Manchester Women’s Conference: Self-harm in women’s prisons

Edwina Grosvenor spoke at 'Self-harm in Women’s Prisons: Is Collaborative Care and Self-Management the Future?' here is what she said

What a sad state of affairs it is when we sit and accept the deaths of six women this year alone in our female prisons.

The wide ripple effect that death has on that person’s family. Something I can all too readily relate to having lost my own father suddenly and unexpectedly just a few weeks ago. The effect it has on those staff members who are first on the scene and have to deal with the aftermath, the effect that it has on their mental health. We know this is NOT an acceptable state of affairs and we must act.

A system for men, not for women

Now, I want you all to imagine something. Imagine this – a women comes into prison for the first time, she has left her children behind, who knows where they will end up, she is terrified, aggressive and suicidal. She arrives into the place she has been sentenced too. A staff member meets her and gently takes her hand, she is spoken to softly and is reassured that she is somewhere safe, somewhere that she will be protected. She is told that she can stop fighting, there’s no need to be terrified any longer because she will be embraced, nurtured and cared for in this place. She can lay down her arms and her emotional weaponry because there is no one to fight here. It’s a sanctuary and a place of security and stability. The harder she fights the more she will be gently embraced. She is told that this place won’t heap more trauma onto the terror that she is currently going through.

For too long women in our system have been swept aside for reasons I am sure we are all across in this room. A system designed by men for men…predominantly run by men. Policies churned out with no consideration of gender and the vastly different needs and behaviours of both men and women. The fact that there are far fewer women in the system for some reason has meant that they have been overlooked.

Opportunities for change

It’s odd because I think the fact that there ARE so few women in the system means that there is HUGE opportunity for change and I am excited about what could be done.

It’s strange because on the one hand I see some great things happening and a real willingness from the system to do things better. Luke Serjeant was appointed DDC of the women’s estate this year which has been a huge benefit. We have someone holding the strings together, we have someone whose job it is to spend time thinking about how women’s prisons can work in a more joined up fashion, how they can work together more effectively, how they can support each other in the hugely challenging world in which they exist.

Yet still, women are cutting themselves, burning themselves and killing themselves – so we are not winning the battle. I alluded to the hugely detrimental effect that this type of behaviour has on staff and it’s a huge issue and one that should be taken hand in hand when thinking about the women themselves.

Let’s go back to my sanctuary for a moment – this place is where the ‘punishment’ takes place. That individual’s freedom has been taken away. They have perhaps lost their children and their movements and life are now in control of the government. End of story as far as their punishment is concerned.

Behind the walls

We now concentrate on life inside the walls. The people that reside there, the women. The people who work there – the staff.  The people who visit – family and friends. It is in EVERYONE’S interest to make these places, calm, safe, respectful, light, positive, supportive, caring places. We will know when we are winning because we will see. The women will let us know. The self harm will stop. The suicides will stop. Only then will we know we are winning the battle.

So many prisons are doing the VERY best that they can in the current climate. I am half way through a two year process of helping the female estate to become Trauma Informed.

This concept and piece of work came from California and a trip I made there in January 2015. A family holiday with a few prisons and a bit of trauma thrown in! It was there inside the huge Californian women’s prisons where it’s not unusual to have 4,000 women under one roof! It was there that I saw the benefits of leading systems to become trauma informed.

The process is threefold. You have:

  • The building
  • The staff
  • The women

On point 1. Think about your building and how ‘trauma informed’ it is. Is it falling to bits? Is the paint flaking off the walls? Is there rubbish everywhere? Are the flowers in the reception area dead? Are there any at all? Are the sofas falling to bits, are the posters ripped? How do the posters read? Is the language shouty and authoritarian or are they polite? Is the building well lit? The dark can be a real issue for trauma survivors. If the building is not TI then the staff will be effected negatively as will the women. If you have the vision of a sanctuary as your end goal then you are on the right path, keep moving towards it.

Understanding histories of trauma

On point 2. Think about the staff. All staff. The term ‘trauma survivor’ catches just about all of us. You, me, prison officers, prison governors. Staff have to understand their own trauma histories if they are to protect themselves and work effectively and safely with the women. If this isn’t done, they risk damaging themselves and the women they are meant to be caring for. Staff must understand self care, they must look after themselves, they must avoid triggering their own trauma histories as well as those of the women.

On point 3. The women. Often the women themselves won’t recognise themselves as trauma survivors. When abuse and violence is the norm, why would they? The BTI work helps women to unravel their trauma histories, it gives them tools to be able to cope and manage their often anti social behaviour, it gives them the skills to understand that other people, other staff members may have suffered something similar, it teaches them that they aren’t damaged goods, that they not only have survived but that they can repair the damage done to them.

The work that I saw the women doing in California was amazing. The women themselves get trained up to be able to facilitate groups. This works brilliantly well for a few reasons:

  • There are lots of women serving very long sentences including life without parole
  • The women prefer to be taught by a trauma survivor
  • It gives the facilitator a real purpose and a sense of achievement. Many of the facilitators I met who were on long sentences said that it was the only thing she got out of bed for. They loved it.
  • It doesn’t cost
  • You don’t have to employ more staff

Dr Stephanie Covington who devised this curriculum has all the evidence base one would need in order to see that this concept is ignored at our own peril.

Do not wait or rely on our government to help. This year has shown more than any other year that we must move and act ourselves. We the people on the front line need to create this change. We have to do our best to ignore political turmoil, we must carry on when the entire justice team is changed overnight, we get on and start doing it regardless because we are the ones that know what’s right and it’s only us that can make our prisons better.

Download the conference brochure: conference-programme-self-harm-in-prisons-conference

Edwina Grosvenor

Edwina Grosvenor

Founder of One Small Thing

Edwina Grosvenor is a philanthropist and the founder of One Small Thing