Semina Halliwell, a rape victim, who at the tender age of just 12, took her own life. A young girl with autism; whose condition was both a blessing and curse, for to feel everything so very deeply, may have led Semina to end her life directly after yet another police interview failed to take forward her complaint and act. You could say, he raped her once, society raped her many times…
This is not an easy story to tell but tell it I must, and whilst writing this piece, my heart broke a little more each day. Semina, a year 7 pupil at Stanley High School in Southport and following a severe episode of self-harm, broke down and confessed to her mother that she had been groomed on Snapchat by an older boy at her school and that this boy had then raped her.
On Saturday April 23rd, women once more organised to protest on prison grounds against the inclusion of male prisoners in the women’s estate. This event marked the 7th protest in our campaign, and our target was Askham Grange women’s prison, a beautiful old converted manor house in a picturesque and unassuming corner of York.
Despite the long journey and remote location, we arrived with a turnout of around 30 women equipped with banners, placards and the campaign’s trademark shields. We were also extremely pleased to introduce an additional megaphone, adding depth and a reverberant urgency to our now well known chants of “NO MALES IN FEMALE JAILS”, “WOMEN ARE NOT HUMAN SHIELDS”, and the crux of our mission statement “KEEP PRISONS SINGLE SEX”.
Prison, by its very nature, is an inescapably intimate place. Askham Grange even more so by virtue of its small size and status as an open prison. I know this personally because I served two thirds of my sentence here. I had friends, some of whom I kept for years after release, and I have memories both good and bad from the time I spent here, ranging from botched dental work to building snowmen (snowpersons?) to sharing cigarettes freezing on the lawn during midnight fire drills. Again, the intimacy is INESCAPABLE. The prison houses around 100 inmates at any given time. There is little privacy, many intense personal connections and there are NO secrets.
On Saturday, March 12th 2022, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, feminist groups from across the North of England gathered to raise loud, visible objections to male violence against women and girls worldwide. We met to hold a vigil, and to march through Manchester city centre to raise awareness of the brutal and ongoing war being waged against women. The event was organised by Manchester Feminist Network and was joined in solidarity by Northern Radfem Network, Women’s Rights Network and Yes Matters, who were present fundraising for their free services supporting victims of male violence.
Our action was marred by male incursion right from the outset with a man being physically removed from our starting point – the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst – by police for menacing a group of women before the rally had even gotten underway. This incident was shortly followed by another man interrupting our chants against male violence, this time shouting pro transgender slogans – which was somewhat baffling and irrelevant as our assembled contingent were present to neither discuss nor draw attention to transgender politics. Ours was a peaceful, woman centred action that had numerous mothers and their children in attendance. This point cannot be overstated in relation to the events that transpired as we finished our assemblage and set off marching.
The chants were largely led by well known and respected feminist activist Belstaffie. We chanted about rape, the harms of pornography and gave a mention to honour the memory of a relation of one of the women present who tragically lost her life to suicide following an act of male sexual violence. We stood in solidarity with every victim and survivor, and raised our voices to draw attention to the scourge of violence that women are subjected to every single day.
On Saturday 26th Of February, Northern Radfem Network protested HMP Styal in Cheshire for a second time, in solidarity with a sequence of prison protests nationwide. Our aim was to drive home our disgust at male inmates being transferred to the female estate after declaring to prison officials that they’re somehow ‘transgender’.
This time round the weather was on our side, in contrast to our previous rainswept demonstration – which at least confirmed that Northern women rally whatever the weather. We had a solid turnout of 40 women, enough to catch the attention of a woman driving past who promptly pulled in to the prison grounds to thank us and to ask if she could join in, showing that far from being a niche corner of a culture war, this is an issue that’s rapidly rising to relevance for women from all walks of life. If you’re reading this, woman in the pink jumper (or anyone else for that matter) get in touch! We’d love to have you on board!
For twenty years I was employed by the West Yorkshire Probation Service and I specialised in the assessment and risk management of male sexual offenders, both in custody and in the community. I also conducted a number of reports and assessments at women’s prisons in the north of the UK.
When I retired, I thought that my concerns with public protection, safeguarding and the management of predatory and dangerous male offenders was over.
That was until the Ministry of Justice introduced a policy of “self identification” in UK prisons, for male prisoners with gender dysmorphia, autogynephilia or who claimed “transgender” status.
When I learned that male inmates who “identified as “women””, were to be imprisoned in jails that reflected their chosen “gender ‘, not sex, I became extremely alarmed.
I’m confident that I speak for every woman present today, if not every single woman in society, when I say that a custodial prison sentence is one of our worst nightmares. It goes without saying that it changes lives, and not for the better. All control is instantly relinquished.
Women inside have no financial security. The jobs we can get in prison earn just £10-20 per week. We rely on this being topped up by people on the outside sending us money, and we have no access to our own bank accounts. We’re in real danger of losing our homes because we can no longer make rent. We’re locked away from our families, our only contact is by letter and brief 10 minute phone calls. Visiting time is the highlight of our week and that requires a bureaucratic process of application. It can’t be stressed enough how emotionally taxing this is, to have contact with our loved ones regimented by factors beyond our control.
On the 23rd of January feminist activist Jennifer Swayne was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and displaying threatening or abusive writing likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Her crime? Putting up stickers drawing attention to the numbers of women killed by men in domestic violence incidents around the city of Newport. She was roughly restrained by police, causing her physical pain and what she describes as a “PTSD attack”, kept in custody for hours without her essential prescription medication, namely Lithium for severe bipolar disorder, and released to the streets of Newport at 3am, alone, without a mobile phone and in a mobility scooter. The police searched her home and took stickers, posters and academic books. She was released on bail on condition she posted no more stickers or posters within the boundaries of Newport.
Her date to present to the police station was set for the 24th of February, however as was seen in Marion Miller’s court case, her bail was later extended to the 11th of March. However in solidarity with Jennifer, I, along with about 70 others, the vast majority of whom were women, attended a planned protest outside Newport police station on the 24th.
At the end of January, women’s groups across the UK joined together to launch a series of protests at women’s prisons to loudly and visibly object and draw attention to current Ministry of Justice policies enacted in 2019 that allow men to simply identify their way into the female prison estate. Many women have come together to challenge this, and KEEP PRISONS SINGLE SEX has become a rallying cry. It’s insane that we should have to campaign for this but here we all are, doing exactly that.
I was present at the first protest, representing Northern Radfem Network and speaking as a former inmate of HMP Styal. All of the points I made that day remain pertinent – namely the lack of mental health provision, the epidemic of self harm and the extreme vulnerability of women in prison. Today I’m speaking again on behalf of my incarcerated sisters, and I hope my words represent their perspectives and fears whilst they are unable to speak out.
As the sun was getting ready to rise over the London skyline, I was over two hundred miles north trudging through the dark bleak rainy early morning of Yorkshire. A very typical day in the metropolis was dawning, but slowly, and surely, many angry women, and some male allies were making their way to the city. My journey was long, but the warm flask of tea and plenty of Tunnock’s Tea cakes made my squashed position next to the coach toilet more bearable.
My arrival in London was delayed due to road closures, but my enthusiasm for the protest spurred me on. As I approached Petty France the usual sights and sounds of the city were subdued and paled into significance by the thronging, banner waving and chanting of over one hundred and sixty beautiful women’s voices. We had converged together, with passion and conviction, to protest the MOJ’s decision to allow men to self ID into women’s prison. It is time for the MOJ and politicians to listen. It is time for the government to act. It is time to effect change.