From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal. Who cares?

“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 … 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?’” That was then, ten years ago, to the day. This is today: From February 2018 to May 2019, four women have died at HMP Styal: Nicola Birchall, 41, February 2018; Imogen Mellor, 29, June 2018; Christine MacDonald, 56, March 2019; Susan Knowles, 48, May 2019. None of the deaths was treated as suspicious. BBC News reports, “The latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report, in May 2018, was positive.” 

Here is what “positive” looks like: “95% of women said that they had problems on arrival. 53% said they had a problem with illicit drugs on arrival and 27% had an alcohol problem. 72% reported having a mental health problem. There were 735 incidents of self-harm in the six months to March 2018. Four women were transferred under the Mental Health Act in the six months to March 2018. 65% of women released who were not on home detention curfew did not have sustainable accommodation. Some women had been in and out of custody up to 11 times in 12 months.” Positive.

According to the most recent Safety in Custody Statistics, England and Wales, the general picture for incarcerated women, including remand prisoners, is equally grim: “Self-harm trends differ considerably by gender, with a rate of 570 incidents per 1,000 in male establishments (with incidents up 25% on the previous year) compared to a rate of 2,675 per 1,000 in female establishments (an increase of 24% in the number of incidents from the previous year). In the 12 months to December 2018, the number of self-harm incidents per self-harming prisoner was 4.0 for males, and 8.3 for females, increases from 3.5 and 7.0 respectively in 2017.” The majority of self-harm happens to those who have been in custody 31 days to 3 months. 

The latest Inspectorate report on HMP Styal was positive concerning the prison’s attempt to follow recommendations from earlier reports, but the situation remains dire, and that’s the point. The individual deaths of Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles are suspicious, as are the high rates of self-harm. 

In 2007, Baroness Corston noted, “There are many women in prison, either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences, for whom prison is both disproportionate and inappropriate. Many of them suffer poor physical and mental health or substance abuse or had chaotic childhoods. Many have been in care … I have been dismayed at the high prevalence of institutional misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of the things that matter to women and at the shocking level of unmet need … There can be few topics that have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system.”

That was 2007, sparked by conditions in HMP Styal. It’s 2019, and still few topics have been so exhaustively researched to such little practical effect as the plight of women in the criminal justice system. Every death, injury, harm, unmet need, vulnerability is suspicious and should be treated as such. What happened to Nicola Birchall, Imogen Mellor, Christine MacDonald, and Susan Knowles? Nothing. There is nothing celebrate here.

(No More Prison)

“Why can’t I quit you?”

In March, the Metro Police Department had a minor publicity issue when one of its own was arrested in an anti-prostitution sting targeting clients.  Officer Robert A. Schmidt was charged with solicitation after agreeing to pay an undercover female officer $80 for sex.  Solicitation is a misdemeanor in the District, however, solicitation tends to be treated completely differently within both the police department and the courts.   Like in most other U.S. cities with anti-john laws, D.C. still tends to focus most of its resources on policing the sex workers themselves.  Since most workers are woman-identified, these sort of tactics have been declared to be discriminatory on a few select occasions, though not most.  Women are the largest group arrested on charges of prostitution with transgender workers being the second largest groups.  Male workers and clients only make up about 2-3 arrests per night.  In recent years, a few U.S. cities, most notably San Francisco, have instituted reforms targeting clients in order to cut off demand for sex work altogether.  In Sweden, authorities have even gone so far as to decriminalize sex work itself, while criminalizing the act of solicitation.  The intent, however, remains the same: abolition.  Even when tactics target male clients and not workers explicitly, abolition still sends the statement that sex work is wrong and inherently exploitative; workers are victims worthy of pity rather than a safe and fair wage.

With the intent of seeming more even handed in enforcing the law against engaging in and soliciting prostitution, D.C. utilizes “rehabilitation” programs for individuals charged as clients of prostitution called “john schools” as a means of teach clients about the ‘inherent’ harms of prostitution like “crime, fear, and health disorders”. School is one day long and consists of testimony from “a psychologist, survivors of prostitution, prosecutors, police, health professionals, local residents, and business owners”.  The finger is pointed at these clients instead of pimps, police, and other abusers; it also virtually ignores systems, which not only perpetuate the practice but make it dangerous. These schools, with a fine, are offered in lieu of the typical penalties for first time offenders.  Officer Schmidt’s charge was dismissed after he completed “john school” and his record is clean.  It is a safe bet that workers arrested that same night had a different experience.

Despite the fact that the law itself is written indiscriminately, policing practices and the ability to expunge one’s record and avoid jail time through “john schools” signify that anti-prostitution policy remains discriminatory in practice.  Authorities have acknowledged a legitimate interest in keeping clients, especially middle-class white men, out of jail and their records clean, yet, the state seems disinterested in considering that the lives of workers would also be improved by not having convictions, police harassment or their daily lives disrupted by jail time or fines.  The practice of the law quite literally values the lives of men over women.  Low arrest rates of clients, likewise, means that there are generally low recidivism rates compared to workers and recidivism often leads to harsher sentencing.  Workers who are unable to pay increasingly high fines are more likely to spend as many as 180 days in jail.  Street workers often come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and often are parents or are supporting others.  The criminal justice system tries to see these individuals apart from their relationship to the larger community and fails to acknowledge that jail time is an unpaid absence from work.  It’s a loss of income for the worker and often for their families that is further complicated by court fees and fines, which require them to work more.  Separation from family, especially children, has problematic short and long-term complications. Children whose parents serve time in prison are often left vulnerable to higher incidences of abuse, neglect and rape; if unable to stay with extended family they are placed in state care not because their parents are necessarily unfit but because they were working.  How can advocates of criminalization claim that these practices are in the best interest of women?

Imprisonment is especially complicated in regards to transgender workers, a group, which has been disproportionately targeted for harassment and arrest in D.C.  With the passage of the amendment adding gender identity and expression to the D.C. Human Rights Act in 2007, the Department of Corrections has had to change its intake and housing policy.  Previously there was no system in place to change a person’s gender in the criminal records database, even if they had undergone transitional surgery and/or had their name and gender legally changed.  This caused many women to be automatically placed into holding cells with males and led to high incidences of sexual assault.  The new policy ostensibly would allow for transgender persons to be housed in either the general population or protective custody of the gender they are deemed by the Transgender Committee. Transgender inmates must also be allowed access to hormone treatment under the new policy even if they had not started prior to arrest.  The new policy also requires strict nondiscrimination.  It has yet to be seen, however, how the policy will be carried out and though seemingly benign, the daily reality of imprisonment poses its own dangers.  Genitalia are still the primary indicator used for determining housing and it is unlikely that many transwomen would be housed with biological women or that they would even choose to be.  Likewise, protective custody is simply euphemistic for solitary confinement; these inmates are placed in single-person cells and only given two hours outside of these cells a day to shower and exercise.  Because of this, few knowingly choose protective custody even when they fear violence among the general population.  Transgender men and women are not passive victims of a system which hasn’t yet ‘caught up’, but they have been targets of a system which bent on eliminating them.  Disproportionate and violent targeting of transgender workers, as well as all woman-identified workers, sends precisely the signal it intends: abolition.

(Image Credit: DC Trans Coalition)