Harpreet Kaur
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06 November, 2013

Speaking up for women in prison

Carlotta Allum
Carlotta Allum

On 15 October, Carlotta Allum told a packed crowd at the Initiatives of Change centre in London how she had moved from smuggling drugs to helping women in prison.

Following teenage years in Manchester and student days in London, living a life of drugs, clubs and alcohol, Carlotta got involved with drug trafficking and ended up going to prison in California.

After her arrest, she experienced a terrifying 24-hour wait at a US airport hotel, under the supervision of armed FBI agents, in case there was a shoot out. She spent the next eight-and-a-half months at a detention centre. While there, she learned she was pregnant.

Eventually, after remortgaging their house, her parents put up $30,000 bail, and she returned home.

Carlotta then began to turn her life around, focusing on motherhood and training to be a teacher. With the support of her family, she was able to start a new life and has spent the last ten years making a positive difference to society through her charity Stretch, which aims to re-engage marginalised groups and increase their life choices through cultural activity. Stretch work mainly with offenders and children who are not being cared for by their parents.

Digital Story Telling        

Carlotta spoke passionately about the way in which Stretch uses digital story telling: ‘At the heart of what we do is the forming of a supportive group, especially with women that really feed off each other and relish an opportunity to talk about themselves, to express themselves in a new way. It is almost as though no one has ever really asked them to before, or listened to them when they did.’

Screening of Story’s Out documentary by Chloe Plumb
Screening of Story’s Out documentary by Chloe Plumb
Carlotta’s presentation was followed by a poignant film by Chloe Plumb about the work of the StoryBox project. It showed women prisoners using words, poems and images and film creatively to tell their stories, as well as Carlotta’s personal journey. The film demonstrated how the sharing of personal stories, using creative processes, can have a healing effect on women prisoners; a frequently overlooked group.

The screening was followed by a lively discussion, where many insights were shared by people based on their own experiences. The discussion was chaired by Lul Seyoum, President of the international Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ICERAS), about critical issues affecting female prisoners.

High incidence of self-harm

Jenny Earle from the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) said that in the UK, 95 per cent of prisoners are men, so their needs were prioritised. As a result, women were a neglected minority. Although women constituted only about five per cent of the prison population, they account for 31 per cent of all self-harm incidents in prison. Jenny explained that 50 per cent of female offenders had been victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse or domestic violence. Many of the women were in relationships with men involved with crime; or had committed theft to support their families. From 1995-2010,  the number of women in prison had doubled, but this figure was now slowly coming down, thanks to a change in the Bail Act.

Nicola Phillips, a teacher at Bronzefield Prison, shared her enthusiasm for Stretch’s work. She pointed out that teachers in prisons were keen to ensure that women prisoners were successful when they were discharged. It was important that organisations like Stretch, offered  something exciting and new for women to engage with.

‘On your own’

Panel discussion
Panel discussion
Lizzie Jones, a 22-year old ex-prisoner, who had been in jail five times, also shared her experience for the first time in public. While in prison, she had had access to a range of therapies to help her deal with self-harm, but there had been times when she felt ‘isolated and horrible’.  Lizzie pointed out that Carlotta could really relate to the experiences of female prisoners. Stressing the need for care after prisoners were released, she said: ‘Once you come outside – BOOM – you’re on your own’ and it was tempting to re-offend.

During the question and answer session, several highlighted the lack of aftercare for women prisoners.

Michaela Jaronsinska from Hibiscus, which supports the needs of foreign national women imprisoned in the UK, explained that this group was a minority within a minority. They were often trafficked into offending. At present, nothing was being done to protect them. They experienced language and cultural barriers and would often be quiet, feeling a lack of support and isolation, as they had no access to their families. ‘Stretch gives the women the chance to express their emotions’ explained Michaela.

Carlotta Allum’s work has made a demonstrable impact on the lives of these women, but the future of Stretch is uncertain. For the first time in ten years, the organization has not had any success in gaining funding to continue its work.

The event was organised by IofC-UK’s Sustainable Communities Programme. Don de Silva, Head of Programme Administration at IofC-UK, closed the event on a positive and practical note: ‘Initiatives of Change stands in the gap between personal change and societal change. There are many groups where individuals are involved in dealing with personal change, focusing on their lives. There are many individuals and groups, who focus and campaign on issues. IofC concentrates on the vital link between personal and societal change.’
Photos by Pete Sherrard

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