40 Days in Mayfield Women’s Prison; Chapter 7 Teacher Diary: learning more about the job

I started the day at work once again shadowing Megan. I was learning a lot and I also managed to do some work with the students. I was impressed with the way that a young woman about 20 years old helped Diana, another young woman, who is particularly difficult to deal with. It is good to see something positive happening, and particularly examples of the women helping each other. The teachers are supported by one general assistant and two teaching assistants. All the teaching assistants are prisoners. The general assistant I am working with is Lucy, a young woman of about 20, just one of many young women in Mayfield. The two teaching assistants are Kate and Ruth, who are middle aged women. Kate is quiet but is obviously au fait with everything that goes on in the prison.

Kate was in Holloway prison 20 years ago, something which I learned from overhearing her talking to another woman. I assumed she is not serving the same sentence, as that would mean that she is in for something very serious. But perhaps she is. Though Kate is a quiet person I have a feeling that it would not be a good idea to get on the wrong side of her. I made a mental note to try to build up a good relationship with Kate.  As I learned more about how the prison worked I realised that when I formulated this thought about Kate I was thinking about things in the right way.

At lunchtime I witnessed an altercation between Kate and Ruth, which suddenly flared up for no obvious reason. The language used was choice to say the least, with Ruth’s parting shot to Kate being, “suck my pussy, bitch.”  However, they seem to have made up later as when I saw them later in the afternoon everything seemed to be quite amicable.  I surmised, correctly as it turned out, that the women are very volatile, so things can erupt verbally at any time, and when it comes to abusive language it is no holds barred.

Some of the women carry around a notebook, the purpose of which is for staff to record observations about their behaviour. I filled in one for a young woman who was probably suspected of being a self-harmer.  I had to fill in some information about what she was doing in a time slot then add my signature.  If felt like a strange thing to do and it made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I learned today that Lucy, the young general assistant I had met earlier on, was in prison for stabbing a man she had suspected of being a paedophile.  She was up for parole in the near future.  Lucy was not someone I ended up having a lot of contact with but the next time I saw her I wished her well with her parole hearing.  She had been in prison for about 7 years.  As with many of the other young women, I did have my doubts about how well-equipped she was to cope with life outside prison.  She struck me as being rather immature for her age, more like a young teenager than a woman in her twenties.  However, she struck me as being conscientious and eager to make a better life for herself.  She seemed to have learned the necessary lessons from her past.

However, not all of the women were comparable with Lucy.  While they were a very small minority some of the women were inside for white collar crimes that required a good deal of brain power.  I got to know of one woman, who was confined to a wheelchair, who was inside for fraud.  While inside she put her brain to good use and successfully sued the prison system for £10,000 for providing her with inadequate health care.  However, I would say that this level of brains was fairly rare in the prison, with most of the women hampered by very poor or completely non-existent education.

The prison was, as far as I could see, making a good effort to equip the women with skills they could use outside.  There was a hairdresser where women trained in the necessary skills and this was popular with the women.  Going to the hairdresser was almost like an experience of normality, something which I noticed always had a beneficial effect on the women.  Women did not give up on looking after their appearance just because they were in prison and I noticed that many women liked to be well manicured.  The women were able to buy clothes, but the options were very limited.  Many women ended up wearing jogging bottoms and sweatshirts or tee shirts, which was a kind of de facto prison uniform.  But if their clothes were not what they would have chosen many of the women did have nice hair and nails.

Jasmin took me for a quick look at the workshop.  This was a very large room where the women could not only do paid work but work at art projects.  I met the tutor Helen, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties.  She gave me a tour of the facility and showed me some of the artwork produced by the women.  Some of this was quite impressive.  One woman was working on a piece that featured the text: The Police are Basterds.  Helen remarked that the creator needed to attend one of my adult literacy classes.

It was agreed I would teach a class tomorrow. The prospect of taking a class on my own made me feel a bit nervous.  I awaited the next day with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

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