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”.
We began enthusiastically at 12.30, as close to the front gate as we could get, where we successfully attracted the attention of passersby, who once again stood in solidarity with us and agreed that our message is incredibly important and must be heard. As the afternoon wore on we amassed an audience of curious locals who wandered over to see what all the noise in their sleepy village was about.
It’s safe to say we were definitely noticed both outside and inside the prison. After an hour at the gates where we’d joked good naturedly with guards on their way to work, we set off marching down a side road that took us within communicable distance of the women who had gathered to watch from their windows. We waved, were waved at, and exchanged gestures of strength with our sisters inside. There is no doubt they knew exactly why we were there, and that we’d come to make some noise on their behalf.
Now, there’s a bit of a twist in the Askham Grange tale.
I was asked to speak again, as an ex inmate of Askham Grange. As prisoner A8147AJ and also as a present day campaigner. Being back there, on the other side of the gates, and seeing women waving from a window that my bed used to be under was an extremely strange and emotional sensation. I can easily put myself back in their position and mindset because those experiences leave a mark that fades but never really goes away. These are the women I do this for and I will do as much as I can to ensure their safety.
I talked a little bit about the intimacy and social strata of the prison and shared some of my memories from my time spent there, but also wanted to discuss something I discovered more recently.
Askham Grange played a pivotal role in the history of trans prisoners. In 1989 they made the decision to house a post operative transsexual male named Stephanie Booth. This is the very first instance of this happening. The first time a women’s prison handed a sheep costume to a wolf and promised to pretend to be fooled by the disguise. The first women’s prison to knowingly place a male sex offender with vulnerable female inmates, all of whom have been assessed as being extremely low risk, as per the admission criteria.
What became of that criteria when it came to housing our boy Stephanie, and the others that followed him into this and many other women’s prisons? The women’s risk assessment simply does not have the capacity to address crimes of this nature because women don’t, or can’t, commit them. The entire system is thusly rendered moot and worthless, as nonsensical as the very idea that a dangerous man in a wig is a woman and must be treated as such. These very serious offences simply aren’t talked about or recorded and therefore allow men to pass as low risk offenders. This is yet another example of basic safeguarding vanishing out of existence to uphold an ideology that should have no place in law, governance or practice.
Askham Grange must be put under a microscope and asked some very pertinent questions about their hand in pioneering a policy that has resulted in intimidation, rape and even impregnation of female prisoners by males exploiting the system to gain access to victims. Whoever implemented these policies at the expense of women’s safety, and whoever has followed it up with agreement, concessions and capitulation up until the present day needs to take this opportunity to stand up and own up to the damage they’ve caused, the women they’ve harmed and to start making reparations. I do not know how these people sleep at night.
Stephanie’s story is remarkable in itself, and I intend to cover it in a lot more detail in a further article. The speech I gave can be found here. If you’re outraged at this situation, please contact us to find out how you can add your voice to the campaign. The women on the inside need all the support they can get, and we intend to keep up the pressure until some real, tangible changes are made.
Written by Rebekah Wershbale