On Prisons, Freedom and Life Choices

Just a few months ago I walked into a women’s prison and was searched, patted down, scanned, and required to hand over my keys, phone, ID, jewellery and purse. I was accompanied by a uniformed prison guard and walked across to the general population dormitories.

I was just visiting, but the women I saw that day were there for the long haul.

Most people my age have never been to a prison, either as an inmate or as a visitor. To my knowledge, and that certainly isn’t an infallible measure, no one I know has friends or family members who are incarcerated. But tens of thousands of people in this country do spend their days at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and hundreds of thousands in the United States. I might not realise it but the odds are that someone I know has a loved one behind bars.

I arrived at the prisons I visited in the USA this summer without a clear idea of what I was going to see and hear. Of course I’ve watched films about prisons, television dramas, comedy shows and documentaries. I’ve read about prisons, and listened to radio programmes about prisons. But none of that had given me an image that matched what I really saw.

My first sight inside a prison was of a beauty salon. It was identical in almost every way to the beauty salon at my sixth form college, where teenage girls spent their days learning how to cut, dye and style hair, give manicures and massages, and communicate with customers. I only went in once or twice but the smell and atmosphere stayed with me, and resonated with the atmosphere of the prison salon.

The man who was guiding me around the facility was obviously, and justifiably, proud of the hair and beauty programme. He introduced me to the coordinators of the course, who – unlike in my sixth form college – were uniformed prison guards, stationed in a locked office where the bleach and scissors were kept unless signed out. The three guards chatted to me about the programme and how important it was for the women who worked there.

Shamefully, when I first spoke to one of those women I felt awkward, out of place and a little nervous. Despite knowing that the prison was a minimum security facility, and that statistically most of the women held there would have been convicted of minor drug or theft charges, I nonetheless felt anxious about engaging with prisoners. I assumed they would hear my accent, see my clothes, hear the proud introduction (“She’s from Cambridge University, England!”) and think that I was posh, stuck up, nosy, there to gawp or judge or criticise.

What they say about assuming turned out to be true. Every one of the women I spoke to, at that facility and in the other, higher-security prison I visited later that summer, and the former prisoner I met later still, wanted to tell me their story. They didn’t ask me what I was doing poking around in their business, or tell me I wouldn’t understand or treat me like I had no right to ask them questions – which I didn’t, in all honesty. I was surprised and gratified at how many people were prepared and willing to talk to me.

One of the other things which surprised me most was walking into the general population accommodation and seeing women wandering around from bunk room to bunk room (between two and six bunks in a room smaller than my bedroom) carrying cats. I simply hadn’t realised that prisoners might be allowed to keep pets. Later I learned that both the prisons I visited ran pet progammes, allowing selected inmates to care for and train abandoned dogs and cats ready for adoption. When I visited the puppy block, I have to admit to a tremor of shock. There were perhaps two dozen women in one large room, rows of bunk beds dominating the view and dogs everywhere. My guide told me that all the participants of the progamme lived and slept there all day, every day, and were only separated from their canine charges for a couple of hours a day at the most. It was noisy, it was crowded, and there was no privacy at all.

In the corner of the room was a pile of tiny puppies, only a few days or weeks old to my uneducated eye. They were fenced in with what looked like a fire guard; a prison within a prison, to keep them safe from the hundreds of feet tramping around the room. I gazed at them and cooed but they barely twitched in response. Being stared at was normal for them.

Upstairs I found an incongruously domestic living room, complete with sofa, arm chair, television and miniature flight of stairs to nowhere. This, I was informed, was to give the dogs a chance to practice the sort of skills they would need out in the real world: climbing stairs, not chewing wires, resisting the temptation to jump on the sofa. For a similar purpose, another small room housed a cat with her six tiny kittens who were only just old enough to walk but would soon be skittering around, socialising the dogs ready for any future multi-pet households.

The image was of something that my dissertation research has thrown up in another context: the unreality of life in a prison. For the men and women who are sentenced there, prison is the consequence of a series of choices made “on the outside”. Whether the sentence is long or short, it was preceeded and will probably be followed by time in the free world. But for some residents, prison is all they know. Residents like the cat and her kittens, the pile of puppies… and the babies in the prison nurseries of the USA and Mother and Baby Units over here.

In the United Kingdom, there is space for 84 babies aged up to 18 months to live with their mothers in prison. Despite the hundreds if not thousands of babies whose mothers are incarcerated, not all of those spaces are always filled. It isn’t an automatic process: spaces in MBUs are only given when it is in the baby’s best interests. It’s not usually in the baby’s best interests.

Sometimes babies are born during the sentence, sometimes they arrive at the prison with their mother. Either way, they spend the formative months of their first two years living in a highly peculiar environment. The reason the upper age limit for babies in prison is fixed at 18 months in the UK, and even lower in some parts of the USA, is that the evidence shows any longer stints behind bars can have serious and long-lasting effects on development. I have read about one little girl who, after leaving her mother in prison, would stand and wait at doors until someone opened them for her. She had never experienced the process of pushing against a door or turning a handle to open it herself.

Despite the information I was given by the staff of the prisons, about courses and rehabilitation and programmes and education and work, the overriding sense I got when wandering the hallways was one of time hanging heavy. A lack of purpose, in a strange sense. It is an odd thought that all the systems and procedures, programmes and classes, beauty salons and parenting centres and kitchens and libraries, were in existence because a constant stream of women are deprived of their liberty. Given the choice, not one of those women would have spent five minutes in that building. The friendly banter with the obviously well-liked guard who showed me around and the earnest talk of rebuilding lives and improving futures was not rooted in organic friendship or childhood aspirations. No one declares aged five and a half that when they grow up they want to talk a drug detox programme in prison.

At the moment I’m facing an uncertain future. I’ve spent the last seven months in a kind of limbo, not certain where I’ll be after the end of June, a date which is hurtling towards me at an alarming rate. Some days I feel panicky that I will graduate with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Other days I feel confident that I can face the future equipped with the experience, intelligence and determination to find something and make it work. One possibility that has never even crossed my mind is that I might end up in prison, but it happens. People’s lives spiral out of control when they aren’t looking. They make bad choices, fall in love with bad people, become desperate, and get caught.

I walked out of those prisons after a few hours. I got into my car and I drove home, listening to the radio, watching the world go by, and feeling extremely grateful for my circumstances. There, said a little voice in my head, and it’s saying it again now, there but for the grace of God go I.

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