Another atrocity in the hellhole that is HMP Bronzefield: Shut it down!

HMP Bronzefield, in Surrey, England, is England’s and Europe’s largest women’s prison. It is run by Sodexo “Justice Services” (because irony is really truly dead). On September 27, a woman, alone in her cell, gave birth to a child. The child died. The Director says, “We are supporting the mother through this distressing time and our thoughts are with her, her family and our staff involved.” Sodexo is “undertaking a review”. The Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, which is supposed to be the agency that investigates deaths in prisons and detention centers, is not conducting an investigation. Surrey Police are investigating the death, because it is as yet “unexplained.” End of story. HMP Bronzefield, In Surrey, England, is England’s and Europe’s largest women’s prison.

Less than a year ago, the Chief Inspector of Prison conducted an unannounced inspection of HMP Bronzefield. He found the prison “to be an excellent institution … an overwhelmingly safe prison”. The Inspector went on the explain this overwhelming safety: “Recorded violence had increased markedly since our last inspection, but most incidents were not serious … Self-harm among prisoners remained high, but overall the care for those in crisis was good.” The prison is overwhelmingly safe except “that the population of prisoners held had become more challenging in recent years”. Where is the safety in increased recorded violence and high rates of self-harm?

According to the Inspector’s report, “Pregnant prisoners were identified and immediately referred to midwifery support. Links with midwife and specialist perinatal services were good. Antenatal services were of the same standard as those in the community.” Where was the midwifery support last week? Nowhere to be seen.

In 2017, Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca was pregnant and a prisoner in HMP Bronzefield. Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca also gave birth alone, unattended, in her cell. Her child survived. What happened to Petruta-Cristina Bosoanca? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

In 2018, Laura Jane Abbott submitted her Ph.D. dissertation, The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons. Abbott relates the experiences of Layla, who gave “birth in her cell without midwifery care.” Abbott notes, “Layla’s testimony highlights the ‘institutional ignominy’ and ‘institutional thoughtlessness’ of a woman going into labour and birthing her baby inside her prison cell. Staff portray their experiences of childbirth inside prison and my field notes support other conversations with informants. Layla’s distress as her labour progresses to the birth of her child in a prison cell at night reveals alarming and inappropriate behaviour on the part of the staff.”

What happened a week ago in a cell in HMP Bronzefield? Woman gave birth, alone, unattended. Baby died. Nothing new. The overwhelming majority of women in HMP Bronzefield are living with mental illnesses and economic challenges to their wellbeing. They don’t belong in prison. As long as HMP Bronzefield stands, whether it’s public or private, the State will pretend to try to “fix” it, while using it as dumping ground for women it deems disposable. When HMP Holloway was closed, because of its insufferable conditions, where were many women sent? Bronzefield. As long as “justice services” means “criminal justice”, so long shall women in the care of the State give birth alone, unattended, in prison cells. Begin the process of restorative justice by shutting down HMP Bronzefield and opening the gates. Remember this, no prison ever was, ever is, or ever can be “overwhelmingly safe”. 

(Photo Credit: SurreyLive)

When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home

Today, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, an all-party committee, released a report, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. The report argues that women matter, that women’s contact with the criminal justice system is particular to women’s situation in the world and in London specifically, and that something should finally be done about supporting “women who offend and those at risk of offending.” While the report is welcome, as far as it goes, it also notes, repeatedly, that much the same call was made a decade earlier, and that, in that decade, little or nothing has been done. In that sense, the report is far too kind to history. This is the story of the report and the past decade. None of this is new; we have been here before, too many times.

It all began with HMP Styal, in August 2002. From August 2002 to August 2003, Her Majesty’s Prison Styal suffered an “epidemic” of women’s self harm and suicide. At that time, in the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women served three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. 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, described the situation in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sat 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. Rather than stew, she died, as did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, 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.

In 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, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?”

The next chapter of this story involves HMP Holloway. At one point Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe. Sarah Reed died, or was executed, there on January 11, 2016. On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper. In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force. In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment. Prison authorities claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were prevented from seeing Sarah Reed and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”Sarah Reed was the last woman to die in Holloway Prison. On July 2016, Holloway was closed, and prisoners were moved to HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield, outside of London. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2013, the conditions in Bronzefield were dismaying.

And that leads us to the most recent chapter, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. Holloway was not only the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. It was the only prison in London. So, when Holloway closed, two years ago, women prisoners of London are shipped out of town. As the report notes, first, the majority of women shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system in the first place: “The crimes that women typically commit are ‘low-level’ offences like criminal damage, theft, common assault and TV licence evasion”.  Second, the women shouldn’t be sent distances from their families and communities of support. Third, a short sentence, which is what most women receive, has long-term catastrophic effects. Fourth, the system for women needs a thorough overhaul that begins with the problems women face and addressing those problems. Finally, we have all been here, among these “findings” and recommendations, before, more than once, and we did nothing, less than nothing.

A news article on today’s report notes, “The report from the London Assembly covers the capital but has national importance.” Actually, it has global importance. As in London, so in many parts of the United States and other countries. Women prisoners are in for low-level offences that suggest need for support and assistance rather than incarceration. Women prisoners are sent greater distances than male prisoners. The system for women prisoners everywhere needs a thorough overhaul. Finally, none of this is new, we have all been here before, and we have done nothing, less and worse than nothing. The time has come, more than come, to move beyond “findings” and recommendations, and to begin the real work of overhaul and transformation.When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home.

 

(Photo Credit: London Assembly)

At HMP Bronzefield, we were dismayed

Welcome to HMP Bronzefield, a “Private Finance Initiative”, or PFI, prison for women in southeast England. If you are a `women with complex needs’, a women who is both `vulnerable and violent’, you can expect to spend your time, years and years of it, in isolation, in a squalid cell.

That is the finding of an unannounced visit by Nick Harwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons. In April he visited Bronzefield, and here’s part of his report: “HMP Bronzefield is a closed women’s local prison run by Sodexo Justice Services that at the time of this inspection held 446 women on remand or serving sentences ranging from a few weeks to life … At our last inspection in 2010 we reported:

“The prison held a small number of ‘restricted status’ women, some of whom had severe personality disorders. Their needs could simply not be met by the prison. One woman, who had exhibited unpredictable and violent behaviour, had effectively been held in the segregation unit for three years with very little human contact or activity to occupy her. The conditions in which she was held seemed likely to lead to further psychological deterioration and were completely unacceptable. There was little evidence that senior staff in the Prison Service had oversight of women segregated for long periods to ensure their conditions were humane. Bronzefield is not an appropriate place for women with these needs and there was a lack of a national strategy to manage women with such complex demands.

“We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it. Although more activities had been organised for her and better multi-disciplinary support was available, she still had too little to occupy her. Her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment – and we use these words advisedly. The treatment and conditions of other women held for long periods in segregation was little better. Much of this was outside the prison’s direct control and required a national strategy for meeting the needs of these very complex women – as exists in the male estate. However, Bronzefield itself needed to do more to ameliorate the worst effects of this national failure.”

When Bronzefield opened in 2004, it was the first PFI prison for women in the United Kingdom. In their nine years of operation, they have not managed, or refused, to take into account `women with complex needs.’

Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, wondered, “Why in this day and age are women with such complex needs transported like cattle and dumped in prison, where one of the most damaged women is left to rot in some form of solitary confinement for five years?”

Frances Cook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was a bit more direct: “This shocking case of treatment, which appears to amount to torture, in an English prison should shame ministers who tolerate the over-use of custody for women and consequent poor treatment.”

It should should … but it didn’t. They loudly proclaim their opposition to violence in Syria but for `women with complex needs’ in their own backyards? Not so much.

Jan Sambrook, the Chair of the Independent Monitoring Board at Bronzefield, wrote, today, “We are … very concerned about the humane and fair treatment of a small number of such women. The discussion so far has been about one woman. This is not an isolated case … I, previous chairs, and members of the IMB have raised our concerns repeatedly about the women held long-term in the segregation unit. This is in direct contravention of National Offender Management Service (Noms) guidance, falls well below what is fair, decent and humane, and discriminates against female prisoners, as the special accommodation available to men is not provided for women … I’d like to emphasise that the concern is not just about the one woman being talked about today, but the wider issue of the holding of the small number of women who are potentially very violent, difficult and volatile but also vulnerable. Presently there are no dedicated facilities for the holding of these women such as those available in the male prison estate, meaning that they get held in what we consider unsuitable conditions, including being isolated for far too long. This is unfair and discriminatory.”

What do we know about women’s prisons? They have a higher ratio of people living with mental health illnesses and a higher ratio of people who have been sexually and otherwise abused. What else do we know about women’s prisons? If you’re a woman prisoner in the United Kingdom and you’ve got any problems, unlike in the male prison system, there’s nowhere to go but in a hole … for a long time.

Call it torture. Call it systematic as well. And please refrain from expressions of shock. This is not an isolated case; this is not about one woman or one prison; and none of this is new.

 

 

(Photo Credit: Martin Argles / The Guardian)