very relevant to the female prison and female experiences of imprisonment? Why was feminist criminology introduced, if the male experience was so very relevant to those experiences of women? This represents a very misogynist position which is based around a patriarchal system of punishment, which has and continues to invisiblise and speak for criminalised women. For a self-proclaimed “authority on the rehabilitation and resettlement of ex-offenders” I for one can confidently acclaim that the author does not and can not speak to women’s experiences of imprisonment and punishment. Women’s rights to voice and visibility have been fought for for too long, to accept this as appropriate and ‘informed debate’. In fact, credibility to informed debate, is flushed down the toilet when a male only publication claims to be ‘very relevant’ to women.

To end, a self-proclaimed “authority on the rehabilitation of ex-offenders” states:

“There are a number of mind-set milestones that a prisoner or ex-offender must go through to effect real change and to live law-abiding lives”.

He suggests that prisoners and ‘ex-offenders’ must

  • Have remorse
  • Understand the reason to their offending and know exactly where they went wrong
  • Admit responsibility
  • Rehabilitation: “I won’t do it again; I have learnt my lesson”
  • Reconciliation: “I want to make up for what I did wrong”

There is a lot to pick out of these points so I’ll stick to some important considerations. Firstly, all of these things are individualised. It suggests that if people can attain all of the above, they will have the capabilities to effect ‘real change’. This is ill informed and factually incorrect, as the desistance literature highlights. These are all micro-changes, and there is no identification of how macro and meso level changes are needed to sustain desistance. Indicative of pre-convinced, uneducated and ill-informed ideas on rehabilitation and resettlement.

Secondly, there is a wealth of research around learning disability and mental ill health, which impacts on one’s ability to show remorse, however this does not impact on one’s ability to no longer commit crime. To suggest otherwise, is harmful.

Finally, for now, admitting responsibility isn’t something that should be widely accepted as a component of the ability to lead law-abiding lives, for those who are wrongfully convicted and especially for those who have been convicted under joint enterprise. Despite the authors “guarantee” that “ex-offenders” will have a “more positive future” if they achieve the 5 R’s. There is no evidence base for this model being either effective or achievable.

Bearing Witness to Trauma: Co-ownership, Envy and the Self-indulgent Need to Narrate.

I began the day reading a journal article “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020). While reading the article, it became apparently that this work provides an interesting lens to begin a comparative analysis of depictions of trauma.

First and foremost I think it’s important to note that a critical analysis of Trauma Tourism does not negate acceptance of the on-set and experiences of trauma for the ‘authors’ of such publications. Simply, my critiques of Trauma Tourism and its harms, is not mutually exclusive to a lack of acceptance or identification of their lived experiences of trauma. I can, and I do, stand firm in my belief that Trauma Tourism publications are harmful, ethically problematic and serve a self-indulgent need to narrate other people’s pain, in the pursuit of increased human capital. Often deriving from a place of trauma commodification and fetishism whereby, accounts of extreme situations sell books. Books which offer the reader a trauma hit, from positions of borrowed emotion. Simultaneously, I can, and I do recognise a range of lived experiences result in different traumas. Again, a critique of Trauma Tourism isn’t to negate the trauma of others, it’s to prevent trauma perpetuation.

Quite frankly, I find it fascinating that people can call us to bear witness to their own traumatic experiences whilst producing literature within the field which propels and sustains the trauma of others. You become complicit in your own demise when you example acute unawareness in the limitations of your narrative. When your work sets out to provoke crises and you do nothing to resolve it, calls to empathy for personal trauma become somewhat redundant. When you create literature which forever suspends unknowing characters in positions of pain and despair, but you have the chance and the power and the voice, to ensure your own story gets to progress. That you get to heal and you get to be heard, that is not fair. There is no final account of our lives, my life, your life, anybody’s life. But when you steal trauma in a self-serving pursuit of human capital, you forever create a character…a character who is a real person, with a real family, who really feels that pain, and you put them in a story that never changes.

Riley was his name, self-harming was his game, which brought him more grief than anyone else. He’d had a hard life and it showed. A serial arsonist who would never be free, he was destined for a high security hospital, this creature and a half” (Samworth, 2019).

The above quote illustrates a depiction of person, whose personal trauma has been stolen for a story, which serves a purpose to build human capital for the “author”. The lack of consent and the lack of knowledge from ‘Riley’ means he’ll forever be “this creature and a half” because his power to change his character in a story he doesn’t know about is non-existent. As such, the “author” of this publication becomes the co-owner of Riley’s trauma and evidences the “author’s” authority as the interpreter over people who can no longer speak for themselves. Simply, there is nothing here to be gained from sharing the story of Riley, it is not by playing words, form a position of pitying spectatorship, that’s Riley’s trauma will be felt and understood. In reality, this quote highlights the essence of Trauma Tourism in which the “author” speaks for Riley, from a position of by-proxy, with arrogance and incomprehension.

For readers who have not read either publication, I’ll now provide an analysis of “A qualitative study exploring vicarious trauma in prison officers” (King and Oliver, 2020) and “Strangeways – A Prison Officer’s Story: Life behind bars with Britain’s most notorious criminals” (Samworth, 2019).

Aims of publication:

“The aim of the present study, therefore, was to add to the above limited existing literature on how prison officers in England and Wales experience Vicarious Trauma” (King and Oliver, 2020).

“By being so open and honest about what went on, I hope to help it do better, that’s all” (Samworth, 2019).

Notably, King and Oliver (2020) provide data capture methods, analysis of data methodology and evidence how participant consent was obtained and participants right to withdraw. Comparatively, Samworth (2019) notes: “Where necessary, names have been changed to protect the innocent- and on occasion the guilty”.  The juxtaposition of ‘open and honest’ with no participant consent or knowledge, obtaining data in a position of power and providing harmful traumatic depictions of real life, dressed as characters and ‘creatures’, exemplifies ethical and moral delusion.

 Implications from publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a harrowing account of the trauma experienced by prison officers. They do so in a way which distances the prison officers trauma from the prisoners traumas, although noting that the trauma experiences of prisoners can lead to personal and direct experiences of trauma for the officers. Notably, King and Oliver (2020) avoid depictions of specific and individualised prisoner trauma and still manage to explain how prison officers are harmed as a by-product of their duty. Further, King and Oliver (2020) offer solution focused narrative on how the prison service may proceed in protecting the health of their staff.

Comparatively, Samworth (2019) fails through-out the publication to address any limitations of his own narrative or perspective although notably he does attempt to offer a solutions focused agenda: “My grandad, though, always used to say, ‘Don’t bring me problems Sam – bring me solutions”. One of Samworth’s first solutions (although it isn’t clear what exactly he is aiming to solve) is ‘education in jail’ which he asserts ‘should be practical or else it’s useless’. Leading on to an assertion that current courses in prison are ‘aimed too high for most inmates who don’t give a shit about identity politics’.  

In the interest of clarify, and correction, I would firmly argue that “authors” who steal stories of trauma in self-serving pursuits for recognition and to appease trauma fetishism, are in fact the ones who ‘don’t give a shit about identity politics’. Further, the strongest critiques of this publication are coming from people who have first-hand experience of imprisonment, evidencing that we do give a shit about identity politics, especially when “authors” are suspending characters in states damage and despair in stories, without any awareness of their own identity politics. Upon review, the publication is dominated by stigmatizing and dominant political discourse, with personal identities being distorted and sensationalised in a narrative depicting a thirst to harm and punish.

A further solution offered by Samworth (2019) (again, there is no clarity on what these solutions aim to resolve) is to reduce or stop methadone in exchange for life management:

Addicts get disability living allowance, DLA, and it can equate to between £1,500 and £2,000 a month – as much as a prison officer earns! All you are doing is setting them up to fail. What addicts need more is life management”.

I hope the absolute ridiculousness of the above quote doesn’t even need addressing….. but I am happy to if its warranted…..

Limitations of publication:

King and Oliver (2020) provide a detailed section articulating the limitations of their study. Including, “the low sample size, which makes it difficult to generalise”. In contrast Samworth (2019) fails to address any limitations to his observation and analysis. I’ll address a few:

  • Ethically problematic as characters were denied the opportunity to consent, subsequently, denied the opportunity to challenge and/or withdraw
  • Neglects variety of experience – depicts politically sensitive narratives which drive political consequences from crime and justice
  • Inferiorizes the victims of trauma from an outside perspective
  • Exerts power in ability, rights and knowledge to define what does or does not compromise individual boundaries
  • Only representative of personal experience, not recognition of bias
  • Lack of awareness in the socio-political harms of producing trauma and the coercive element in transforming the reader in to sites of vicarious trauma – despite a personal recognition of how vicarious trauma has impacted the “author”.

In sum, what is clear is that the traumas experienced by prison officers as a by-product of their environments can be depicted and shared without the exploitation and theft of other people’s trauma. The use of quotation marks around the word author, is to identify that although the “author” of a publication, the traumas and experiences depicted within the publication do not belong to him, and he had no consent to “author” them.

I’ll end on a quote which demands consideration:

I want to warn against the allure of trauma envy, that is, the temptation that those of us who witness the testimony of others appropriate to ourselves an unmerited, unearned part in the story of suffering. It has been argued that vicarious trauma may have socially and ethically useful effects; but it may also be self-indulgent and ethically delusional” (Davis, 2011).

Borrowed Voices. Stolen Stories; The Commodification and Fetishism of Trauma.

For many of you, this piece will be an extension of closely followed dismay on my part, to some very unethical and immoral publications. Publications which, by and large have set out to, put simply, profit from misery, pain and in some cases even death. Much of what I have read speaks to a lack of integrity, compassion and basic kindness. The lack of these things coupled with the environments in which these traumas unfold, should evoke great ethical and probably legal concerns regarding patient confidentiality, the prison service workforce and exploitation of those imprisoned, to name but a few. 

There has been a mixture of support, shock and out-right dismissal at my concept of trauma tourism (See previous blogs: Trauma Tourism and The Metaphorical Blindfold), but on a personal level, some of the literature I have read has been so grotesque that I have gone to sleep and woken up with migraine. For me, there is trauma in reading about trauma. Aside from headaches and feelings of complete despair, there has been a small collective effort in recognising the harms of such work. Calls to begin to conceptualise Trauma Tourism within academic literature have been present but currently there are a few things which lead me to believe that my blog is currently the best place for this work to unravel

1.            I’m not actually an academic and have a full time job, a child and a master’s degree to complete, so timing to focus solely on building this work is lacking. I also am mindful of my own position tinkering on the edges of academia though undergrad and postgrad study with the knowledge of how difficult it is for the people who often appear in trauma stories to navigate into academic space. As with power to steal trauma stories, academia plays a role in excluding marginalised groups from knowledge production. Ultimately, and simultaneously working alongside trauma tourism to sustain the voicelessness and invisibly of certain groups. This blog isn’t about academia but the point needs to be addressed. 

2.            I don’t want this work and the developments in understanding the harms of Trauma Tourism to be inaccessible. In fact, I want as many people as possible to read it, digest it, reflect on it and ultimately, be a part of a collective to eradicate it. 

3.            I am really influenced and inspired by the work of Shadd Maruna, specifically his recognition of desistance as a social movement, led by people with lived experience themselves. On this note, I really believe that it is those that continue to be exploited through these Trauma Tourism publications who will really come together as a collective to envision and lead a safer and kinder way forward. This will be done through accessible resource, lived experienced leadership, collective knowledge building and resistance to the harmful practice of Trauma Tourism. 

I’m not going to use this space to give airplay to specific publications, but after reading a certain book this week, a few things of happened, which I’ll address in no particular order. My thinking and conceptualising this has been a million miles an hour this week and I’m speaking this out to mind maps and theory probably at an unhealthy rate. So bear with me. Initially, numerous comments came to me as means on endorsement that, broadly speaking “prisoners and prisoners families like/enjoy the book”. There is so much I can say about this but I’m just going to speak to the most relevant. (Just for context for any new readers, I am a former prisoner myself and the publication being discusses is a prison officers narrative of life as a prison officer). 

So, where to begin…. First I guess is the obvious and simple identification that just because something is likable and/or enjoyable, that doesn’t mean that is isn’t harmful. I think that this point is actually well evidenced by the author, who by all accounts depicts people and prison as harmful individuals but gets kicks out watching them in crisis without medical assistance. Just because something is enjoyable, it does not mean it is not harmful. 

Just to elaborate slightly on the above point about harm… when I say that Trauma Tourism is harmful, that harm really needs to be considered against a socio-political backdrop. Some of you may read this and think “how is reading a book harmful”? Interesting, a comment on twitter which endorsed this publication as ‘likeable’ also stating that if they had read a publication which depicted their own family’s trauma, they would be ‘devastated’. With this in mind, we begin to see how something that is ‘likable’, is only that, when it is not personal. When you or your family member are not the borrowed voice, or the stolen story. As soon as we begin to realise that in this instance, anybody in prison could be the selected character, our thinking tends to shift. The harm goes so much wider than personal devastation and disgust. 

I used an analogy recently to try to articulate the harms of Trauma Tourism, I don’t think I’ve quite captured the magnitude yet but this is what I am working on. Most of you will have a brief understanding of the concept of policing by consent… in honestly my knowledge around the concept is minimal but policing by consent briefly operationalises through public faith and trust that the police will protect us and keep us safe from harm. Policing by consent is reinforced and legitimised through media and news depictions of ‘violent thugs’ and sensationalist propaganda. How many times have you watched crime watch and thought you’d be safer with those people in prison? Importantly, recognition must be paid here to the defund the police position propelled by the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. Which aligns with my previous argument that it is the lived experience collective movement which influences and leads change. 

Anyway, a very brief articulation of policing by consent brings us back to Trauma Tourism and it harms. No, reading a book isn’t harmful. Endorsing and purchasing the trauma of those in prison for entertainment is. Trauma Tourism publication is a function to perpetuate punishment. So, in the same way that policing by consent operationalises through public engagement and endorsement, Trauma Tourism acceptance and endorsement is legitimising punishment by consent. We keep reading it, and for as long as we keep reading it, we are putting a price on trauma.

It’s the good old concept of supply and demand. Trauma has been commodified, through fetishism of ‘true crime’ and voyeuristic tendencies which bring pleasure from other people’s distress. Moving away from a prison system position, more broadly we can see how Trauma Tourism is legitimised socially through films like The Greatest Showman (which I love by the way), and the ‘odd ones’ performing at the circus. We see the drastic consequences of Trauma Tourism through the suicide of Caroline Flack. Our need for trauma or ‘reality’ entertainment, is why we keep on getting it. Would Caroline’s suicide of happened if she was not hounded by the media…probably not. Would the media of hounded Caroline if we weren’t consuming the tabloid press…..probably not. To quote Cluley and Dunne (2012):

“Contemporary studies show us, though, that ethically concerned consumers rarely act on their concerns – instead they act as if they were unenlightened about the negative effects of their consumption”.

If you are ethically concerned about the exploitation of marginalised and voiceless groups, who lack power and agency, it should be a personal and social responsibility to resist trauma commodification, call out voyeurism and reduce the consumer demand of other people’s trauma. 

To the Authors’, Brene Brown talks about brave leadership and calls for the removal of armour. Whether your armour be, ignorance, arrogance or fear. Remove the armour, there is bravery in the unarmoured self, willing to accept, learn and change. There is no integrity, no authenticity and no leadership in commodifying trauma to appease voyeurism. 

Those borrowed voices, 

Those stolen stories, 

Those broken bodies, 

They are not yours. 

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

The metaphorical blindfold

I was reading an article today for my MA studies and a sentence in a journal struck me:

the manifest function on allowing the victim of a firing squad to be blindfolded is to make the occasion less stressful for him, but it may also serve as a latent function for reducing the stress of the executioner” (Milgram, S. 1965). 

The context of this sentence was suggesting that the proximity in which harm is inflicted and the extent of that harm, is impacted by how close the inflictor of harm comes to their victim and how much the inflictor of harm can disassociate or deflect their harm. 

What interests me is the concept of the blindfold, and how this can be used as a means to lessen the effects of an execution to both the executed and the executioner. I bet many of you are reading this and thinking what is she going on about, and for those who know me a bit more, I bet you know I am soon going to be talking about the use of labels, their impact and consequences. Bringing into focus the metaphorical blindfold, of which many people use to ignore the harm in their actions, and words. 

Lots of research has already identified the harmful consequences of labels, in fact the MoJ have themselves identified the harmful consequences of labels, and they still depict stigmatising and harmful language within many of their publications. Further, and of great popularity, trauma tourism is becoming ever more popular within self-published books, often having to go through no ethics processes to negate harmful practice or to ensure fully informed consent is given to authors to effectively sell other people’s real life traumas as stories for profit. 

The metaphorical blindfold is real. 

In the example used to set the scene for this blog, the blindfold in an execution is a real one. Put over the eyes of the victim whilst simultaneously providing the executioner space to kill without seeing the pain, terror and fear in the eyes of another person. The blindfold has two functions, one is to relieve the stress of the victim, who will not see exactly when he will be executed. The second function is to provide the executioner with a reduction in stress as a result of not seeing the victim’s eyes. 

I wanted to use this space and citation to further explore how metaphorical blindfolds are used in trauma tourism publication, and the continued use of a damage based framework which continues to depict criminalised women as vulnerable, weak and in need of saving. Labels which, actually support and sustain our oppression and serve to exacerbate the inequalities that so many of us already experience. 

Let’s start with the obvious, when people write about criminalised people, those people nor the authors have a physical blindfold which stops them from seeing the harm they may cause through their discourse and narrative. Further, many people will have undergone a robust and vigorous ethics panel for approval of their research and future publication. This process is a process in which you can discuss aspects of any potential harm in research and writing, and to evidence ways in which you will mitigate harm and what procedures will be in place for research participants to seek support should they need it. However, as indicated self-published trauma tourism stories told from mouths of people who haven’t swallowed them, follows no such process. The absence of process to mitigate harm is a metaphorical blindfold in and of itself. Simply, you cannot plan to mitigate harm if you don’t have a process to even identify potential harm in the first place. So, in these instances the metaphorical blindfold as a means to offer the victim and the executioner protection, is only a self-serving form of protection for the author who persists in his stolen literature for self-attribution with no consideration to any potential harm they may cause.

The avoidance of ethics and identification of harm also allows trauma tourism to be published away from the realms of literature which is scrutinised and peer reviewed. This allows space where authors consider their work as unhamrful, when it is not. It just navigates out of the spaces where the harm would otherwise be identified and mitigated for. More than likely, reducing the airplay of our version of events told by them! 

More often than not trauma tourism publications are created without true knowledge and consent, often from professionals, in positions of power. The narrative stories of people they depict in their writings have no choice in their narrative because it’s being narrated by somebody else. They have no choice in whether they want their trauma in a storybook, because often a name change for anonymity is enough to influence publishers that that constitutes enough protection, regardless of how reading someone else’s depiction of your own personal trauma may affect you. What is also evident is that the popularisation of trauma tourism is often produced for entertainment but dressed up as informative innovation. What is clear is the regurgitation of people’s traumas through other people’s narratives does little to change the environments where those traumas exist. So, when you continue to support and share and write about the trauma of others, through your own words in a misunderstood theory of how change works, then you are intentionally blindfolding yourself through ignorance. You are blindfolding yourself as the executioner who is inflicting harm on those very people whose stories you have stolen, in a misguided attempt to bring about change. Trauma tourism publication does not offer a blindfold to the people whose stories are stolen and readable.  It is only executioners of trauma tourism who really benefit from the blindfold. 

Trauma tourism – but I’m holding those in power to account!!

I was lay in bed last night with the intention of disputing the notion of depicting prisoners as customers. I was going to reflect on my experiences as a ‘customer’ at HMP to really break down how inaccurate this depiction is. However, I refuse to articulate a regurgitated account of another misery memoir to validate an argument constructed around the publication of trauma stories, because trauma stories sustain victimisation, oppression and exclusion. Trauma stories, as evidenced, are lifted from individuals, without consent, crafted to align with publication objectives and promoted publicly with attribution and profit in human capital, directed to the author, who more often than not, gained their stories from positions of power. Doing this is an abuse of that power, selling stories which don’t belong to you in the pursuit of recognition and success, enables and sustains the voicelessness and exclusion of those who own the stories. Here one might say, “but raising awareness is helping” and to that I say “bollocks”. If you have set out to create a damaged narrative of people in a landscape where they have no choice or control, without clear intentionality of exactly how your work will help to increase the human capital of those you are stealing data from, then simply raising awareness and benefitting in the process, is a very flawed foundation to begin. It highlights a lack of awareness in how oppression works, how oppressive practice manifests in professional roles and how oppression is sustained.

I have been labelled a ‘Karen’, ‘bitter’ and ‘a troll’ for explaining the harmful consequences of the popularisation of trauma tourism publications. Needless to say, I feel an in-depth breakdown of how these practices, the supporters and authors are all contributing to and sustaining the oppression of the people they are openly proclaiming to support.

Where shall we start? This isn’t going to be an academic paper but it may be useful here to use a quote to contextualise the basis of my argument:

“In this open letter, Eve Tuck calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a flawed theory of change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless”. (Tuck, 2009).

Let’s now apply this to former prison officers who leave the service and seek to become authors. Authors of publications which intend to capture people’s pain, misery and deprivation in prison, with a belief that their content will ignite change. The basis of this argument must already hold a belief that the pain, misery and deprivation experienced in prison is accidental and/or unknown. In reality, that pain, that misery and that deprivation, are well known, historic, regurgitated literature and intentional state and systemic tactics enforced in the name of punitive justice. The inflicting of shame, misery, damage and trauma on people through imprisonment, is the intentional purpose of systemically violent practice inherent in the prison system, eloquently captured by Tyler (2020):

“Much research on stigma, and social action around stigma, brackets off from consideration the ways in which stigma is purposefully crafted as a strategy of government, in ways that often deliberately seek to foment and accentuate inequalities and injustices”.

As such, documenting the pains of imprisonment with the intention of holding those in power to account, ignores the fact that those in power actually intentionally and purposefully embed and sustain pain, misery and deprivation as a form of punishment for those labelled and offenders/ex-offenders. Therefore, the texts which a formed from this basis of using damage to effect change, are actually a part of the systemic oppression which operationalises through the continued depictions of prisoners traumas and damage. Now, I appreciate that the content above may be new to people, they may not fully understand it and they may contribute to the systemic oppression subconsciously however, shutting people down, positioning them as bitter and as a troll, in absence of trying to understand and learn from those who feel the impact and consequence of other people’s harmful actions, is actually indicative of oppressive practice in action. Probably also indicative of a misogynistic positionality also, but that can wait.

I’ll take the next section to expand on the states intentional and purposeful use of stigmatising discourse which perpetuates systemically violent practice, sustaining the oppression of people in prison and people with convictions. For more on stigma as a socio-political tool for exclusion see Tyler 2020 – Stigma: The machinery of inequality.

The World Health Organisation (2002) define violence as:

“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”.

When the state label people ‘drug users’ ‘mentally ill’ ‘vulnerable’ ‘offenders’ ‘ex-offenders’, in reports, publications, in the media and through the pop culture of ‘reality t.v’, that is their intentional use of power, against a group/community, that results in psychological harm and deprivation. Hence, violent practice. So, the state is responsible for perpetuating the damaging rhetoric of prisoners through damage centred labelling, in turn these labels are adopted in non-government publications, contributing to the same psychological harm and deprivation of groups and communities. To bring back Tuck’s (2009) critique, damage centred narratives do little to hold those in power to account, they simply perpetuation the oppression of said groups.

You may wonder, how does the perpetuation of stigmatising and damage based narrative contribute to the psychological harm and deprivation of groups and communities? Well, offender/ex-offender labels deprive people of access to housing, to the labour market, to education. They deprive people of the quality of life afforded to people without these labels. They harm people through marginalisation, exclusion and state inflicted oppression. They harm people financially through insurance premiums, the deprive people of visas and access to the hospitality trade. The experiences of deprivation and harm are endless. But the point is, the damaged based rhetoric and consequences of stigmatising labels, are state tactics to perpetuate inequality. And if you adopt said practices through damaged based narrative and stigmatising depictions of people and their traumas, you are a part of the cog that sustains oppressions and inequality, whether you know it or not.

To that end, my issues is not and never has been directed at individual people. My issue and critique of trauma tourism in the name of holding those in power to account, is political, is systemic and will only resolve through the resistance and activism of those who face and feel the consequences of such action. Usually not the authors or trauma tourism publication. In closing, now is the time to critically reflect on the harms you may be causing through a lack of education and understanding around the socio-political landscape of inequality and oppression. Now is a good time to consider ways in which prison officer publications which use unconsented damage centred stories, is violent and harmful practice. Now is a good time to think about the power dynamics at play when prisoners can pop up in damage centred publication without choice or consent. If you don’t want to do it, you are sustaining the very experiences you aim to ‘bring to light’ in the hope for ‘change’.

Some of us will do it properly, because we live with the consequences constructed through your actions.

To quote Lorde (1980):

“It is the members of the oppressed groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor. For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection. Whenever the need for some pretence of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressor their mistakes”.

Not because I am vulnerable

For those of you who don’t know me, or haven’t been following the blog or story for long, I’ll begin with a brief introduction to contextualise this reflective piece.

“Hi, I’m Michaela, 1st class criminology graduate, mum, work in user involvement across the prison estate, activist, resister, lived experience researcher and a former prisoner”.

I didn’t need to end that short introductory paragraph by dropping in I’m a former prisoner, but I chose to, and the reason should become clear as your read on. Now, before you read on, I want to just take you back to that word ‘chose’ because, choosing, when, where and how I share my lived experience, is and always will be, entirely at my own discretion. However, that doesn’t mean that other people won’t take my experiences and appropriate them, alter them, diminish them or dramatize them for reasons often outside of my control.

As an undergrad studying Criminology and as a former prisoner with years of lived experience, both personal from my own imprisonment and experiences of being a child deprived of her own mother due to state sanction, my position as a student was somewhat different to my peers. This reflection isn’t to throw stones, it isn’t to push individual blame onto anybody and it isn’t any criticism of my experience as a student, anyone who knows me knows that the last three years of my life in higher ed, has been the making me. However, seldom do we hear the stories of working class experience in university life, and rarer still do we hear and unpick the experiences of criminalised women studying, what came to be three years of their own oppression, disadvantage and the harms inflicted on them through structural and systemic violence.

We don’t hear these stories for many reasons, for me personally I held a strong fear of discriminatory treatment whenever a situation arose which caused any upset. Just to be clear here, I am not saying that I actually faced discrimination. I am saying that at times, the fear of discriminatory treatment did impact on my actions and words. I knew I had academic ability from early on in the degree, I knew I had the motivation and dedication to succeed, what I didn’t have, and never have had, in trust in a system to treat me fairly. I had to be better, I had to work harder, I had to read more, stay up later and start earlier. I had every essay draft read, I had every tutorial I could, I asked for reading lists and more resources, I used every grading grid and always aimed for a first. I was never happy with anything less than being the best, and that is something to do with the internal consequences of oppression, social exclusion and criminalisation. My good friends who are women with similar life experiences to mine, call this the ‘bigger, better, stronger, faster’ by-product of lives. We have internalised, often to our detriment that our practice, our thinking, our voices, our work, has to be bigger, better, stronger, faster….because history tells us, we’re replaceable, we’re added value but we aren’t valuable. We’re called vulnerable and we see people sympathise over us with their capes on, categorising us under their ‘widening participation’ umbrella, already indicative of the disadvantage we try so fiercely to overcome, resist and eradicate.

Moving on, I have the utmost respect for my tutors who have helped me over the three years and my days of writing without purpose just to slag something off are gone, so I am going to try to capture a reflection of some experiences with respect. And, I must also note that while I am going to critique some of these experiences and peoples actions toward me, they were not actions through malice. That said, actions not through malice but due to a lapse in thinking, a lack of knowledge and not foreseeing the consequences, often end up with people like me going to prison, so that’s one to think about isn’t it. (just a side note here if any of my lectures read this from third year, none of these happened in my final year and all the staff involved are elsewhere).

Through various aspects of my degree, we had external visitors come in who worked in different criminal justice fields, magistrates, solicitors, prison officers and the like. In fact, we have a semester dedicated to external visitors on a weekly basis to talk to us about applying theory to practice and what working lives looked like in the criminal justice sector. I has attended roughly 4 sessions during this specific module and listened to and engaged with 4 external speakers. On week 5 I entered the seminar room at around 9.15am with my coffee and sat down at a table with my friends. There were roughly 30 students in the room. After I sat down, the lecturer said “Oh Michaela can I just have a word with you outside before this begins”. I thought that was weird as I have no idea why they would want to talk to me. Anyway I said of course, and followed them outside the classroom. They proceeded to inform me that “Today we have a prison officer coming in, and I know your personal views and experiences mean a lot to you but don’t take it out them”……

I was absolutely astounded…. ‘Don’t take it out on them’. Let’s just be very clear here, I never gave any indication that I would ever take anything out on anyone, I had never engaged in anything other than academic discussion and debate, appropriate to the topic, and I have never given any indication that I had any damaging or harmful views or thoughts on individual prison officers, especially ones I would be happy or willing to air in front of a whole class. In addition, I had never personally told this person anything about my personal views or lived experience. Ever. So, what happened here? There was no conversation or concern and private chat around “this guest will talk about prisons and life working with prisoners etc so if you feel uncomfortable let’s have a chat or feel free to leave” etc. It was simply a well worded warning to not challenge the guest on anything. Exactly what I went, and paid to go to University to do.

No one else was warned into silence. Only me. I wasn’t warned into silence because of my vulnerability was I? So, the ones who are happy to depict as us vulnerable, as damaged, who talk of our lack of education, our oppression, and lack of opportunity. In that instance, recognised I wasn’t vulnerable, excluded me from debate and took away my right and opportunity to have a voice. Not because I was vulnerable, but because at that point in time, I was probably the most powerful student in the room to engage in discussion. I was shut down, because that person knew I had been prison. And that was the only reason. So, a place at uni under their widening participation agenda, does not mean equality of treatment or equality of opportunity and only goes to highlight that no matter where we are, we continue to face the societal consequences of criminalisation. Even from people who understand and teach the desistance literature. As I have said before, there is massive difference in understanding oppression, and feeling oppression.

Anyway, to put the cherry on the cake, the external guest to put it nicely, could have done with one or two challenges, when they reeled off a 20 minute speech on women in prison, and had only ever worked in male prisons! LOL.

We celebrate survival

Today has been hard, I’ve ignored calls from friends. Called back and cried. I’ve tried to make sense of my feelings and to remind myself that this too shall pass. I am currently sat on my bed with the world shut out by the curtains, accompanied only by the Cadbury Dairy Milk at my side.

Yesterday I submitted my dissertation, although I had never go to the stage of planning anything to mark the occasion,  lockdown and social restrictions subsequently made that impossible. Yesterday was something I have envisioned for three years. Within an hour of submitting work which took me to some very dark places over three years, I was in bed asleep. I felt so relieved to get it over with. I woke up this morning and felt sad, the analytical characteristics which have been ingrained into my thinking have stirred up some tough recognitions.  The only praise and recognition I received yesterday was from social media. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of you I really like, and most of you have really supported me over the years, which I think you all know, I appreciate and care deeply about. But what has struck me is the realisation that this space, for people with lived experience, is lonely. It’s lonely and it’s hard.

Over three years I have worked within a discipline that studies the very systems which create and sustain oppression. Systems which misattribute success and displace failure. Systems which encourage and accept our invisibility and voicelessness. I’ve worked hard over three years to not let anger indulge me and impact on my ability to advocate and work towards equality. The subtle anger has always been there, it is the underpinning concept of my endurance.  This anger and endurance belongs only to me. I don’t know what I was expecting yesterday, or today, or this weekend, to mark one of the biggest milestones in my life. But, it certainly wasn’t tears of sadness, feelings of isolation and the need to withdraw. But this is the reality of the lives of criminalised women who give up their anonymity in the pursuit of social justice.

I once wrote about being a kid, and going to another kids who, who had one of those big American style freezers which have an ice dispenser at the front. My dad was late picking me up and I was so embarrassed of my own house and knew I’d never be inviting that kid over to my house, after that night I just didn’t talk to her any more. We were different, we had different lives and I couldn’t make friends with people like that. Now, I wonder for those kids, who follow the footsteps of their families, and their peers into university, what they did to mark their educational milestones. I wonder who supported them, guided them and helped them. I wonder who was telling them they were proud of them. I wonder if those kids wrote their dissertations without speaking a word about it within their homes. I wonder if they submitted their work and then went home to bed without talking about it to their loved ones.

The stark reality of where I come from really hit me, when I considered the biggest endurance tests of my life so far. Prison and university. Ironically, my release from prison was marked by a welcome home cake, a big surprise family meal, flowers, cards and the like. So, despite my academic success and the utilisation of my lived experiences into a meaningful career. My personal life is still in a place where we celebrate releases from prison but have no ritual for actual achievement. What we do is celebrate survival. We celebrate survival because survival is all we have ever known. So, although I am feeling quite deflated, I need to mark this occasion. Reflection is so important, and while a part of me feels hurt that this milestone is somewhat neglected at home. I need to remember that we haven’t had any practice in this. People like me rarely get here. The odds are still stacked against us.

Perhaps I am lacking clarity in thought and in my writing, what am I saying here? Not for a minute should this be taken that I wish for a different response at home. Had I have not had my life experiences, I would never have even got here. Those gave and give me purpose, drive and ambition. I guess my point is, for the marginalised, our successes are not validated through academic achievement. Our successes are validated through the school of life. Through surviving trauma and just keeping on with it.

What does ‘resting’ and ‘celebrating’ mean for us, when our celebrations are of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays? Perhaps I succumbed to middle class thinking when fantasising about celebration of completing higher ed, only to be confronted with the harsh realities of my underclass position as the council estate, school excluded, naughty girl. The girl who survives and just keeps on, because that is all she has ever known.

Is there a point to this blog, not really. I just wanted to create something that captures this feeling, as best as I can in this moment.  I was thinking about the concept of celebrating, and then I thought about what I would be celebrating, when the conclusion of my work over three years ended with a recognition of structural and societal dominance over criminalised women’s lives. The inequalities, oppression and systemic violence which often leads us to prison in the first place. This is the shit that keeps us in places of prison release dates and abstinence birthdays as validation of our success. Maybe the celebratory discourse for me is harmful, and it led to me recognising why it hasn’t happened. We just keep on, keeping on. Surviving.