This week has seen the most blatant display of women’s erasure that I’ve seen in a while.
Firstly, there was the Centre for Social Justice report on Girls and Gangs on 24th March.
Then there was the HMIC report in to the failing of the police to tackle domestic abuse.
And now it’s the book ban for prisoners which Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform wrote extremely passionately and eloquently about here.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as appalled as the next woman that those who are incarcerated for rehabilitation purposes are being refused access to books. As a former youth justice social worker, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in prisons, and I am fully aware of the importance for prisoners of being able to escape from the reality of prison life.
I don’t oppose the writers and poets who have spoken out so loudly and vehemently about Chris Grayling’s reforms. Frankly, I think it’s about time that some of our more esteemed authors stood up to be counted in these times of austerity.
No, my problem is that the outcry over these reforms has become all about books.
Let’s look at the other reforms.
1) Families are no longer permitted to send in small items to prisoners
2) Children are not allowed to send a homemade birthday card
3) Prisoners with a particular expertise or interests cannot receive magazines
4) Prisoners are no longer permitted to have underwear sent in
Of course these reforms affect male prisoners, but they hit female prisoners disproportionately. They affect women so, so much more than men.
Women in prison are often the main carer for their children. Being separated from them and not being allowed to even receive a homemade birthday card is an appalling punishment.
But I want to focus on the issue of underwear. I’m sure we can agree that it’s pretty important to most women to have access to clean underwear? For hygiene reasons alone.
Why is this more important for women? Because women bleed. Women have periods. And sometimes those periods are really heavy. Sometimes the bleeding is so bad that it stains our underwear. Every month.
Now imagine having to wear the same pair of knickers for the entire length of your sentence. Oh sure, you can wash them. But most women will know that blood doesn’t always come out when you are using cold water in a small cell basin and no washing powder.
A few years ago I attended a conference in London which looked at the experiences of women in the Criminal Justice System. One woman spoke about being remanded into custody and being kept in her cell with no access to washing facilities or sanitary products. She was on her period, which was really heavy and she cried as she told us of her humiliation and shame.
And her experience wasn’t unusual. This is common practice. After all, they’re in prison.
So, why aren’t people shouting about this? Why isn’t there a protest about it? Why aren’t prominent celebrities, writers, politicians, journalists campaigning and lobbying Chris Grayling about this?
Because it only affects women. Because who wants to talk about blood and mucus and stains and flooding?
No one, because it’s only women.
If you would like to read more about the changes to the criminal justice system and the eroding of Probation then check out @awomaninwinter on twitter