What’s not to love about Sister Act, the playful intersection of sex and sorority. The gritty dreams which rise from the street meld with the glamour of performance and into headlong collision with the self flagellation and denial of a convent. In a woman’s prison, filled to the rafters with the unlikeliest of friendships, like couples forced to stay in unhappy marriages because of economics or children, this was a gem of a production at HM Bronzefield in early March 2014.
This production by Pimlico Opera, a charity in the criminal justice rehabilitation sector has undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of the 20 or so women who took part, on stage and behind the scenes. They were each given £5 phone credit and £10 to spend on toiletries on their prison accounts.
Each one was brilliant and it was a pleasure to watch their confidence blossom. But what next?
In times of extreme austerity and the swinging cuts of Axeman Grayling, is the £180 000 cost to the prisons justified? In the brave new commissioning landscape of payment by results and a renewed focus on the arts as a tool for rehabilitation, metrics must be in place to measure hard outcomes aligned with the 7 identified pathways out of offending behaviour, as defined by NOMS. We have to be able to identify the long-term benefit of women prisoners taking part in these types of projects, which might appear, on the surface to be nothing more than excellent PR opportunities.
The production itself was spectacular though the full orchestra might have compensated for the very high ceilings in the gym at Bronzefield and the dreadful acoustics. Was this about showcasing the talent of the women prisoners or the dazzling orchestral manoeuvres in the dark of the Pimlico Opera orchestra? This is only the third time Pimlico Opera have produced a show in a women’s prison, their back catalogue is more impressive in men’s prisons.
Krispy Crèmes and exotic cheeses brought in as treats don’t add to up to long term rehabilitation. Why are they filling women with carbohydrates to make them behave nicely? These empty calories, both spiritually and vocationally symbolise the misplaced puffery and hype in a prison which has a battered reputation and enjoys a shocking reoffending rate in excess of 71% within a year.
Women prisoners at HMP Bronzefield were treated to a viewing of the performance on a Wednesday afternoon. This feminist manifesto made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role as Dolores van Cartier brought light and laughter to the grim greyness of HMP Bronzefield. It’s an institution where individual members of staff show dedication and compassion and where stories of inmate abuse, documented by HMPI Nick Hardwick last year, and sexual relationships between prison officers and the women are rife. The good ones – and they far outweigh the few renegades – are stifled by archaic management systems and an old guard of governor grades who believe in prison and making it as unbearable as possible – it is all about punishment. These worthies take on the role of God, all knowing, all seeing the eye in the sky and CCTV. When I asked the Head of Decency (whatever that entails) the justification for 500 women being locked down on a Friday afternoon so that staff could see the performance, leaving prisoners without access to services and even normal access to telephones, for the glorification and convenience of the few, he replies
“Well, they are all here to be punished.”
Chilling words as Bronzefield is a remand prison.
Many women did not bother to attend and visits were cancelled for the 8 days of the show’s duration and a few days either side. This included legal visits. These systems entrenched in punishment and retribution are the antithesis to rehabilitation. Bronzefield is notorious for its impossible visit booking system. How did the perverse decision to disrupt visits yield a net benefit for the 513 women who did not have anything to do with the show? Maintaining links with the community is an essential component in successful re-entry post incarceration and access to legal services is a basic human right. Should core ethics and values be hived off for the participation of a few or more perversely, in an attempt to repair the battered reputation of a beleaguered prison?
The punishment for profit agenda represents the negative, hardened attitude prevalent at this privately run prison in west London. It becomes necessary to magnify all the “worst” in these women and justifies this unfairness by abrogating responsibility. Until prison governors are clear about their remit to deliver a public service and whether safety, control and restraint trump compassion and rehabilitation we will continue, as the public, to suffer unacceptably high reoffending rates. The women’s prison estate remains successive governments’ biggest political failure, running over 200 years. We need to be clear as a society what we demand from those tasked with implementing policy; is it rehabilitation or retribution? Until such time as we exercise this choice, perverse attitudes will prevail.
I’ve asked the women what they gained besides soft, fuzzy outcomes which are short term, besides donuts and pin money. They also received 2 complimentary tickets and discounted tickets for friends who wished to attend. The current male lead who plays Curtis is a former offender who found employment with Pimlico Opera , post release. However, what of our own star in the making the fabulous Sister Mary Roberts? Is there a future for her on the stage or are these air dreams? There are vague promises of working with the women who took part post release and job prospects but there is nothing to evidence what these breathless opportunities mean or how they will manifest. Show me the money, as Dolores van Cartier might say.
It is an interesting time to consider the role of the church and the continued diminishment of women, evidenced in the refusal to allow women bishops and the recalcitrant patriarchy, which presides over the church. The servitude and Catholic guilt infused in most women – even those of us a million miles from entering a nunnery – resonated in the audience of “bad girls”. We must question what makes these women so bad, like Dolores that she needs to be hidden in a nunnery, so God can keep her safe. Safe from whom? Herself and her bad acts? To keep safe the poor vulnerable men in the community who might be her prey?
Society condemns women to a much higher standard than men, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC confirms that women receive longer sentences are more stigmatised than their male counterparts in her seminal book, Eve was Framed. Women are not allowed by society and patriarchal justice systems consisting of all white, middleclass, Oxbridge, old men, to misbehave or step outside of normal accepted patterns of behaviour.
Time has come to look at why women offend and the inherent misogyny in the criminal justice system. We can no longer afford to consign these women to society’s trash heap forever, based on outdated mores. These are the modern equivalent of the Old Testament’s fires of hell, or witches who burnt in earlier times, if women committed crimes. We collectively judge these women beyond redemption, but we are responsible for a criminal justice system that is not designed to rehabilitate women. Women are square pegs jammed into round holes, still subject to a Victorian system of punishment designed by cruel men in a time when the deserving poor were separate from the undeserving criminal, feral underclass.
We are the new Victorians, unleashing and relishing social policy which creates a new underclass – the undeserving poor. Research into how austerity has affected women’s services by the Fawcett Society and others show women are disproportionately affected because of dire reductions in the funding of women’s services.
There is not a single sympathetic male character in the entire piece. The pimp / club owner embodies all the things little boys are made of: frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails. His motley crew of thugs are narcissistic, homoerotic boy-men who can’t relate to women beyond reductive objects to be conquered. The good detective is frightened of his own shadow and emotionally castrated. Even the Bishop is corrupt, vacuous and has a watery morality, taking payment to sell the church building to developers. Where’s God in all this mess, you might ask.
Men are redeemed by the power of love and a good woman, it’s the anti-fairy-tale, Cinderella in the driving seat. The sleeping princess is awakened, she becomes the rescuer of men, but more significantly, of herself. Dolores finds her own strength, inside and salvation comes to the detective who steps into his manhood in her reflected glory and new found confidence. The pimp dies, the plastic cowboy goons are overcome by the nuns. It’s God, indeed but embodied through female power, Gaia’s cleansing vengeance.
But the new feminists, whose matriarch is Naomi Wolf demands more of men than allowing them to remain stifled and immature. We the women must accept responsibility for male attitudes, not a victim blaming doggedness. It will take grown up men to bring about a truly 21st Century feminist revolution in the criminal justice system, not confused hyperbole about intersectionalism and segmentation.
Time for good, grown up men at the helm of the church, the Ministry of Justice and outsourced providers of prison services to realise that women are indeed not men and examine the causes of female offending, which is rooted in inequality. The issues must be resolved by looking through a gendered lens, not the unconscious bias of the collective and the male dominated hierarchy.
No more reports, no more funding for the Prison Reform Trust to hold yet more conferences and do more research, no more talking, no more justice task forces. It’s time to take arms and fight for all women’s right to justice, not just those who happen to behave well.
Jude Kelly’s annual Southbank festival extravaganza Women of the World came and went this year, with a whimper not a bang. The annual weekend celebration’s theme was One Billion Rising for Justice. Out came the old crones on their soapboxes, to dance the ritual sacrifices and tell us THEY know how to bring about women’s equality. One billion dancing or rising or whatever won’t change social policy or transform inequality. These vampires suck off the blood of the handmaiden and fresh ideas, about inclusivity and seeing powerful men as part of the solution, not the problem, are allowed to wither on the vine.
Naomi Wolf says poignantly that we need to take the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house.
Author – Farah Damji