Treated like dirt for £7 a week

From the Inside
February 6, 2004

Five years' imprisonment." In court, the judge appeared to lick his lips as he pronounced the sentence, while a detective sergeant who had been involved in the case sent waves of hatred towards her. Ruth Wyner and her colleague, John Brock, were accused of allowing heroin to be traded at a day centre for the homeless that they managed. They had developed what they thought was a good working relationship with some local liaison police officers, unaware that other officers in the same area of Cambridge had set up a surveillance operation on them. A secret camera had filmed two undercover policemen buying £10 doses of heroin at the centre, which was described as a place frequented by major drug dealers, and its directors as complicit in the illicit traffic. Before their arrest, Wyner and Brock refused to give the police the names of their clients, as their confidentiality policy, a fairly standard one protecting a vulnerable clientele, did not allow them to. This refusal was construed as a demonstration of their unwillingness to help the police and, worse, of their guilt.

Wyner's book is an account of this extraordinary miscarriage of justice and, at the same time, of her experience in the women's prison system: the day-to-day problems, the pain, the humiliation and the pointless suffering inflicted by custodial punishment.

Punishment starts in the prison transport van, the "sweatbox", where the person transported is turned into something dirty. It continues in the institution itself, where the prison officers, the "screws", feel that they have to deliver a supplement of pain to those they lock up through deliberate, unjustified heavy-handedness. "I found them fearsome and had not yet come to understand their anxiety, their need to keep us inmates down and in our place, to avoid being destroyed by the huge sea of angst that this dreadful prison created," Wyner writes.

The condition of the inmates borders on the Kafkaesque when they first encounter the institution's bureaucracy: they must fill out application forms for everything they require. It is difficult enough to know what they are entitled to, let alone how to get it. Prison is a form of coerced infantilism, whereby those in custody end up feeling disabled without the discretional concessions of their custodians. Food is deplorable, work is paid at £7 a week for 12-hour days, drugs are easily available; imprisonment can mark, simultaneously, the end and the beginning of a drug-using and dealing career.

From the Inside tells a judicial and a very personal story, one that nicely complements the available sociological and theoretical literature on punishment, through direct observation and painful experience. After reading this, it is hard to disagree with Victor Hugo, who claimed that prisons are incubators of crime.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

From the Inside: Dispatches from a Women's Prison

Author - Ruth Wyner
Publisher - Aurum
Pages - 244
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 85410 899 9

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