Harm’s Way – HMP Styal

An epidemic of self-harm is said to be sweeping the women’s prisons of the United Kingdom: “The number of women deliberately harming themselves in prison has almost doubled in five years…. Officials recorded 12,560 cases of women prisoners injuring themselves – mainly by cutting and burning – last year, equivalent to almost three incidents per inmate. In 2003, 6,437 instances of self-harm were recorded in English prisons, about 1.5 per inmate. Although women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, they account for more than half of all self-harming incidents. Many of the women in prison have been convicted of minor crimes, but suffer high levels of mental illness and drug abuse…. A total of 4,291 women are currently in prison, a slight fall on last year, but still nearly double the number held just a decade ago. Research suggests that more women are sent to prison for shoplifting than any other crime. Forty per cent of sentenced women serve just three months or less. More than half of women in prison report they have suffered violence at home, and one in three has suffered sexual abuse. Two-thirds have a neurotic disorder, such as depression, anxiety and phobias.”

Harm does not sweep prisons. Harm overcrowds and chokes prisons. Harm organizes and rules prisons. Prisons are harmful, especially for women.

On Monday, June 22, twenty female prisoners were raped in a prison riot in the central prison of Goma, in the DRC. We are told the men were trying to escape; the men are militia members, in prison for murder, rape, and other major offenses; the prison is meant to hold at most 150 and currently houses 600 prisoners. We are told that rape of women and of men in prison is common. We are told a great deal. Of the women, we are told nothing.

On Tuesday, June 23, the U.S. National Prison Rape Elimination Commission finally released its report. The Executive Summary opens with the harm: “Rape is violent, destructive, and a crime—no less so when the victim is incarcerated. Until recently, however, the public viewed sexual abuse as an inevitable feature of confinement.” The Introduction opens with the haunting: “Sexual abuse is among the most destructive of crimes, brutal and devastating in the moment and carrying the potential to haunt victims forever.” The Commission emphasizes that rape in prison is not inevitable, but it might as well be in a national “culture that jokes about prison rape.”

Rape. Torture. Violence. Guantanamo. The Obama administration considers “issuing an executive order that would authorize the president to incarcerate some terrorism suspects indefinitely.” Not convicted felons. Suspects. Bagram. Twenty-seven former prisoners detailed this week the abuse and torture they suffered and endured in Bagram: “physical abuse, the use of stress positions, excessive heat or cold, unbearably loud noise, being forced to remove clothes in front of female soldiers”. Not one of the former prisoners was ever charged or tried. Suspects. Israel has its own private Guantanamo, Facility 1391, where who knows what goes on. But more generally Israeli security forces have been accused “of deliberately shackling Palestinian prisoners in a painful and dangerous manner, amounting to a form of torture.” Suspects abounding.

Rape. Torture. Violence. These are the Big Stories of the Horror. But hold on. In Arizona, for over a decade, male prisoners have been paraded in public in women’s pink underwear. In the U.S., women prisoners in childbirth are shackled. Casandra Brawley, a former prisoner at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, is taking Washington State to court for having shackled her during childbirth: “Brawley said she was shackled by a metal chain around her stomach during transportation to the hospital, then fastened by a leg iron to a hospital bed throughout several hours of labor. The suit alleges her restraints were removed during an emergency 
cesarean section only after a physician insisted, but then were 
replaced after the procedure.” Calling a woman in labor a security risk is a joke, right? Like prison rape, or making a man undress in front of a woman, or making a man dress like a woman.

In the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women serve three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. Women prisoners’ self harm is neither epidemic nor outbreak. It’s life. It’s part of the harm of being a woman in a neoliberal political economy. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, said as much in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sits HMP Styal, “one of the largest women’s prisons” in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal. Anna Claire Baker, a 29-year-old mother of two, a remand prisoner, was found hanged in her cell in November 2002. Sarah Campbell, 18, took pills, informed the staff she had taken pills, and was promptly left alone in a cell, to stew for a bit. She didn’t stew. She died. So did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, also died after taking pills. The tragic deaths of these six women at Styal was the impetus of the Corston Commission. According to Nicholas Rheinberg, the Cheshire Coroner who conducted the inquests into the deaths at Styal, “I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died.” That was then.

This is now. February 27, 2009: “The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal in January last year, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?” What’s that you said about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and thereafter as farce?

Harm is more than injury, it’s “Evil (physical or otherwise) as done to or suffered by some person or thing.” In a world in which women in labor are shackled and sick women are left alone to die, women prisoners’ self harm is simply a structural adjustment, another efficiency. The evil that men do lives after them. So does the harm.

(Photo Credit: https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.