40 Days in Mayfield Women’s Prison; Chapter 3 Teacher Diary: the class observation

There were about 10 women in the class I observed Megan teaching. They were a mixed age group with younger women predominating. There were two older women from Jamaica in the class, probably in prison for trying to smuggle drugs through Smithson airport: many prisoners are in Mayfield for this.  I was sitting beside a young woman who I learned was called Janet. She was quite a small woman with very short hair and she seemed a bit out of it.  I surmised that she was on methadone, which is the case with many of the women in the prison. She was keen to let me know that she was getting out next Thursday and said she was inside for petty pilfering, which he could not stop because of her drug habit.  I asked her what she was going to do when she got out. She replied that she was going to empty a bottle of champagne into her flask and drink it on the train home. She lives in North London.  She also said she was then going to try to see her son who lives with her father but added that her father may not let her see her child. There are obviously some long-term problems there, which is hardly surprising. Janet told me that she had been on drugs since she was 16, and since then drugs has been her life. 

Even though she had just met me Janet seemed very keen to confide in me. She showed me her ID card, which all prisoners have to carry; it has their photo on it and the key to their cell is also attached.  Janet told me that she was very happy with what Mayfield had done for her: she had been in many prisons but Mayfield was the best. She certainly now looked very different from her photo taken when she was admitted.  This photo had been used for the ID card and had never been changed. In the photo she looked skeletal and had huge black rings under her eyes. She had been on drugs and eating only a packet of biscuits a day when she had been admitted. I must admit I warmed to Janet, who came across as a genuine, though perhaps naive, young woman. There was a certain childlike quality to her. Even though I was not speaking to her for long I was struck by two things.  She seemed to lack an awareness of the full difficulty of the challenges that faced here on her release, and I also had my doubts if she was well equipped to deal with them.  I later learned that many of the women found life outside a struggle, even to the extent that they preferred life in prison. Later on, I heard several women expressing this idea. Mayfield had obviously been good for Janet and this encouraged me to take the job, even though it is obviously a very challenging one. As a first encounter with a prisoner it was somewhat disarming; it was certainly not what I expected. But there were other aspects of the class that were very interesting too.

There were two young women in the class who had no interest whatever in participating.  Jo is one I remember most. Jo is a young woman with the delicate physique, pale skin and good looks that you see in portraits by the likes of the eighteenth-century English artist Joshua Reynolds.  However, she is rough: very rough. Her reaction to being asked to do some work was to say that she was pregnant and needed a lie down and a fag and why was she sitting there like a fucking twat.  Megan was unsympathetic, saying that pregnancy was a condition not an illness and that Susan, another member of the class, was pregnant too but didn’t complain about it.  As the class continued it became obvious that there were intelligent and articulate women in the class. A discussion developed about who was responsible for teaching children spelling: parents or teachers? A young woman who I thought was of Jamaican or African origin was the main speaker.  I learned after the class that she was actually Portuguese. Apart from the opening salvo from Jo, the class went off without incident. 

After the class I went over to the staff room. I told Jasmin I would think about my response to what I had seen today and get back in touch. Jasmin wanted me to get in touch as quickly as possible, which was gratifying in a way as it is good to feel wanted. However, no doubt the need to have a full roster of teachers for the inspection of the prison was a factor in this desire to get the matter settled quickly. I left the prison and was relieved to get outside.  I found the prison to have a certain claustrophobic aspect which I found oppressive.  I ended up getting the 215 bus back to Queenstown and from there got the train back to Ovalham. When I was on the bus I rang Stephanie at Barnes recruitment agency and told her that I would like to take the job if they still wanted me. Stephanie rang me back soon to say that she had sent an email to Jasmin to confirm everything. I also spoke to my wife Liz who was in favour of me taking the job, even though as it turned out the contract was only for 3 months initially.  It looked like all the arrangements were going to be in place for me to start soon.  The next day I got a call from Stephanie saying that Mayfield wanted me to start as soon as possible.

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