Violence of jail women

by Nick Davies

Observer, 25th November, 1984

(The latter part of this item relates to Lucy after she had been in Holloway for about a month.)

Another outbreak of self-mutilation by women prisoners in the psychiatric wing of Holloway jail has been confirmed by the Prison Department.

It said that in a period of 20 days there have been 24 incidents where women have tried either to kill or to mutilate themselves in the wing which houses some 40 mentally ill women. Incidents in the jail have become the subject of growing public and Parliamentary disquiet.

This follows the disclosure in The Observer two months ago that in a ten day period, one woman had gouged out an eye, another had damaged her sight in a similar attempt and a third had slashed her breast. All three women have since been transferred to Broadmoor and Rampton secure hospitals.

The Prison Department will give few details of the latest outbreak. However, it is known that 19 of the incidents involved women inflicting wounds described as 'ranging from the serious to the slight.' In the other five incidents, women tried to hang themselves.

Women's groups have been picketing the Home Office to protest. Critics say that most of the women on the wing are clinically ill and should not be in prison at all. They argue that their condition is aggravated by the system - which leaves women locked up to 24 hours a day without work, exercise or education.

Pauline Thomas, who was released from Holloway last week, told The Observer: 'The wing gives me the horrors. I've been on it a couple of times. You're locked in all the time and if you've got a weak character they persuade you to take drugs, sedatives and things. There's nothing to do in the cell and it just makes you mad.'

There is particular concern that the wing - known officially as C1, colloquially as The Muppet House - is a 'slippery slope.' Chris Tchaikovski, co-ordinator of the pressure group Women in Prison, said: 'It is criminalizing women who basically need care, who should be under the National Health Service.'

A university lecturer described last week how his 20-year-old daughter, who had no criminal history, has ended up on the wing. He said 'She was very uptight about being out of work and in the spring attempted suicide.

[lacuna in article which failed to mention Lucy being in hospital]

'After that, she was treated at a day centre but she was still desperate to get a job. She told us she had found one which she was due to start on 15th October. But the week before she went down hill and the next thing we knew she had been arrested for petty theft. They sent her to Holloway to await trial.

'She was very distressed and broke things in her cell, so she was moved to C1. If you have a psychiatric problem, doctors are usually quite keen to talk to the parents, but the prison are not interested.

If we had been asked by the prison, we could have told them that pop music has a calming effect on her. It took us a week to get a radio to her. The batteries ran out and she can't replace them and we can't take in spares.

'She is basically an intelligent girl, but socially a bit immature. If she gets into a corner, she goes up and she can't come down. She should not be on the wing: tight confinement of that sort without proper guidance just aggravates the situation.'

Women in Prison has written to the Home Secretary Leon Brittan asking him to pay an unannounced visit to the wing, to employ Registered Mental Nurses on the wing and to set up an inquiry into conditions.