Hazel McHaffie

homelessness

Behind bars

There is something unutterably sad about people for whom prison is a refuge.
‘Being inside is my happy place.’
Life outside is so chaotic and traumatic that the safety and discipline inside gives them a sense of security. If you’ve never been exposed to such situations it can be difficult to empathise, which is where The Prison Doctor: Women Inside, by Dr Amanda Brown, comes in. It takes us inside, not just a large women’s prison, but the lives of some of society’s most damaged citizens.

The statistics are sobering indeed.

Female offenders are some of the most vulnerable people within our society. Women make up just five per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, and the vast majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences, and are often sentenced for a matter of just weeks at a time. Many of them are caught inĀ  a vicious cycle of domestic violence, drug abuse and homelessness. Written off by society, they disappear into a world that most of us are oblivious to, of lost invisible souls who have no voice.

… the more previous custodial sentences a woman has had, the higher her reoffending rate; the reoffending rate for women with eleven of more previous convictions is eighty-three per cent.

… a prison for women means it is full of mothers and the female chains that form our society. Around two-thirds of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18 at home.There are mothers whose kids have been taken away from them; mothers whose kids are temporarily being looked after by others; new mothers looking after their babies on the MBU; and, sometimes, mothers who have harmed their children.

… the average age of death for a woman who is homeless is 43.

Dr Brown works in Bronzefield, the largest female prison in Europe, one of only two in the UK to house Category A prisoners, the most dangerous women who pose a serious threat to public or national security. She has a wealth of experience behind her: as a community GP; in a young offenders institution; and seven years in Wormwood Scrubs; but she still finds the encounters she has in this setting challenging. And she’s wise and humble enough to realise there is still much to be learned from conversations with the inmates who come into her orbit.

In the words of one prisoner: ‘I used to judge people. Now I don’t. You never know what someone else is living through.’ Probably the most powerful lesson this compassionate medic has learned from her own experience.

The stories she recounts so often show that the ‘criminals’ are in fact the victims – victims of cruelty and abuse and neglect and oppression. Victims whose self-loathing has taken them through self-harming to the brink of suicide. Victims who have resorted to drink or drugs or prostitution or crime merely to survive in their own private hells. It’s both sobering and traumatic to read again and again of how these girls are failed time after time, and are failed again when they are released into homelessness. Dr Brown herself uses words like tragic, heartbreaking, shocking. Her insights and empathy can help to enlighten us all. And how we need that enlightenment! Because these failures are a challenge to our whole society.

 

 

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The South West Coast Path

Moth and Raynor Wynn are in their fifties when, within a matter of days, they lose everything. Betrayed by a close friend, bankrupted by a failed financial transaction and punishing solicitors’ fees through three years of fighting a court case, their home and land possessed by the bailiffs, they are then weighed down with Moth’s diagnosis of a rare degenerative brain condition. There are no drugs to halt the progress, no therapies to keep the disease at bay, and time is running out. Their hopes and dreams lie in tatters.

Raynor is determined not to waste a moment of the time she has left with her beloved husband of thirty-two years. Now officially homeless, in the summer of 2013, they decide on an impulse to leave Wales and take on the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and Cornwall – all 630 miles of it. Home will be a tent bought from eBay, camping in the wild, at the very edgeland of life.

No facilities, often no food, scant possessions, stinking from neglected hygiene, pain in their joints, battered and bruised feet, sunburnt, cut and bruised skin, headaches, dizziness and hunger constant companions, frequently accused of being disgusting tramps, or drunk.
A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower; I had responsibilities, respect, pride …

Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Stupid to think we could walk this path, to not have enough money, to pretend we were homeless, to get the court procedure wrong, to lose the children’s home, to not have enough water, to pretend we weren’t dying, to not have enough water.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But gradually, as time goes on, they readjust their thinking, find new values, new dreams, learn new survival skills. Against all medical predictions, Moth’s health improves dramatically. And their own generosity of spirit shines through. Even though eeking out starvation rations themselves, Moth instinctively shares his last chocolate bar, a sausage sandwich, pasties, with fellow destitutes. By contrast, it’s sobering to hear of a vendor refusing even a cup of cold water. Not knowing their story, being downwind of them, how would I have reacted, I wonder?

This tale has so many resonances for me. I grew up in Cornwall. Yet I hadn’t been aware that depending on which statistics you read, Cornwall has the second or fifth highest rate of rough sleepers in the country, outside of London.

I had to smile at the picture of Raynor cutting her ripped leggings off at the knees with a tiny pair of nail scissors to make shorts. I once sliced the bottom off a posh full-length evening skirt with nail scissors when I realised I’d completely misjudged the dress code for an evening Conference dinner in Australia.

When the Winns were forced to put their boots back on because the soles of their feet were being burned by the scorching hot sand, it brought back vivid memories of a similar situation on a baked beach in Greece in 1968.

Raynor Winn has the skill to conjure up a wonderful combination of sights and sounds and smells and emotions in her writing:
Mozzarella, basil and tomatoes combined in some kind of wind-whipped, gull-swirling heaven. I sat with my back to the football and the wind in my face, looking out over the end of the Bristol Channel and the start of the wide, endless Atlantic Ocean. It’s wild here, a corner where tides, winds and tectonic plates collide in a roar of elemental confusion. A place of endings, beginnings, shipwrecks and rockslides. The viewpoint by the railings caught the air and rushed it up in a jet of cold, oxygenated, sea-spray fizz. I flew with the power of the uplift; alive, we were alive.

She searches for meaning in their new life:
On a basic level, maybe all of us on the path were the same; perhaps we were all looking for something. Looking back, looking forward, or just looking for something that was missing. Drawn to the edge, a strip of wilderness where we could be free to let the answers come, or not, to find a way of accepting life, whatever that was. Were we searching this narrow margin between the land and sea for another way of being, becoming edgelanders along the way? Stuck between one world and the next. Walking a thin line between tame and wild, lost and found, life and death. At the edge of existence …
What they did find was redemption, renewed purpose and hope.

Small wonder that this remarkable author has been in hot demand on the speaking circuit since The Salt Path was published, and is now commercially successful in her own right.

On a personal note, I’m staggered by how often serendipity/coincidence bring ideas together in life. I was in the middle of this book when BBC2 showed thwarted foreign-travel-writer Simon Reeve’s travels through Cornwall as the county emerged from the first lockdown, and explored what the future holds for a stunningly beautiful tourist hot-spot, riven with homelessness and poverty and inequality. The sight and sound of a fellow-writer forced to live in a run-down shed linger.

It’s been a nostalgic journey to the land of my youth, but provided sobering insights into lives lived beyond my experience. And challenged my values and priorities.

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