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Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans
(Max Ehrmann, 1927)
Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.
Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.
An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:
With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From a leper in his lair
(Oscar Wilde, 1898)
On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich
(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)
Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels
(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)
Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
(Maya Angelou, 1978)
Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!
Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
And most times immigrants bring more
(Hollie McNish, 2013).
To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke,McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it
Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)
Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple
Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)
[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).
[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours
Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.
Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.
I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.
Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.
The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.
The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.
Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com
Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.
Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.
Angela Packwood is the Subject Leader for Criminology and Criminal Justice
When I suggested writing for this blog to certain colleagues I was told that this topic would be of no interest and nobody would read it as it is not relevant. I consider the topic very relevant to me and to every woman. The term used is ‘women of a certain age’ (I hate the expression) to explain the menopause.
I am a 55-year-old woman who is going through the menopause and I make no apologies as there is nothing I can do about it. There is acceptance of women starting their periods and the advertisements for period poverty. There are extensive adverts, promotions, books all on pregnancy but very little about the menopause. At last, just this evening, I have seen an advert by Jenny Éclair on TV about a product for one symptom of the menopause. I fail to understand why this subject is not discussed more openly?
Having reached the menopause, I can honestly say this is the worst I have ever felt both emotionally and physically. The brain fog, not being able to put a sentence together sometimes, clumsiness, the lack of sleep, loss of confidence, weight gain; aching limbs. The list goes on. I know that each woman is different, and their body responds differently so I speak for me. I know that I am not alone though just by the conversations I have with other women and on the menopause chat room.
In accepting my situation and desperately trying to work through these symptoms I reflect on an incident where my mother was arrested for shoplifting. She would have been my age at the time. I was so angry at her as I was a serving police officer and I was so embarrassed. I never tried to understand why she did it. Did the menopause contribute to the theft of cushion covers she did not need? To this day we have never spoken about the incident and never will.
Also, my thoughts around this situation extends to the research I am conducting around the treatment of transgender people in prison. Researching the prison estate, I find that the prison population is getting older and the policies link to women in prison, catering for women and babies, addictions, mental health etc but there is no mention of older women going through the menopause?
I served in the police at a time when women were not equal to men and I would never have raised, and written this blog entry exposing ‘weaknesses’. To write this is progress for me and I can even see that the police are addressing the issues of the menopause through conversations, presentations and support groups. They have come a long way. All family, friends, colleagues and employers need to try and understand this debilitating change in life for us ‘women of a certain age’.
Another broken promise – Ministry of Justice announcement to postpone plans to reduce female prison population
The plight of women in prison aptly demonstrates some of the issues I have with our current government. There seems to be a pattern of u-turns, postponing on strategies and little remorse or concern shown for the impact of these decisions. Now I don’t know if this is to do with focus on Brexit, or some other reason that only those in the corridors of power can know. What I am concerned about is the cavalier way this government back tracks and displays levels of incompetency that anyone else would be sacked for. I am concerned because these tactics affect lives, they impact on people’s health wellbeing and survival. Women in prison suffer disproportionately compared to men, and it seems, they are easy target to disregard. They are also a prison population which is predominantly low risk and would benefit from assistance, welfare and support, much more so than punishment and retribution. By the way, I also firmly believe there are plenty of male prisoners and young offenders in the same boat – as do others. Women in prison, including those who are also mothers (up to 66%) (Epstein, 2014) do however face greater impact for a variety of reasons. It is these reasons which make the recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice to postpone plans to reduce the female prison population all the more galling.
An article in the Guardian states ‘women account for 5% of the prison population of in England and Wales but have much higher rates of deaths, suicide attempts and self-harm than men’ (Syal, 2018). The focus of the multimillion pound government strategy to reduce the number of women being imprisoned for non-violent offences was to set up community prisons and provide more support for female offenders. The postponement was reported to be due to spending pressures, which is also affected spending on the prison system more widely. This is a strategy which has been developed over several years and this postponement must surely test the patience of those reformers who have campaigned for this change. Indeed, Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust has expressed disbelief that a strategy which had widespread support is being treated in this way. He also added that to cite the postponement as an issue with cost is contradictory, given better support in the community and the aims of the strategy to reduce the numbers of women in prison would actually reduce costs to the Ministry of Justice. Women prisoners have complex needs, with mental health issues, abuse, debt, homelessness, poor education as well a significant number having child care responsibilities and with a prison sentence, facing the very real prospect of losing their child to the social care system (Baldwn, 2017).
The MoJ strategy embraced multi-agency working and even found a way to navigate achieving its aims under the current Transforming Rehabilitation arrangements, with the National Probation Service working with the police, mental health charities and courts to co-ordinate better support services and better arrangements to help women due for release. The need for this was clear as a report by Inquest (2018) showed that 116 women died post release during 2010-11 and 2016-17. In addition to increased incidences of self-harm and suicides, and given that 84% of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences (ibid), it was clear that not only should something be done, but also that something could be done. The benefits were evident in saving money, reducing risks to women prisoners and not compromising on public protection. The report by Inquest (2018) also shows that the disproportionate number of women on short term sentences (62%) reiterates the need to reduce this, given the disruptive effects on housing, jobs and childcare. Deborah Coles of Inquest suggest this postponement by the MoJ will costs lives and that the harms of the justice system to women need to be acknowledged.
This need for change is also supported by the Magistrates Association, who also report that help and support is much more effective than short term sentences. Given this arena is where the decision to sentence occurs, it is an important move to get magistrates thinking differently about the delivery of justice. This is not just about considering community sentences, but also to consider how the court room can be a place for different approaches to those offenders – male or female – who present complex needs, experiences of abuse and discrimination and who require more than stern words and retributive acts of punishment.
There have long been concerns about the rising numbers of female prisoners, given that this is attributed to increasing punitiveness in sentencing decisions (Hedderman, 2004). There is a strong case for using community sentencing where this is appropriate (Corston, 2007; Prison Reform Trust 2011; Baldwin, 2015), i.e. for non-violent and low risk offenders. This is evidence from campaigns (e.g. from the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Women in Prison, Make Justice Work) to reduce the use of custody more generally, but especially for women and mothers who break the law. A recent edited text on the plight of mothers in prison further emphasises the need for a different approach (Baldwin, 2015). It collates contributions from academics and practitioners working within the prison system, managing the needs of mothers and mothers to be, as well as those research these issues (e.g. Baldwin, 2015; Epstein, 2012; Minson 2014). A core theme is that short term sentences create a narrative of continuing disadvantage, felt for generations (Baldwin, 2015). It also demonstrates the long-term effects of the imprisonment of mothers, as a ripple effect which impacts the mother, their child, other family members for a length of time way past the length of the sentence – what Baldwin (2015) has referred to as a ‘sentence which keeps on punishing’. This text reiterates the potential for change starting with the courts, where different approaches would have a lasting impact and lead to more positive outcomes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of evidence which shows a different way to deal with offenders is possible, the evidence is there, the options are there and until recently, some degree of political will and investment was also there. I hope this is a postponement and not just another broken promise. This seems to be a pattern for this government, and there seems to be no one holding them to account when such decisions are made. It may well be because the prison population is a group we can all too easily disregard. However, given that these are people who have faced a life of disadvantage and whose reformation would benefit all of us who wish to feel safe in our communities, this view is misguided. The problem is, it seems it is all too easily accepted.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Baldwin, L. (2015) Mothering Justice: Working with Mothers in Criminal and Social Justice Settings, Waterside Press.
Baldwin, L. (2015d). Rules of Confinement: Time for Changing the Game. Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, 179 (10).
Corston, J. (2007). The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.
Epstein, R. (2014). Mothers in Prison: The sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child, Howard League What is Justice? Working Papers 3/2014, Howard League for Penal Reform.
Hedderman, C. (2004). The ‘criminogenic’ needs of women offenders. In G. McIvor
(ed) Women Who Offend: Research Highlights in Social Work 44. London: Jessica
Inquest (2016) Still Dying On The Inside: Examining deaths in women’s prisons (see https://www.inquest.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8d39dc1d-02f7-48eb-b9ac-2c063d01656a)
Minson, S. (2014). Mitigating Motherhood: A study of the impact of motherhood on sentencing decisions in England and Wales, Howard League for Penal Reform, London.
Prison Reform Trust (2011). Reforming Women’s Justice: Final Report of the Women’s Justice Taskforce. London: Prison Reform Trust.
Syal, R. (2018) Ministry of Justice postpones plans to reduce female prison population, The Guardian, 2 May 2018.