Saturday 17 May 2014

Leah Thorn, the poet and activist facing and transforming the lives of women in prison

Further reading: Inside: the power of books in prison, written by me for human rights organisation Liberty and based on my own prison work.

I wanted to highlight the work of a heroine of mine, the poet, activist, performer and prison worker Leah Thorn, who has granted me an exclusive and in-depth interview, below. Given the UK government's latest measures to restrict parcels, including those containing books, going into prisons, we desperately need the action and advocacy of individuals like her to convey and address the reality of life in prison, especially for women. Some of her work with women in prison has been captured by the film-maker Suzanne Cohen in the highly acclaimed documentary Beautiful Sentences, which can be viewed here:

Leah also gave a TEDxWomen talk on incarcerated women and the transformational power of poetry, which can be viewed here:

She is currently making a film of her poem Shhh! which, she tells me, "is about sexism and the continued need for a feminist revolution" and will be submitted to poetry and film festivals upon completion. The film is being made by Second Shot, a production company at the men's prison HMP Doncaster, where Leah spent time filming and talking with the men about issues the poem raises. As I write this, on 4th April 2014, Leah is giving a performance and talk about women in prison and the power of poetry as part of the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury. Later in the year she will be teaching a six week summer course at Canterbury Christchurch University, entitled What Does The F-Word Mean To You?

Leah Thorn photographed by Suzanne Cohen
Image taken from Leah Thorn's site

Following the government's extremely unpopular new measures regarding the prison system - please click here to read the official response to protests against these measures - I asked Leah more about her experience of working in prisons:

How long have you been working with women in prison and how did you get into it?

I've been working in prisons with the Anne Frank Trust for about eight years. My commitment to women’s liberation means I focus a lot, but not exclusively, on the incarceration of women

Do you see the issue of women in prisons as a feminist one?

Completely. Women make up a small, and consequently ignored, minority of the overall prison population: 4.8% in England and Wales. The starkness of women’s imprisonment keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and more aware of the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women.

I am uneasy about quoting statistics that are freely used to designate incarcerated women as 'the most damaged women in society'. Diminishing a woman to a number denies her resilience and ability to survive and serves to distance her from women outside of the Criminal Justice System. However, the figures clearly show how incarcerated women have been targeted and controlled:
  • 53% of incarcerated women have reported emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, with a similar proportion of women having been victims of domestic violence
  • 31% of women prisoners have spent time in care as children
  • 40% of women in prison left school before they were 16
  • 46% say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life
  • 30% of women entering prison require drug detoxification.

Certain populations of women are more vulnerable than others to being criminalised. For example, Black women are four times more likely than white women to be incarcerated and frequently receive longer sentences for similar crimes.

One in five women in prison in England and Wales are Foreign Nationals, technically those who do not have a UK passport. A significant number have been coerced or trafficked into offending. I have worked with women whose only experience of England has been a Customs hall in an airport, a court and a prison. I have witnessed the bewilderment, loneliness and fear of women unable to speak a word of English, who have no-one on their prison wing who can speak their mother tongue. It can take days to find another woman who can interpret and explain what is happening.

Two thirds of women in prison are mothers of young children and many of the women I work with spend their sentence desperately concerned about their children's care and whether they will lose parental rights. In any one year in England and Wales, 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by incarceration. Only 5% will stay in their own home. The others will be cared for by family members or put into foster care.

Despite public outcry, pregnant women are still put into prison and four babies a week are born to women in prison. It is hard to see a woman locked in her cell hours from giving birth, alone and exhausted. Sometimes a prison officer is designated as a woman's birth partner but it often happens that the woman gives birth when that officer is not on shift. Women do not give birth inside jail except in medical emergencies and women are no longer restrained with handcuffs when giving birth, although some women still fear this. However, the women is usually on an open maternity ward with constant bed watch, which means having two officers either side of them for their whole stay. At present there are seven specialised mother and baby units  in England - there may well be fewer by end of the year - and newborn babies can stay with their mothers for between 9 and 18 months.

Older women are the fastest growing age group to be imprisoned. Last year in England and Wales, 368 women aged 50 or over (including 55 pensioners) were jailed, an increase of 139% in that age group. Many are primary carers for disabled or elderly dependants.

Dishonesty is the biggest reason for women's incarceration. More than two thirds serve time for non-violent offences such as shoplifting, welfare benefit fraud, employer fraud and receiving stolen goods. Research on mothers in custody found that over a third said they offended because of ‘a need to support their children’, with single mothers being more likely to identify a lack of money than those who were married.

There is also a strong likelihood that women’s offending is prompted by their relationships with men. Coercion by men can form a route into criminal activity for many women.

Women entering prison are likely to be serving short sentences. In 2012, more than 4,500 women entered prison to serve sentences of 6 months or less. More than half were given sentences of 3 months or less, whilst more than 1 in 10 were sentenced to 4 weeks or less.

Of course there are some women in prison who have committed violent crimes against adults and children and I never dismiss what their early experiences and resultant undealt-with distress have led them to do. Many have committed violence under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol and many perceive their offence as retaliation on a society that has not protected or valued them. However, their treatment in the Criminal Justice System is unlikely to help them face what they have done and move on.

What kind of work do you do with women in prisons?

I am a white older woman, who goes into women's prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women's liberation activist. For two years I was writer-in-residence in a women's prison and I now run poetry-for-empowerment projects across the prison estate, most recently with women who self-harm and with older women. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women's liberation and incarceration.

In my workshops I support women to express their thoughts and experiences through discussion, individual and group writing activities and listening and performance exercises. I encourage the women to share their writing, not for literary critique but for the sense of connection they get from the recognition and appreciation of others.

During my prison residency, we devised poetry performances to mark events such as International Women's Day, Black History Month and Holocaust Memorial Day. Poetry performances were also taken into workplaces like The Cleaning Academy or the crafts workshop or to the Education Department. It was inspiring to see women flourish into powerful performers, whilst their audiences changed from being reluctant and suspicious to being engaged and moved. It was affirming for the poets to experience their work being so well-received and applauded.

Poetry anthologies were compiled and edited to validate the women's creativity and thinking, including the book 'release' which was written by, and for, women in prison who self harm. 'release' contains poetry, women's stories and a feminist exploration of self harm and the book has been circulated by the Ministry of Justice to all women's prisons. One prison returned the books saying they did not have a problem with self-harm and several prisons expressed the view that the women's stories were 'too graphic and potentially upsetting'. This is ironic, given how graphic and upsetting self-harm is for the women who do harm themselves, as well as for the women around them and for the staff who have to deal with the consequences.

Do you feel that this work is effective and why?

The workshop space provides one of the very few safe places in the prison for women to express themselves truthfully and with emotion. The nature of creativity enables women to remember who they are as individuals, not as 'offenders'. And, unsurprisingly, having warm human connection helps raise self-esteem and self-confidence and build trust and openness between the women.

What are some of the personal stories of women you've encountered that stay with you and provide either hope & inspiration or a cautionary tale?

Here are a few things that are firmly in my memory:

A few women who have committed violent crimes will be held in isolation, locked up for 23 hours a day, with the remaining hour spent alone in a high walled courtyard. The isolation can obviously exacerbate feelings, and acts, of rage. So one woman I worked with had been in these conditions for six years, because the prison (with the best will in the world) could find no alternatives. She could only be unlocked if six officers were present and this treatment increased her rage, which in turn 'necessitated' further restrictions of freedom. It was clearly a self-perpetuating cycle. I am not saying that poetry was the answer, but I do know that for the two years we worked together, her levels of self-harm reduced. And as she began to open up about her childhood and teenage years, she began think afresh about herself.

I spent quite a lot of time on Healthcare, connecting with women through locked doors and that is a very strong memory for me. I witnessed a woman being put onto the Healthcare Wing, as she was shaking and crying hard and it was deemed that her mental health was ‘deteriorating’. Here was a woman who was responding in a rational way to incarceration. Yet instead of being offered more human connection, she was restrained and forcibly taken by officers to a bare cell and locked in by herself for 23 hours a day. She could be heard throughout the prison screaming ‘Is there anybody there?’ and ‘Can you help me?’. This of course brought up painful feelings for other women and for staff, as well as being devastating for the woman herself. I do not know how I would cope were that to happen to me.

As a safeguard against accusations of sexual abuse, I was taught in training never to get physically close to a woman and never to touch her. There are times, though, when I decide to put my hand on an arm or even hold a woman and because the outcomes have been positive, [ie she has not harmed herself or she has not need heavy medication], I have never been stopped by officers. In fact, there are some officers who will give physical comfort when it is clearly needed.

Lastly, in order to have access to all areas of the prison without an escort, I carried keys as a writer-in-residence. This meant wearing a heavy black belt at all times, with a pouch attached that contained the keys on a thick metal chain. I was worried initially about the difference this would make to the relationships I could make with the women. I did not want to be identified with the authoritarian aspects of the prison and locking up and unlocking women from their cells or Wings was a hard experience for me, especially when they thanked me for locking them up. However, I soon realised that listening and encouraging and respecting them overruled the strangeness of one of us having the power to incarcerate the other. The women were so ready, and eager, to give and receive warmth.

Why did you choose this issue on which to base your TED talk?

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons. And also because TED talks can advocate individualistic solutions, rather than putting forward a wider political perspective on issues. I wanted to make sure there was some good old Second Wave non-liberal analysis on the day!

I explained how the Criminal Justice System plays a key role in framing and sustaining the oppression of women. It is important to acknowledge this form of social control and view it as an issue for women's liberation for several reasons:
  • The Criminal Justice System provides a lens through which to view the many ways women are punished for the impact on them of sexism. Working class women, and particularly Black working class women, are disproportionately represented in the system. The Criminal Justice System is wider than imprisonment, but I focus particularly on the incarceration of women as issues of sexism, male domination, racism and classism are so starkly apparent within the setting of women's prisons.
  • The social conditions that fuel women's routes into prison, such as poverty, isolation, harassment, substance dependency and abuse (along with the emotions and mental health challenges that arise from these conditions) are often intensified by the experience of incarceration. On leaving prison, most women go back to the same conditions as when they entered but with the additional distress of their experience of imprisonment.
  • Ultimately, the threat of containment and restraint gives ALL women the message 'This is what happens to you if you speak out or act out'.
  • Community solutions are more effective than incarceration in helping women turn their lives around and in diverting women, and particularly young women, away from criminal activity before they start offending.

You have now worked in the US and the UK women's prison systems. What are the main differences between them?

I write from the perspective of living in England, the 'lock up capital' of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 people are in prison. Thanks to a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population imprisoned, although these statistics may need revising later in 2014.

Sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women's narratives. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. The stories and poems I heard from incarcerated women in the States were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion with those of women in England. In both countries I have listened to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

However, there are differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. One example is the Corston Report (PDF), commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody in Styal Prison. The remit of Baroness Corston's investigation was to address the need for 'a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach'.

The report makes a powerful case for diverting women before they get into prison and providing them with support and resources to help them deal with the results of sexism, poverty and racism. It costs £38,000 a year to keep a person in prison in England & Wales. When women are imprisoned, there are the additional costs of ensuring their children’s well being and maintaining family life. For a woman to attend a women’s community centre for one year costs £1,900 a year per woman. These projects will support her to look at her ‘offending behaviour’ in the light of the hurts she has experienced as a woman and give her practical support to deal with financial, legal, relationship, addiction and emotional challenges.

One of the first successes of the Corston Report was to stop the regular strip searching of women - 'Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.' However, strip searching of women prisoners is still common practice in most North American states.

Unlike the United States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women - eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

Of course this exploration of issues needs to expand to include experiences in countries other than the UK and the US, including those that have a different perspective on incarceration. For example, Scandinavian countries and some indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia focus increasingly on the social and economic causes of offending rather than on the punishment of the individual. Prisons are being closed and support provided in the community.

Within prisons there is a real need for gender-appropriate training for staff with a particular emphasis on respecting women, understanding abuse and developing awareness of responses to trauma. Well-supported accommodation is needed on release, to break the cycle of repeat offending and custody and through-the-gate services are key. Women may leave the prison clean of drugs after detoxing inside but they come out onto the streets often unmet by anybody, with £40 that the government gives them and a see-through sack with all the possessions that they brought into the prison. Many will have lost their accommodation and many of them will be over 50 miles away from family and friends. They come out and either want to take drugs immediately or despite their best wishes they go back to their previous ‘haunts’ and acquaintances. Many are very vulnerable to men's distress. It was not unusual to say goodbye to a women and hear her say 'This is the last time I’m coming to prison'. Within a month, she would be back in my poetry group, feeling like a failure.

I have read and witnessed you speaking very passionately and knowledgeably about this issue. How did you professional history lead you to this point?

I came to Women’s Liberation through my job in anti-sexist youth work in the early ‘70s. Feminism informs the way I see the world, the way I live, but if I’m honest I did become discouraged seeing the gains of the Second Wave dismantled and appropriated. Working in women’s prisons has completely brought me back to myself, re-fuelled my passion for a feminist revolution.

And of course there is always a personal story behind the action. Everywhere I go, I go with an awareness of being a Jewish woman and with the strengths (and challenges) that arise from my identity as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. In my early twenties, I began to understand the role of by-standing in the death of my German grandparents and I decided I would never willingly be a bystander. My prison work is part of that commitment. In prison, I employ useful skills I learned from being my mother's daughter - like, how to stay calm (or appear calm) in the midst of chaos and panic or how to use humour to lighten potentially dangerous situations. Working in prison means coming face to face with all that is wrong in the world and I want to ‘fix things’, [tikkun olam], with all that is rational about that, as well as all that comes from the urgency and unbearable-ness of seeing suffering up close, stark, stripped bare.

Leah Thorn can be contacted by emailing