Mim Skinner spent two years working in the chaplaincy of a high-security women’s prison, and teaching art there. Her experience lifts the lid on a shocking world with a woeful lack of support for some of the most vulnerable people in society, as she tells Joanna Moorhead.
The saddest story in Mim Skinner’s book is the saddest story I have ever read in any book. It takes place, like most of the events within its pages, in a high-security women’s prison somewhere in the north of England (Mim isn’t allowed to tell us precisely where).
Mim is an art teacher, and for two years between 2017-19 she taught art to prisoners. What she quickly realised was the depth of difference between her life and most of our lives outside a prison, and the lives of the women who were imprisoned, and their current lives. To say these were ‘oceans apart’ would be an understatement; to say many of the women in prison inhabited what is more like another universe from the rest of us is more accurate. Most of them had virtually none of the advantages most of us take for granted: 53% of female prisoners, for example, have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse at some point in their lives. A third had been raised, for at least part of their childhoods, in care. In terms of why they’re inside: 84% are in for non-violent crimes, and 70% are serving a sentence of six months or less. Almost half are sentenced for a crime that was to support the drug habit of someone else; and roughly the same number are reconvicted within a year of leaving prison.
So prison isn’t working: at least for women, at least in the current institutional set-up. As Mim points out when we meet for coffee, the short sentences most women are serving are enough for them to lose their tenancy, to have their children taken into care (and 85% have never been separated from their children before), but not long enough to make significant progress in helping them to get their lives back on track in terms of drug rehabilitation, trauma counselling or education.
And yet: prison happens. Admittedly to a small number of British women – they make up around 5% of the inmate population – but for those it affects, it’s like a sledgehammer coming down on an already fragile butterfly. Which brings us back to the unbearably sad story Mim’s book tells. It’s the tale of Paige, a young mother-to-be who attended Mim’s classes for a few weeks. Like all pregnant women, Paige was excited about becoming a mother, and she talked to Mim about possible names, and how she hoped she’d be able to go to a mother and baby unit after the delivery. She was serving a two-year sentence, and was taking courses to improve her mental health and teach her coping mechanisms, in the hope that she’d be allowed to keep the baby with her.
But it wasn’t to be. Paige gave birth – Mim isn’t sure whether it was a boy or a girl – but soon after came the news she’d dreaded, that she couldn’t keep the baby. She was allowed to stay with her child for a few days and then returned to prison empty-handed; Mim writes that she could hardly bear to think of her in her prison cell: ‘Milk collecting and drying up on cotton pads and her hands, which might have held a scaled-down human, holding her own curled-up knees or a hand-rolled cigarette instead.’ What could be lonelier than a woman who has just given birth, and who isn’t able to be with her child, but is instead all alone, and desperately bereft and sad?
Paige couldn’t bear it. A day later, Mim arrived at the prison gate to see a ‘death in custody’ notice taped to it. It was the worst day she ever experienced; she and the prisoners she taught made flower pictures to be taped to the door of the cell where Paige had been found; her body, as Mim writes, ‘still full of birth hormones’.
It’s heartbreaking; and so is a great deal of Mim’s book. But rarely if ever has a writer been able to take her readers into the heart of a women’s prison; and rarely has anyone made the case so convincingly for a major rethink on the wisdom, or otherwise, of locking women up at all (or at least, the vast majority of those who are currently incarcerated).
Mim is an inspiring coffee companion. She’s not yet 30, but she has the quiet poise and thoughtfulness of someone much older; and she’s had much to cope with in her own life, having lost her parents recently in quick succession. It was, she tells me, her mum who was the role model for the work she went on to do in prison. ‘My mum had a stronger faith than anyone I’ve ever known,’ she tells me. ‘She used to invite homeless people to eat at our house, and sometimes to stay with us. When I was quite a young child I remember how she’d pay for music lessons for children whose parents couldn’t afford them, because she said: why should we have those benefits when others didn’t?’
The family’s faith was evangelical; today Mim describes herself as a broad-based Christian, and it’s clear that her belief in both Christ and humanity are the bedrock of all she does. She’s based in Durham, where she went as a student – having been raised in Surrey, one of three girls – and once there, she quickly started to put her radical ideas into practice. ‘With some friends, we decided to live in community in order to house someone who had nowhere to live,’ she tells me. ‘I shared a bunk bed with a friend so we could free up a room for a homeless person. And we were also Night Stop hosts, offering temporary emergency accommodation to people who needed it.’
This work put her in touch with many women who had first-hand experience of the criminal justice system. ‘I was shocked by how vulnerable many of them were, and it was clear that their needs weren’t being met by prison,’ she says. In search of ways of tackling the issues, she set up a regular event called Ideas Hive, which enabled people to share social justice ideas. And on the back of that came an invitation to become a chaplaincy assistant and art teacher in a women’s prison.
What she saw there shocked her to the core. To take just one example, she says: the lack of dignity is appalling. ‘Many women have to use toilets with no doors. And that might sound a small thing, but it’s such a dignity loser. What I came to realise was that prison held the poorest and most vulnerable women of all, and yet the support system for those women was very lacking. And what that means for society is, we’re spending a great deal of money, but not helping people at all.’ In fact, as her book makes clear, the net result is often to make their lives worse; and not only their lives, but also those of their children. ‘Prison for women isn’t remotely useful,’ she says. ‘It’s no deterrent at all.’ Some women immediately reoffend because they have no home and no support whatsoever on the outside. ‘So many women are released to no address – they just have to live in a bus shelter or on a grass verge,’ says Mim. ‘To me, that’s the most shocking thing of all. Many people have no idea how little rehabilitation work goes on in prison, or the lack of support given to prisoners on release.’
Her faith, she believes, is what’s allowed her to see the situation in a different, and sustaining, way. ‘Basically, if you have a narrative of faith it doesn’t allow you to say, this person is a baddie, this person is a good person. We all have to say: there but for the grace of God go I. And we are all from the same imprint: we all have God in us. Faith doesn’t allow the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction.’
Jailbirds: Lessons from a women’s prison by Mim Skinner is published by Seven Dials, hardback £16.99, eBook £8.99