‘Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system…If education is the engine of social mobility, it is also the engine of prison rehabilitation.’ – Dame Sally Coates, Unlocking Potential: A Review of Education in Prison
There’s a stampede of animals when movement flows
Ferocious tigers and flamboyant flamingos
Some animals go 2 X 2
Some go it alone
Walking up and off the landing
Is like walking trough a jungle
When movement flows
Don’t be late
Try not to get trampled on
And stay on the straight road
Because anything can happen when movement flows
- By Marshmellow, a prisoner at HMP Downview
The View Magazine is a campaigning platform and social enterprise, which is by and for women in the criminal justice system. We give a voice to women who may be silenced by imprisonment and ensuing social death.
Writing and creativity are not only cathartic, but are recognized as a way out of offending behaviour. According to an assessment of the English and Maths skills levels of prisoners in England, 86% have below L2 literacy (Brian Creese, November 2016) . It is therefore vital that writing opportunities are available in prisons to tackle this major deficit.
It is also the case that a high proportion of women from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds who have experienced domestic abuse in the criminal justice system and been unfairly ignored, as touched upon in the report We are Invisible . Better practice in the courts, police, caseworkers and legal practitioners is very much needed, adding to the growing body of evidence that prison is rarely the answer for women. There are better community-based solutions that need to be properly funded.
Founded in 2019, The View publishes content from incarcerated women and those on license in the community, highlighting the injustices they are facing, with particular emphasis on those from minority ethnic backgrounds and women who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse. We are examining how women who have survived abuse and trauma are being let down by the very services meant to protect them, and how they end up being criminalised.
Our summer issue includes guest writers such as Zoe Buckman, Ruby Tandoh and Bee Wilson. Zoe Buckman is a former model who is now an artist and activist who explores themes of feminism, mortality and equality when talking about domestic violence through the concept of “ride or die”.
Content by and for women prisoners is uncensored, shining a light on the conditions in women’s prisons and the daily injustices that they face. All content submitted by prisoners is paid for and is available for the prisoner to spend upon release for resettlement purposes. Any women in prison in England can also get a copy of the magazine, and at no charge. The magazine is available at 93 outlets in England and by subscription at
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Steve Mcnaught writes of his personal experience and questions why some forms of prejudice go unchallenged
‘Every person has a story’
Eight years to this day I was in a cell next to a murderer. He was serving a life sentence, having been sentenced when he was 17, and back then I remember looking at his face and wondering how he could ever be 28. A murderer – an act that might make you recoil; a man surely defined entirely by such a grievous offence. But his case had arisen from a drunken fight and a wildly thrown punch – he never intended to kill, yet had tragically taken a life. In the cell next to him was a drug dealer, who had played a leading role in supplying MDMA (Ecstasy) across the South East. A drug dealer, but also a father of two young children and with no prior offences – driven into crime after a period of unemployment and alcoholism.
To define these people solely by their crimes, without looking at the circumstances that arose before in their lives, would be very easy to do. But such an act would be no different from picking up a book and glancing at its cover. You won’t know the story, just how it first appears.
Society consistently judges people who have fallen foul of the law, not just after they have been sentenced and put in prison, but even after they leave. Is it relevant that 72% of prisoners have multiple mental health difficulties (Prison Reform Trust, 2019); that in many ways they are products of a failing society, rather than emerging like some random nuisance with evil embedded in their hearts?
I went to prison for a series of armed robberies committed in my early 20s. I will not go into the circumstances around these, for they are written about extensively elsewhere (see ‘Just Sky’ and forthcoming book by Ben Machell, ‘The Unusual Suspect’), but I had never been to prison before. And I ended up spending 7 years in 23 American and British jails. What I witnessed in that time was not a line-up of hardened convicts. It was instead a microcosm of society at large, composed of people who had made the wrong choices, many of them having experienced abuse and victimisation themselves. A sizable proportion had come from fractured families, brought up in deprived areas, swiftly caught up on the conveyor belt of care home, borstal and prison. Few could read and write well; even fewer had a secure job lined up when they were due for release. Locked up for around 22 hours a day, a great many turned to drugs – a well-known route of escapism relied upon since their teens. The few prison jobs and classes available rarely offered real hope for successful reintegration back into society. Out of that environment, I was released, aged 28. Seven years of my life had passed. Society had changed. Support was few and far between, but some sources – like the Princes Trust and Crisis – offered a helping hand. I wanted to start afresh, but I also wanted to make a difference. I had seen, first hand, how writing could change people – not just the writers, but readers. It enabled a form of creative expression that bolstered confidence and self-esteem, enabling people to discover new aspects of themselves and acquire vital skills. Equally importantly, it could break down stereotypes and stigma towards people from disadvantaged backgrounds – even towards prisoners and ex-offenders – by conveying their stories to others. If a reader understands a person’s story, the former labels that were applied begin to slip away. Suddenly, that person becomes relatable. No longer a label or statistic, but a human being.
For hundreds of years, those from minority ethnic backgrounds were actively enslaved, discriminated against and exploited. It continues, in varying degrees, to this day. The ‘rationale’ offered by those responsible for it varied from pseudo-science to warped social arguments. Yet, today, it is widely acknowledged by society that such prejudice is totally unacceptable.
One thing all forms of prejudice have in common is the failure to consider all the circumstances, background and potential of the person being discriminated against. They are instead judged upon some unchanging and arbitrary characteristic: the colour of their skin; the fact they may look or act different because of a disability; that they may speak differently or cannot afford the latest fashion in clothes. And so on. In other words, prejudice stems from an inability to put yourself in the other’s shoes.
When looking at today’s society, there is one form of prejudice that continues unchecked. It is completely acceptable for the media to support it; even for law makers and public authorities to embrace it. In every institution and level we can find evidence of it, to some degree. It differs from all other forms of prejudice in respect to going largely unchallenged. Why? Well, like with the prejudices based on colour and other characteristics hundreds of years ago, there are ‘good reasons’ for having it. Only a progressive minority – as with hundreds of years ago – protests otherwise.
So what is this prejudice I speak of?
It is the discrimination against people with criminal records.
If someone transgresses against the rules of society, to some extent they should expect to face exclusion and discrimination. And in many ways the intensity of this exclusion should correlate with the seriousness of their crimes, as defined by the harm they inflicted on others.
And yet, unless we are to judge someone’s transgressions for their entirety of their lives, what is the point of that other principle that society also claims to embrace and support: rehabilitation? Where is the place for redemption where every person who finds themselves subject to the penalty of law can expect a life-term punishment, irrespective in many degrees to the nature of their offence? If we are to treat criminals in this manner, would it not be better just to execute them all?
The fact is, even this latter sentiment is embraced by some. And it all stems from a failure to understand – to cast another group as completely alien and ‘other’ to ourselves. The circumstances by which they entered crime are irrelevant. The behaviour they have demonstrated subsequent to their formal punishment under law is likewise void. What matters is some arbitrary label applied to them, based on a miasma of stigma and demonization: they are criminals.
What about in cases where a person may have broken the law in their youth, perhaps in exceptional circumstances, having expressed immense remorse and going on to turn their lives around? Taking it further, what about in cases where someone may go on to actively contribute to society – helping others who might take similar paths, reaching out to ensure others facing prejudice in all its kinds are able to overcome that?
You might think that, surely, these cases break out of that psychological and social barrier of criminality. Of course these cases are different, you might argue.
You would be wrong. The prejudice continues, regardless of a person’s circumstances before and after they committed an offence. One has only to consider that 82% of former prisoners have reported difficulties in getting employment because of discrimination regarding their convictions (UNLOCK, 2016).And amongst these statistics are personal stories, individuals trying hard, like every other citizen, to be part of society – but ruthlessly pushed out to its fringes. Some are more targeted than others, depending on the profiles they keep. But you can rest assured, if the media or general public find out about their past, it will be used against them – regardless of its relevance – at every turn.
Winston Churchill once famously said that: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”
He was right, yet if we were to judge present society by its treatment of crime and criminals we might find ourselves wishing to look away. People, as a rule, have an instinctive feeling for unfairness. However, the media – in large part owned by billionaires closely affiliated to right wing interests – consistently scapegoats and marginalises those groups who are easiest to attack. People with criminal records remain the Number One target, followed shortly after by refugees. There are many reasons for this, but a lot stems from the convenience of having a group of ‘irredeemable, violent reprobates’ who can keep wider society fearful, distrustful of each other and pliable to authorities.
If we are to be serious about social inclusion, why should it be totally fine to be prejudiced against one particular group, based on the same kind of reasoning that was used to discriminate against other groups? It is very convenient to decry prejudice that is not socially acceptable, whilst embracing prejudice directed towards ‘fringe’ groups. Just because the press and those in power support such prejudice. Just because we don’t have the emotional or intellectual insight to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.
The alternative: condemn each person based on their transgression against the law at some point of their lives. Disregard the circumstances of this and the behaviour they demonstrated after the formal term of their punishment. Continue to exclude, discriminate and attack them at every opportunity. What you are left with is a cruel, dysfunctional society, one that would cast a whole segment of the population aside to its own harm, one where indeed most people who have offended go on to re-offend. Ask yourself what that society looks like, and you won’t have to look very far.
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The impacts of COVID-19 on all sectors have been immense, but perhaps one of those hardest hit is the independent publishing industry. Already heavily reliant on events to garner income, as well as book sales, with no dedicated financial support from the government, many small publishers across the UK are on the brink of closure.
Yet the importance these outlets play in society is immense. If the publishing landscape folds in upon itself, with only the largest and strongest companies surviving, all evidence suggests there will be a huge fall in diverse authors – not to mention those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The drive for profits and perceived commercial viability, arising from the stereotyping of those from privileged backgrounds who dominate the industry, means supporting diversity will have little priority.
People from Black and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds; those with disabilities; group who have direct experience of significant social exclusion, with powerful accounts to convey – all these (already under-represented within literature) will be pushed further to the sidelines.
Our charity, The Arkbound Foundation, has therefore launched a collaborative crowdfunding campaign, with the sole aim of continuing its key work with diverse and disadvantaged authors, whilst supporting the wider sector.
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A recent study this year by Professor Katy Shaw at Northumbria University has highlighted the difficulties faced by people from marginalised backgrounds, including working class, into getting published. This follows on from similar research, like that of Professor Claire Squires at Stirling University, and yet the Arts Council and other publicly funded bodies responsible for the arts appear to be doing very little to address a continuing diversity deficit in publishing.
One of our very authors, Shane Johnstone, has written about what it means to get published when coming from a disadvantaged background, which of added obstacle when writing about certain topics. You can read his blog piece here.
Connecting with what Shane says, the study of Professor Shaw goes on to note literature plays such an important role in personal development and dispelling stereotypes, something we have argued for years and sought to tackle through projects undertaken by the Arkbound Foundation. The role of mentoring, which was cast aside in one funding application to the Arts Council, is explored in the study. Of those we work with, some have asked why – out of 3 years of social impact work – we have not received a penny of arts funding, despite millions of pounds going towards publishers with commercial objectives and none of the emphasis on helping disadvantaged writers. It is testament to our staff, authors, volunteers and trustees that we have fought back against this inequality, pushing into new areas and gaining recognition on an international level.
It may be somewhat ironic, as a disadvantaged organisation ourselves, founded with lived experience of disadvantage and Equalities Led from bottom to top, that we have not been mentioned in the study or linked research. The fact remains that many voices are continuing to be left out, but the onus of what has been carefully researched still has force.
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