6 Days in Cornton Vale

by Rosie Kane

It was only six days. Less than a week of my life. But every one of the 144 hours I spent behind bars opened my eyes just a little bit wider.

By the time I emerged on Thursday, my peepers must have looked like dinner plates.

I knew that I would not be in Cornton Vale women’s prison for long. I knew I had family and friends on the outside and I knew I would leave to a warm home and fulfilling job.

I had more to hold on to than practically every other prisoner in there – but it was still the one of the saddest experiences of my life.

Don’t think for a second that I am looking for sympathy. I had a choice.

I could have paid a fine instead of going to jail. But the £300 penalty was for an anti-nuclear protest I do not consider a crime.

I made my choice and I’d make the same one again.

But the other women in Cornton Vale were born with few options and have less with every year that passes.

The opportunities went with every drink, every fix of heroin, every petty theft, every spell inside.

Hundreds of women clatter back and forth through the gates of that miserable place like they are on a baggage carousel at the airport.

If a society can be judged by how it treats prisoners then we are a cold, empty and bleak place.

I thought I was prepared when I was sentenced to 14 days on Friday, October 27.

But I was a fool for thinking I was ready. Nothing can prepare you for the cell door slamming behind you.

I arrived at the prison in Stirling just after 2pm but the radio had already been reporting I was on my way.

So within five minutes of my arrival, three of my 269 fellow inmates were at my cell to greet me. They were welcoming and kind and I was grateful. I was already Prisoner 99451 and in my jail clothes. I’d rather have had a suit with arrows up it than those black, torn trackie bottoms.

Despite stories about prisoners enjoying hot and cold running luxury, I wasn’t expecting the Hilton. Just as well, really.

After just six days, I came out a stone lighter despite eating every meal. The hunger was constant. So was the cold.

Locked in the cell at half past seven at night – six o’clock at the weekend – wearing every scrap of clothing I had and the quilt wrapped around my feet, I was still freezing. I had £5 a week to spend but coffee was a luxury only allowed at weekends.

Morale is rock bottom, for guards and prisoners. There is a culture of bullying and aggression. It is hellish.

I had been told conditions in men’s prisons are better than in women’s because men wouldn’t put up with it.

Women don’t riot, you see. Particularly women whose lives have almost always been lived in the shadow of abuse. They have been given nothing and they expect nothing. They have already been stripped of dignity, hope, and any belief in themselves or a better life.

Most seem to be in for drugs, drink, petty thefts, or unpaid fines.

One 27-year-old women was typical. She seemed gentle, articulate and educated but when she goes on a bender she turns from Jekyll into Mrs Hyde.

Her raging drunken spells often end in arrest and prison. This time, she had thrown some candles and a James Blunt CD out of a window during an argument. I could just about see the point of prison if she’d thrown James Blunt out the window.

Drugs are the reason why other women are there. Shaking and shivering, these poor wee lassies detoxing are the most pathetic sight.

I watched tiny, pinched women who looked like children suffering in agony – knowing that, even if they manage to stay clean in Cornton Vale, they’ll be going back to homeless hostels awash with heroin. Twelve women have taken their own lives in this jail since 1995.

What is the point of spending pounds 300 a day keeping prisoners behind bars, when they do not pose a risk of violence, if we do nothing to stop their swift and inevitable return to jail?

Locking them up and throwing away the key is not a penal policy.

It’s a nonsense sanctioned by politicians desperate to look tough by picking on the easiest targets. If we spent less of our taxes on prisons, we could fund properly effective residential rehab programmes. If cash was ploughed into social work and solid support structures, our jails would be emptier and our streets safer.

We need to intervene early. Many of the women behind bars could have been identified by their teachers before they even left primary school.

By the time they reached adulthood, they had already been in and out of trouble and in and out of jail.

I’m sure plenty of people will be queuing up to accuse me of gesture politics, of wasting taxpayers’ money. They’re wrong. My week in jail was harrowing but enlightening.

I lost count of the number of women – and some guards – begging me to tell people what it is like. I have and I’ll keep doing so. And I won’t stop until we see changes to the stupid, wasteful, self defeating disgrace that sends so many of our women to jail.

This piece was previously published in the Sunday Mail