Barbaric treatment of women prisoners

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 129 February/March 1996

bed handcuff

Holloway prison in north London first hit the headlines on 19 December 1995 when the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, pulled his team out midway through an inspection, disgusted at the squalor of Britain’s largest women’s gaol. NICKI JAMESON reports.

Ramsbotham’s reaction must have come as a shock to the Home Secretary, who undoubtedly expected the ex-military man would give him an easy ride, in contrast to the eight years of criticism which the Home Office and Prison Service had been subjected to by the previous Chief Inspector, Judge Stephen Tumim.

Among the things which particularly horrified Ramsbotham and his team were massive rats inside the gaol, piles of rotting faeces, food and tampons thrown from cell windows and women with headlice who could not obtain medicated shampoo.

More fundamentally, the inspectorate witnessed the degrading treatment of mentally ill prisoners, victims of abuse and some of the many foreign nationals who end up in Holloway. They also blew the whistle, and not a moment too soon, on the treatment of pregnant women, particularly regarding the barbaric practice of chaining them and any other prisoner attending the nearby Whittington Hospital.

I went to the Whittington myself in June 1995 to see a friend who had just had a baby. In the corridor outside the maternity ward I saw a woman who was chained to two male screws and accompanied by another female one. She had given birth to her child three hours earlier and was subjected to this medieval rigmarole in order to have a cigarette. It was a gruesome spectacle and to me at the time a measure of public indifference that nobody else passing by appeared to be shocked.

But shocked and outraged the public at large has certainly been since the full extent of the practice of shackling has been revealed. The normally anti-prisoner (but also anti-Tory) Daily Mirror ran a photo-montage of Home Office Minister Anne Widdecombe, depicting her chained to a hospital bed, with a ‘How would you like it?’ headline, the day after she publicly defended the practice on ‘security’ grounds. Both Alan Howarth MP, who defected from Tory to Labour in July 1995, and Emma Nicholson, who switched from Tory to Lib-Dem in the midst of the Holloway furore, cited their horror at the chaining of women prisoners as a deciding factor in their change of allegiances. Indeed, the revelations of barbarity were too much for most of the British middle classes to stomach, far too close to the sort of inhumane practices they condemn in other ‘less civilised’ countries, and (no doubt with half an eye to gaining a few more Tory wets in the process) both Labour and Lib-Dems were forced to speak out against chaining in uncharacteristically strong terms.

There followed a series of slightly bizarre discussions about whether midwives should go to the prison instead of prisoners to the hospital and when exactly labour begins, culminating finally in a government climbdown.

Welcome as this reversal must be to any women faced with the prospect of giving birth in custody, the real question remains as to why anyone in their right minds would want to send pregnant women or those with tiny babies to prison in the first place.

Who are these dangerous women?*

The female prison population is very small in comparison to the male one; however, it too is growing. On 30 June 1995 the number of women in prison in England and Wales reached a record 2,002; 7% more than the previous year and 24% more than on 30 June 1990. In comparison the male prison population has risen by 5 and 12% respectively.

A high proportion of female prisoners are on remand: 27% on 30 June 1994. Many women remanded in custody do not ultimately receive prison sentences. Only 26% of women remanded in custody in 1993 were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment, compared to 41% of male remand prisoners.

Approximately half of all sentenced female prisoners are gaoled for either theft, handling or deception charges, or for drugs offences. 36% of women sent to prison in 1993 were fine defaulters. In 1994, 260 women were gaoled for not having a TV licence. In a report into Risley prison in 1994, the Chief Inspector of Prisons noted that up to 60% of sentenced women there were fine defaulters and that the numbers had ‘doubled over the past three or four months’. Approximately 40% of sentenced women prisoners have no previous convictions (compared to 17% of men). A quarter of women prisoners are black or from other ethnic minorities; many of these are foreign nationals arrested for drugs importation and deported on completion of their sentences.

So has the chaining ended?

For women in labour or attending antenatal classes hopefully the ordeal of chaining is over. The government has, of course, left itself a get-out clause whereby women will be handcuffed on the way to hospital, unshackled in a waiting room and re-manacled before they leave, ‘unless there is a particularly high risk of escape’.

For other prisoners attending hospital, even in extreme circumstances, there will be no change. In 1994 Kurdish prisoner Cafer Kovaycin was chained to a hospital bed while receiving treatment for 40-degree burns, following a violent attack on him; Irish POW Patrick Kelly was similarly treated following an operation for skin cancer in 1995. Such barbarities will continue against both male and female prisoners. ■

* Facts and figures from NACRO Briefing on Women in Prison, September 1995.

FRFI planned to publish an article on Holloway by Clare Barstow, a long-term prisoner now in HMP Durham, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Holloway. Her article was posted to our office twice and on both occasions mysteriously never arrived.


Stop press

Seven prisoners have been paid £4,500 each by the Prison Service in an out-of-court settlement as compensation for the stress and trauma they suffered when the 1990 Strangeways revolt began, and prison staff abandoned the gaol. Other prisoners are now expected to pursue similar claims.

Letter from Jaan Laaman in US prison

jaan 3

Red Greetings and solidarity. I wanted to say thanks for your support in recent issues (258 and 259), and to let you know I got some positive developments in my struggle to not get indefinitely sent to Communications Management Unit (CMU), a repressive control unit prison.

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Inside News - FRFI 261 Dec 2017/Jan 2018

IPP scandal continues

Despite repeated promises from government and the Parole Board to address the scandal of the over 3,300 prisoners who continue to serve the discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) no real action is being taken to release those stuck in this nightmare. On 13 November the Court of Appeal refused to overturn the IPP sentence imposed in 2006 on then 18-year-old Daniel Sayce. Sayce was given an IPP with a minimum tariff of 14 ½ months for a robbery in which he stole £1.50. He has now served 11 years. His lawyers said that his IQ is too low for him to understand the prison ‘offending behaviour courses’ which might compel the Parole Board to deem him safe to release.

Some good news on legal aid

In April this year a legal challenge brought by the Prisoners Advice Service and Howard League against the removal of legal aid for various prison law cases resulted in the Court of Appeal ruling that the government should restore legal aid provision for Category A reviews, decisions about referral to Close Supervision Centres and pre-tariff reviews for life sentence prisoners. However, following the judgment nothing happened, as the court did not set any timescale for implementation and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) said it would be appealing further to the Supreme Court.

On 3 November the MOJ announced that it was dropping this planned appeal, and in a subsequent letter to the charities which brought the judicial review, said that legal aid in the three relevant categories would be restored by February 2018.

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Long Lartin prisoners protest

long lartin prisoners
‘Tornado team’  is the term used to describe the squads of prison officers who are used to break up riots and disturbances.  In the past they were known as C&R teams or the MUFTI squad and had a reputation for extreme brutality towards prisoners.

In the early hours of Thursday 12 October, ‘Tornado team’ prison staff were sent in to E wing of high security Long Lartin prison in Evesham, Worcestershire to forcibly end a protest which had begun the previous evening.

A life sentence prisoner gave this account of events on E Wing in to the Miscarriages of Justice UK (MOJUK) organisation:

‘The disturbance was down to three prisoners trying to air their frustration at being kept on Basic for long periods of time. They asked to see the governor etc but were denied. They refused to go behind bars at lockup on Wednesday 11 October and then caused a disturbance with a snooker ball and a stick. This got out of hand and damage was caused. E wing was taken over and set on fire; staff then retracted from the wing. Tornado were called. It was a very scary situation.’

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The state of British prisons: overcrowded, violent and angry

birmingham prison
Birmingham prison, December 2016: prisoner protected then and again in August 2017

On 26 August prisoners at Haverigg in Cumbria staged an angry protest as the prison joined the increasingly long list of those introducing a ban on tobacco. A further upheaval occurred the following week at Birmingham prison. Such disturbances are now routine within a prison system that has always been punitive and austere, and which is once again at a tipping point as both numbers and violence continue to increase. The prison population has doubled since 1980. According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between prison numbers and levels of crime. Nicki Jameson reports.

Overcrowded and dangerous

On 7 September the House of Lords debated prison overcrowding, highlighting how ‘The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world’.

There are 116 prisons in England and Wales; as of 30 June 2017, they held 85,863 men and women, with 282 children detained in ‘secure training centres’ or secure children’s homes. In Scotland, which has a separate criminal justice system, 7,453 men, women and children were in custody at the same date, while a further 340 were serving the final part of their sentences at home subject to electronic tagging. Out of every 100,000 people, 182 in England and Wales and 170 in Scotland are in prison.

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