By Avril Joy
I worked at HMP Low Newton – a women’s prison on the outskirts of Durham City in the North East of England – for twenty five years. I began as a teacher; became an Education Manager and finally a Senior Manager in charge of Learning and Skills development. I never meant to stay that long – somehow the place just grew on me. Or perhaps more accurately it was the women who grew on me.
UK prisons are full of women who shouldn’t be there, women in need of therapeutic care, women who would be best helped in their own community. There are of course, some seriously damaged women from whom the public needs protection but they are a very small minority.
By and large the women I met in prison were ordinary women whose lives had gone wrong. They were great survivors. They were often victims of crime themselves, particularly sexual abuse and domestic violence. Many, very many, were heroin addicts.
They didn’t make excuses for what they’d done, or feel sorry for themselves, or blame other people. They relished the educational opportunities on offer, having missed out on schooling – they were often carers from a young age or had been expelled. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the women was how much they laughed and made you laugh with them. Humour is, of course, a great shield for adversity. In prison it also serves as the acceptable face of rebellion and helps preserve dignity in a world where prisoners are disempowered.
The women were immensely kind too. Always concerned for you and quite protective of prison staff or teachers they liked.
There are a lot of things about working in prison I don’t miss. I don’t miss the gates, keys, bars, impossible windows, or the time it took to just get in and out of the place. I definitely don’t miss the way you never really knew what kind of a day it was until you got out through the gate in the evening; where the air always tasted different. Not long after leaving I had a day out with my lovely friend Carole, who, like me, worked at Low Newton for many years. More than anything that day we were imbued with a sense of freedom, like kids playing hooky: we had escaped and the sun was shining and we were certain that we appreciated being out in the open far more than anyone else could. After all, hadn’t we spent what felt like a lifetime behind bars?
Sometimes when women came back into prison for the third or fourth time (in some cases women were back in and out many times) they would see me and say, Are you still here Mrs Joy? Once, before I left, when a woman asked how long I’d been at Low Newton and I said twenty five years, she looked at me with genuine pity and said, God bless you miss – poor thing!
Of course it wasn’t like that. If it had been I couldn’t have stayed. There was much laughter, caring, hope and comradeship at Low Newton and I worked with many great colleagues and some very enlightened Governors. But I won’t deny there were times when working in prison was tough. It took it out of you and there was a deal of heartache and pain. From time to time, no matter how used to it you became, the pain seeped in, under your skin, and inhabited you.
Avril Joy is publishing a series of prison stories –Beyond The Mask. The first, When You Hear The Bird Sing, is available for download now on Amazon Kindle – 99p. She hopes to share profits with a charity that helps prisoners. You can visit her website/blog (with links to the book) here.