United Kingdom: how teaching art to women in prison changed their outlook

Mim Skinner spent two years teaching prisoners. Now she’s written a book, Jailbirds, to change our view of incarcerated women and how we can support them on the outside

If Britain was hit by an apocalypse, Mim Skinner knows the people who would make it through. “The prisoners I’ve worked with are the most flexible, the most adaptable, the most inventive and the most entrepreneurial individuals it’s possible to imagine,” she says. “They’re survivors, they’d be the last ones standing. There’s a misconception out there that prisoners are defeated characters. Well, not in my experience.”

For Skinner, this is one of many truths about prison life she’s keen to share because, she says, people are locked up in the name of all of us, but most of us don’t have the faintest idea about what goes on behind the high walls and barbed wire fences. She spent two years as an art teacher inside a top-security women’s prison (“I can’t say which one, but there only is one of them…”) and the shock of what she discovered inside was matched by her shock of how little people knew from the outside. She’s now on a mission to change that. Her book Jailbirds is published next week and is now being developed as a BBC series. No surprises there, really: some of the most successful TV series ever made were set in women’s prisons, Prisoner, Cell Block H; Orange is the New Black; Wentworth – and Skinner’s book is full of nitty-gritty details of life inside, and peppered with stories (some tragic, some funny, some poignant, all real) of the women who make up Britain’s female prison population.

They are not many in number only 5% of the UK’s prison population is female and the main point Skinner wants to make, when we meet for lunch in Chester-le-Street near Durham where she’s based, is that these women are every bit as sinned against as sinning. Most of them, she says, have been the victims of crimes more serious than the crimes they’ve perpetrated. More than half have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood; around the same number have committed an offence in order to support the drug use of someone else (often, a partner; sometimes, an abusive partner). The vast majority (84%) are there for non-violent crimes, and seven in 10 are incarcerated for six months or less. “Enough to lose a tenancy, have children taken into care, but not long enough to make significant progress around rehabilitation,” Skinner points out.

She admits the thing she found hardest was keeping an emotional distance “I was just useless at it, actually” and what she most wants to do is get others to see prisoners as she saw them, and to truly care. “I want to take people inside with me,” she says. “I want them to find out a bit about daily life behind the walls, and I want them to get to know some of the bravest people I’ve ever met.”

Being inside a prison, she says, is like being in a foreign country where people speak a different language; her book has glossaries.

“Pad” means cell; a “pad-spin” is a cell search. The “bully book” is where staff write comments about prisoners’ challenging behaviour. Products have quite different uses from the way they’re used on the outside: sanitary towels are used as draught excluders and insoles, tampons become make-up brushes. Coffee whitener dabbed with water becomes glue, and Buscopan, a muscle relaxant prescribed for irritable bowel syndrome, becomes a smoke which gives you a “gouch”, or consoling downer. (“My uni friends who are doctors were really amazed at that one they’re like, They smoke Buscopan…”)

It’s the system, and not the staff, that Skinner wants to put in the dock. She has, she says, the highest regard for prison officers. “It’s hard work, demanding work, it’s not well-paid, and they give a lot of themselves. I remember one woman saying she’d been in the grip of psychosis and an officer stayed with her holding her hand, right through the night; the woman said that was what had got her through. Prison officers aren’t people who don’t care, they’re people who often care a lot. When I first went into prison to teach art I thought we were the pastoral people and the staff were there to lock them up and make life difficult for them. I was wrong.”

But if society typecasts prison officers, it does the same only magnified to prisoners. “Of course there is always choice, and I accept that, but it’s much too simplistic to think of women who are in prison as ‘bad’ and the rest of us as ‘good’.” Women in prison have had the odds stacked against them from day one, from before day one: women like Ellie (all the prisoners have pseudonyms in the book) who told Skinner she’d woken up several times at a party and known someone had had sex with her, but had no idea who. When Skinner said that was rape, Ellie replied it was her own fault, and that was what her foster carer always told her: “If you keep putting yourself in these situations then you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

Women like Vivian, who grew up with a voice in her head that told her she was worthless. “My dad was violent and we grew up in and out of refuges,” she writes, in one of the “guest chapters” in Skinner’s book. “And now my partner is violent. He calls me a fat slag every day. After a while you believe it, don’t you? I want it all to change, but I don’t feel good enough to be around decent people sometimes… Well, all the time really.”

Skinner’s art classes gave the women space to think about, and in time articulate, some truths and realities about their lives, often for the first time. “They weren’t conventional art classes, although we did plenty of art and craft projects. The classes counted as a woman’s job inside, and the women who were sent along tended to be the ones who’d been sacked from other jobs for swearing too much or for being late. And we did have a lot of challenging women some of them would be using drugs before and after the classes, others would be silent, withdrawn, refusing to engage.”

But the art room was a kind of haven in the prison and most women realised they were in a “safe space” where feeling could be shared, and experiences unpacked. “I’d say to them, what’s going on for you? If you can’t talk about it you might like to write it down, or draw it. And later they’d say, no one has ever asked me that before. They said they felt as though someone was interested in them for the first time in their life. We had one woman who talked in the group about an abusive partner, and by the end of the classes she said she had written to him to say she wouldn’t be going back to him when she was released: sharing her story had helped her to see it in a different way, and to find the strength to move on.”

The art classes were all about helping women who had been crushed by life begin to find some confidence and resilience; in time, they would be moved on to work in other areas of the prison again.

Surprisingly, there were no prison officers present during the sessions. Skinner is tiny and quietly spoken, but occasionally you get a glimpse of her steel, and in the book she relates how she sometimes had to lay down the law and get out the bully book.

She grew up in a middle-class family in Surrey: it was moving to Durham to study philosophy and politics that brought her close to disadvantage, and she made some radical choices around that.

“After graduation I was living with some other ex-students and we decided to double up and share bunk beds to free up rooms for homeless people,” she says. “We started out as Night Stop hosts, offering temporary accommodation to people who needed it, but in time homeless people moved in long-term.” Her parents, who both died recently, role-modelled taking direct action: “They always invited people in, were always welcoming and gave them a seat at our table.”

Working with homeless people brought her into contact with the criminal justice system, because so many vulnerable women ricochet between prison and the street. For some women, prison is preferable, especially when being on the street means being vulnerable to abusive men. Skinner tells the story of Catherine, who goes on a shoplifting spree in the hope of being returned as quickly as possible to the safety of her pad only to have her hopes dashed.

“I’ve been walking out of shops with bigger and bigger things I don’t even want. Walking past the security guard, looking them in the eye. But they’re just not noticing me,” she explained to Skinner.

Another woman had camped in a bus shelter outside the prison gate on release, simply because she had nowhere else to go. “I think the fact that prisoners aren’t housed when they leave is the most shocking thing for people who have little knowledge of the prison system,” says Skinner. “My friends assumed there would be support post-prison, as well as therapeutic work and counselling when they’re inside. And there is some of that, but a lot less than you’d hope or imagine.”

Although she no longer spends time inside a prison, Skinner’s work today is every bit as tuned to women and the criminal justice system: she’s helping to run a café and pay-what-you-can supermarket called REfUSE in Chester-le-Street, with food donated that would have been binned as surplus to requirements. Providing jobs for ex-prisoners is a big part of her work, she explains. “In many ways this is where it really matters. I’ve come to realise there’s a much greater need for through-the-gate support than support inside, because what happens next is crucial. The biggest gap is when women are released, and what happens to them after that.”

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