The gate closes, the key turns; you are separated from everyone and everything you have ever cared about. This is reality. This is prison. You are alone, you are scared and no matter who you are…you have no idea what is in front of you. My name is 65595. That's my prison number but for me that is who I was and in some ways who I still am. I was a prisoner in HMP Cornton Vale, known as the vale of death, from 2000 until 2002, when I was released on parole.
In 2012 the Angiolini commission on women offenders concluded that 'Cornton Vale is not fit for purpose' and recommended that '[it] is replaced with a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public.' The commission was formed after a report by the inspector of prisons in 2009 concluded that the prison was in a state of crisis. A follow-on report in 2011 noted there had been little change. So, seven years from the original report and four from the Angiolini report, the changes have begun and women prisoners are being moved from Cornton Vale to other units throughout the country.
If I am hopeful, this is a bid to improve the conditions and treatment of women prisoners and if I’m a little cynical (which I tend to be), it's more likely that it allows the Scottish government to say it is acting when really the situation will not change. I am not sure that the issues which have been highlighted will be resolved simply by changing the landscape.
Women in prison have a number of issues: addiction and mental ill-health are prevalent, their social circumstances make a return to a 'normal' life impossible, and they often have a history of abuse. This abuse may have stemmed from childhood and is repeated over and over again or it may have been a one-off incidence. None of these issues are resolved with a short stay in prison and in most cases they are not resolved with a long-term sentence.
The reason is that prison is just that…prison. It is not a mental health ward and it is not equipped to deal with the situations that arise. That will not change with the landscape or the size of the cell or the number of prisoners. The Angiolini report made a lot of recommendations which, if all successfully implemented at the same time, may
make a difference, but let me tell you a little secret, something that only someone who has been there will know…
will not change your life until you
are ready to change it…
And that is the problem. Women don't know how to change it. They cannot walk away from the little family they have, the friends they have are like family, they know that it's hard, they know it's what they are supposed to do but I have lived that life. I have been there. There is an inherent mistrust of all things, especially if things start to look too positive. When you have lived real life you learn quickly not to dream and sometimes good things just look like that…they look like dreams.
The majority of the women I met in prison have had a difficult time, they have been in violent and challenging relationships, they have learned that even those they love the most can hurt them the deepest, from the mother who drank to the father who sold their body to his friends. They don't trust anyone – least of all someone who is there to lock them up every night, when there's a risk of something being 'written up' in medical notes or prisoner notes. They will not tell them their secrets, their fears…because 'fear is weakness' and 'no one likes a grass.'
You may think I am being dramatic but in reality I am being pragmatic. Talking can get you killed, your family hurt, or make you live in more fear than you have ever felt; and fear can drive you crazy and can lead to crime. Alternatively, women prisoners will tell you absolutely everything…well, everything they want you to know. That can work to their advantage. They have learned from an early age to use their tears, their bodies, their minds to get out of situations. Even those with severe mental health issues will do what they can not to take responsibility, and it's not just authority figures.
At the time of my incarceration the vale of death had a listening service of which I was part. This allowed other prisoners to talk to those who were 'at risk.' It was a valuable service and was needed but it was not a simple task…it could take many visits for someone to be really, truly honest about what was happening with them and that was only after they were certain that what they had told you wasn’t going anywhere else. Trust is a massive issue. I have talked many times about how I still do not trust and despite my life changing so dramatically I do not believe that I will ever have a 'normal' life, able to trust and believe in others.
The other issue I have with these reports, and indeed with my writing to you, is that when we talk about women prisoners we talk about them and they. The reality is that not every case is the same, not every prisoner has a drug problem or a mental health problem. There are those who just 'made a mistake' and there are those that in truth are fully aware of what they are doing…they want to get the most money the quickest way, they have limited skills and don't want to work for the minimum wage, long hours with no money, when they could be selling drugs or themselves and earning more than your average MP, so why would they? Because it's the right thing to do…well, right for who?
When I heard the doors were closing on Cornton Vale can you imagine my relief…my sense of freedom…my happiness that it was to close. Well, if you can, you would be doing just that – imagining. Because I felt none of those things. Instead I felt just one thing. I felt incredibly sad. So sad that I sat for the best part of 20 minutes and stared at a wall. The other thing that can't be captured in reports is that for those two years Cornton Vale was my home and the home of other prisoners – in some way we were a very large and very dysfunctional family. The vale was overcrowded, we were locked in our cells sometimes for 23 hours when staff was short and yes we had to pee in the sink…even when the cells were shared! But ….
When I was in prison I experienced life, not life as many people see it, not the reality that is shown on TV (the Kardashians wouldn't last a day), no – this is life in its rawest form, this is life as many will never see, life at its hardest with people just trying to keep their head above water and not drown in despair. It's hard to explain but I will do my best to…
In prison you are surrounded by people who don't judge. They don't brand you – with the exception of women who hurt children (but that is a subject I'm best not writing about). In prison people take you as they find you and often because your offence is written on the card on your door, you're just another person, someone else who's mucked up. I have received more judgement since my release than I ever did inside.
Yes, there are issues. Not everyone gets along, we don't sit around holding hands and clapping, but there is a bond, an understanding. One of my clearest memories is the day that a woman, dubbed one of the most dangerous women in Scotland, committed suicide. The women in question was a LTP (long-term prisoner) and was known by almost everyone in the block, not because they were scared of her or because she was notorious. It was because when a new LTP came in she'd talk to them, she'd say hello, ask if they were okay and help them out.
On the day she died, she was found by a young LTP (who later committed suicide). The block was so silent that day that, even when we went for dinner, the food hall was silent. Not a single noise…people weren't talking and the queue moved silently…some of those serving had tears in their eyes. The prison officers were watchful but respectful – they seemed to get it, everyone did, we had lost one of our own, someone had given up the fight and realistically there probably wasn't a person in there who hadn't felt like that at some point.
Cornton Vale may be filled with the most dangerous women in Scotland, but prison is alluring – it makes you feel safe, there are no bills, no responsibilities, you live simply as you have no real money, and there is no expectation for you to have more. Women return time and time again because when you get out you have to deal with life, people, responsibilities and sometimes it's easier to return to 'family' and a roof over your head.
The key turned, the gate closed, and I learned many lessons. Some good – never judge a book by its cover. Some bad – trust no-one. But I learned because I decided I wanted to change my life and I didn't want to go back to where I was. Do I think this would have been achieved with all the current proposals? If I didn't want to do it, the answer is no, because what these proposals will take is time and money and that's not something that is in abundance.
The mentors, the additional support workers, the benefits helpers, the additional training for staff – it all costs money. Asking prison officers whose starting salary is £17,521 rising to a maximum of £28,891 to train and deal with the various mental health issues prevalent in prison is unfair to both staff and prisoners. Just now I only see a change in scenery. What I don't see is a real change in attitude.
Soon the gate will close and the key will turn for the final time. Only then will we understand whether Cornton Vale was the problem or whether in reality the issues which have been highlighted are just diluted in quantity, spread over a wider area and of less notice because the reports will be on smaller units.
This article was first published in SR in 2016