Hazel McHaffie

prostitution

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 power of storytelling

Last year, during lockdown, I did a short online course in oral storytelling. Stories do indeed have a power and appeal of their own, and I’ve personally gained confidence and courage as I’ve used the techniques I learned in various contexts since.

So I was delighted to find a collection of stories told in a fascinating way and used to make important points. It was while listening to an online talk given by philosopher/sociologist/theologian Elaine Storkey, that I heard her reference one of her own books: Women in a Patriarchal World, and I was intrigued enough to order a copy. I expected it to be deeply erudite and scholarly and a one-chapter-at-a-time kind of volume. Not a bit of it! It’s based on her erudition certainly, but presented in a light and eminently accessible form.

Her initial statement, instantly got me – a fellow storyteller – on side:
Storytelling is a powerful form of communication.
Wahey. Tick.
At the very least, it presents us with characters, a location and a plot and invites us to listen in.
I’m listening …
Good storytelling goes much further.
Go on …
It opens up the shared humanity of others so that we get inside their life situation, travel with them and learn from their experiences.

And that’s exactly what her ‘good storytelling’ does. In twenty five chapters she tells the stories of women in the patriarchal world of Bible times – the midwives in the time of Moses, the five daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab the prostitute, Deborah the prophetess, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maakah, Huldah the prophetess, Lydia, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, to name but a few. From these stories she draws out compelling lessons for us today; lessons that challenge us to see the issues of our own time, and think about what we could do to alleviate suffering, right wrongs, make the world a safer and kinder place. Every chapter, every story, has a section bringing important issues right up to date – Facing our challenges today, followed by a couple of Questions to ponder.

And those twenty-first century challenges include a wide range of big issues like leadership, oppression, injustice, commitment, resisting wrong, prostitution, nationalism, life and death decision making, morality, risk-taking, infertility, conflict resolution, safeguarding of children, whistle-blowing, climate change, empowerment of women. Impressive, huh?

But also disturbing stuff. What exactly am I doing to address the problems that beset our nation, our world, our time? And where I do ‘dabble’, how can I be more effective?

This writer is indeed a powerful storyteller. She’s also a strong example of someone who lives what she teaches. Multi-talented, esteemed and productive, but with a humility borne of her own deep faith.

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