Celebrating International Women’s Day in a men’s prison: a chance to change the conversation

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Celebrating International Women’s Day in a men’s prison: a chance to change the conversation

Unlocked participant Scarlett, who has been on the Unlocked programme at HMP Liverpool since September 2020, shares her experience of using International Women’s Day to spark conversations among the men’s prison population.

I would be lying if I said that planning International Women’s Day in a Cat B jail was a simple task.  A Victorian jail housing over 800 men, many of whom had never even heard of International Women’s Day did not exactly make it an obvious move!

With resilience, A LOT of determination and a tinge of humour throughout, I was able to use this as an opportunity to get the men in our care thinking about the importance of women, not just on International Women’s Day, but every day.

What made me most proud was hearing the prisoner’s reflections of women in their life. I used funding from Unlocked to invest in arts and crafts to enable the men to produce impressive artwork to express the women in their lives. Art packs were distributed across my wing so that the men could engage not only in purposeful activity in their cell but also have time to reflect on their social bonds. I believe what made this activity meaningful was the way they described the women in their lives through poetry posted across a picture of their wife, detailed drawings of their children and even just a picture of their mum with a love heart around it. Describing how they couldn’t have remained so strong if it wasn’t for the strength of their mums, wives, sisters, daughters, aunties and friends. Every emotion was inked into their art, the sadness of missing them, the guilt of not being present in their lives, the pride of being able to call them theirs and absolute admiration.

My fellow Unlocked Graduates helped me produce quizzes and other in-cell activities to distribute across the wings. This presented another opportunity to discuss attitudes towards women and also meant that many negative perceptions could be changed. For example, fact posters were placed around the prison describing the importance of IWD and the harrowing facts surrounding women’s inequality across the world. This provided the men with the opportunity to pause and think, being presented with the knowledge that they may otherwise have not known. Such activities came with their challenges, I was met with some resistance by some of the men, as not all individuals had a level of respect for women. Although this created a challenge, it was a challenge I was willing to take on. I asked the men questions surrounding women’s rights, sexist language and even debates surrounding nude photos. Although these conversations seemed basic at first, they wouldn’t have arisen if such activities and posters weren’t littered around the wings, and it created the foundations for meaningful conversations to grow.

As a member of the charity committee in the prison, I thought it important to ensure that women in our community would also benefit from HMP Liverpool celebrating IWD. Therefore, in the governor’s passage, I placed two empty boxes for staff to donate sanitary products into for a local women’s shelter and a food bank too. This brought attention to an issue very close to my heart which is period poverty. I was overwhelmed that we managed to fill the two boxes and many more. It became somewhat of an ongoing joke seeing the male prison officers discreetly putting a box of tampons in the box. I even had some officers give me money to buy the products myself, so they didn’t have to be seen with them! Although this could be viewed as someone counterproductive to my cause, I took it as a compliment. International Women’s Day has never been run on such a large scale in HMP Liverpool, so for individuals to attempt to engage was the start of what could eventually be.

I didn’t want this to be just about the prisoners. I also encouraged staff members to put forward a woman in the prison who had inspired them in some way or another, placing their names in boxes within the tea rooms. The woman with the most votes would receive a hamper as a congratulations.

Again, I found that simply having the box there generated conversations and enabled perceptions to be changed. Some of the most long-serving officers shared their stories of when female officers first joined the service and how they stood by them on the landings.

Women’s bravery was discussed, women staff who have saved lives, ran into cells to protect staff, having no idea if a weapon was present, putting out fires and always standing beside our officers, regardless of our gender. The compassion of women staff was highlighted, male officers sharing how impressive many of our female staff are when it comes to empathy and patience with some of our most challenging prisoners.

I chose to run IWD in HMP Liverpool because I am proud to be a woman officer working in a male-dominated environment. I am proud to challenge stereotypes, to bring kindness into a harsh environment, to create change and to feel no shame in being a woman. I’m proud to be Miss T.