“Everyone’s so nice here. Everyone treats you like a human being, and not this strange alien who’s committed a crime…. You need that after prison, to build yourself up after being told, ‘You’re bad, you’re a terrible person, you’re an outcast from society’. Because that’s what you’re told virtually every day in prison. It’s very depressing, Holloway. Very depressing.”
I meet Laura over a cup of tea in a cosy room in West London decorated with bunting and feminist posters. The Minerva Project’s offices feel about as distant from the austere conditions of the hulking Victorian prison HMP Holloway as you can get. We spend the morning chatting about prison conditions, the way society constructs crime, rehabilitation and adjusting to life on the outside. Earlier this summer, I read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, and her words come to mind our conversation.
“The prison [is] an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited… This is the ideological work that the prison performs-it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society.”
Davis, a former prisoner herself, is one of the leading voices in the US’ prison abolition movement, a movement with a long history of fierce resistance to the prison-industrial complex, a tradition we’re lacking here in the UK. I’ve ended up in this colourful corner of West London to understand how the prison-industrial complex (which is becoming increasingly privatized, following the American model) functions in the UK. But more importantly, I’m here because I wanted to see what a compassionate and humane alternative to a prison sentence might look like; more ambitiously, even, to think about how we could build a society without prisons.
What about Laura? How did she end up here, sipping tea on the other side of the table? “I was referred to Minerva by my probation officer, because of their handling of women who’ve had criminal backgrounds and a history of domestic violence, which I have.” The project, she says, has kept her sane since her release.
The Minerva Advance project works specifically with women, those at risk of offending as well as ex-inmates. Speaking to Laura, as well as Melanie, the project manager, it’s clear they fill a gap in usual probation and rehabilitation services, specifically addressing the way women are alienated by a one-size-fits-all approach to the criminal justice system.
There are key differences in patterns of offending for women and men (a binary system that the criminal justice system upholds). The most marked is that 2 in 3 women in the prison system are primary carers. Far more women than men commit crimes to support other people- whether that’s a child or a partner. It’s a picture I got spending a day spent in West London Magistrates Court earlier in the summer, where women confessed to stealing sandwiches, the odd bit of meat, a few toiletries. Defending herself, one woman told the judge, “I was hungry. I am a human being and I need to eat.”
For the two thirds of women inside who are mothers and carers, prison has a cataclysmic effect on their relationships. “What we find is that they lose touch very quickly with family when they go inside. It leaves any child feeling very traumatised even if they do remain in the family home cared for by a relative.” Laura mentions being shunned by family and friends; Melanie tells me about the vicious cycle which means she sees a lot of children following their mothers into prison and through to Minerva’s projects.
Disclaimer: prisons are terrible places for men, too. Inmates of all genders suffer. But both Laura and Melanie repeatedly return to the need for a better understanding of why women end up in the prison system. More than half of women who’ve spent time in prison, Laura among them, report being abused at some point in their lives, a figure which is more than double that for men. When I ask Melanie if this is typical of Minerva’s users, she answers quickly and with certainty: “Yes, definitely. Most of them have suffered some form of domestic abuse in the past, from a partner or a family member.”
Laura’s particularly sensitive to the way the prison system completely disregards the complex mesh of trauma, illness, and class-based oppressions which mean women end up inside. “The majority of society just see a girl who’s gone to prison. But they don’t think about, you know, the mother’s always high- the dad’s not around because he’s always in prison. [They don’t know] she comes from a very difficult estate. Some women haven’t got a hope in hell of not getting involved with drugs or violence. And until these kind of issues are addressed these girls haven’t got a choice; they haven’t got a chance.”
This is why what Minerva do is so vital. Unlike the kind of short-term prison sentence which sees 51% of women reconvicted within a year of leaving prison, Minerva do address the address the kinds of broader, structural issues Laura recognizes. They build up a user’s self-esteem, help them find employment and build healthy relationships, address substance abuse and addiction. A pilot project, Triage, is another welcome step forward: young women can now be referred to Minerva before sentencing, Melanie tells me, on being arrested or bailed by police, so that, hopefully, they’re diverted them from the criminal justice system entirely.
A world without prisons is incompatible without fundamental changes to healthcare, mental illness, education, housing- it’s virtually incompatible with anything short of a revolution. While Minerva don’t oppose incarceration, or claim to present a direct alternative to a prison sentence, the way that they work with women, with compassion and without judgement, points to a different way of looking at crime. Working here and now, the kind of projects Minerva run present possibilities for the future, for an emphasis on humane interventions, counselling, treatment for addiction, employment training.
Minerva aren’t tearing down any walls or starting any riots. The centre is, in Melanie’s words, “Just a place where a woman can come and talk about her life, about traumatic experiences. And they don’t get that in very many places; there aren’t many women-only places.” But creating and maintaining this space in a quiet corner of Hammersmith is, in itself, a radical act.
Words by Niamh Mcintyre, top illustration by Devyn Park, second illustration by Matthew Sharp