Holloway Prison holds female adults and young offenders remanded or sentenced by the local courts. Of these over half have reported suffering domestic violence and one in three have experienced sexual abuse.
As a young man, having the opportunity to address these young women was a shock and a privilege. Public speaking has become a major part of my life since the release of my book and I have been propelled from small community group settings to large scale lectures across the country. As a confident speaker I relish new challenges and opportunities to share my knowledge and message with others never usually feeling nervous. Yet here I was, Black History Month 2012 racking my brain for inspiration and being overcome by the unfamiliar feeling of unease.
Although the majority of my work over the last nine years has centred on the development of young men there has been overlap as their relationships with young women is often a topic of exploration. Through these projects a number of concerning issues have surfaced spanning from abuse, gang affiliations, joint enterprise and sexual exploitation. While much attention has been given to young men entangled in a street lifestyle the young women involved are often neglected. Running interventions with Janette Collins project manager of The Crib Youth club has exposed me to the concerning daily experiences of some of these young women.
The safe nature of the youth club and the trust between worker and young person has presented an environment where young women feel able to express the extent of their issues. Through intimate relationships young women had become caught up with their boyfriend's lifestyle of drugs, guns and gangs. Pressure and coercion to hold and hide drugs and weapons were rampant with young women admitting to being initially attracted to the power and reputation from being linked with these men. However this benefit was short lived as they told us of often being treated disrespectfully, forced to be involved in criminal activities and risking going to prison for 'love'. I learnt to listen without judging the primary focus to assist these young women to leading fulfilling lives; often referring them to other targeted organisations.
As my mind reviewed the work I had done with young women in the past my nerves began to subside. I noticed a key difference in the mentoring I had done previously; unlike speaking to young women on the verge of making a mistake or currently needing guidance, this was about young women who had come to terms with their mistake and hopefully looking forward to the next stage of their lives. My shift in perspective allowed my mind freedom to link thoughts and once ignited ideas began to flow.
On the day nerves temporarily attempted to make an appearance but they were thwarted by my increasing confidence. Prepped and passionate I left my notes on the floor and addressed the inmates from, the heart. Hope; to look forward with desire and confidence formed the foundation of my message. Speaking words that I hoped would penetrate and be effectual. I used language to challenge their perspective on themselves; evidencing that self respect was necessary "to demonstrate that you have self-respect and carry yourself in a way people will respect you because you are confident in who you are".
Like Eleanor Roosevelt said "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent" and this seed I wanted to sow to them as its core concept flowed through my speech. If they took nothing else, I wanted that to impact them; being such a powerful statement. Throughout my life I have been blessed tremendously by being surrounded by strong, confident women. Their words and lessons have affected me and a number of others and I remember them to this day. My presentation gave me the opportunity to combine the voices of many inspirational women and amplify their message to a vast audience. As an ambassador of their teaching I felt privileged to translate their words to these young women and pass on the mantle of experience. In relation to help and assistance I challenged them to discern genuine people from those pretending. Regardless this support will end so self-motivation and ambition is vital to drive them to their success. I aimed to show them their importance and get them to consider their future regardless of their past. To conclude I spoke about redemption, the process of accepting mistakes and how to move forward. If and when the opportunity arises that they get a chance to re-join society what plan do they have for themselves.
This is some background statistics on women in prisons;
Women prisoner background
• One in four women in prison has spent time in local authority care as a child.
• Nearly 40% of women in prison left school before the age of 16 years, almost one in 10 were aged 13 or younger.
• 30% of women were permanently excluded from school.
• Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.
• 19% of women were not in permanent accommodation before entering custody and 10% of women were sleeping rough.
Reconviction and reoffending
• 51% of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year - for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 62%. For those women who have served more than 10 previous custodial sentences the reoffending rate rises to 88%.
• 58% of women identified unemployment and lack of skills as problems contributing to their offending
A number of young women are categorised as 'vulnerable' by organisations, in policies and by society. Often the label focuses on the woman's situation but may not address the misogynistic male who has attacked or controlled them. Barnados Charity run a project that helps 'vulnerable' young women and a manager explained that there is still much work to be done to help educate young women about various issues they face and more importantly understanding when to ask for help. Although stigmatised, seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of awareness; showing you understand your situation and realised you need support in order to succeed.
After my talk at HMP I had the opportunity to talk to some of the young women and two stood out. The first (19) explained that she was in prison due to being mistreated by her partner and using violence to defend herself. She did not see herself as being vulnerable. Societies over centuries have told us that men are innately superior to women. So when a man or boy for instance is abused the courts never used the word vulnerability rather they concentrate on perpetrator. When a woman is a victim regardless of her personality traits the word "vulnerable" is often used by the police and in courts, which in part deflects that is was solely the action of the male perpetrator that is at fault and should be fully accountable.
The second young lady, who was in her mid-twenties, came up to me and she started crying. She thanked me for coming to speak to them and told me she really appreciated it. Parts of the message had really impacted her deeply and she spoke of how her perspective had shifted and she now viewed her future more positively. I was humbled by her admission and her honesty and touched by her emotion and self-reflection.
Mentoring, guidance and direction should not be gender determined. Both young men and young women require positive role models with those in disadvantaged positions especially benefitting from a positive adult relationship. Often young men's issues are thrown into the spotlight but I hope that those in close contact with young women will be vigilant to their needs and give them the love and support they need to make positive choices.