by SSP member James Nesbitt
(for some photos see here)
Last Sunday (11/03/2008), to mark International Women's Day 2008, members of the Scottish Socialist Party joined with fellow social justice activists to form a demonstration of solidarity at Cornton Vale women's prison, near
What was clear is that the women are trying to survive in desperate conditions. Overcrowding means that few of them are able to speak confidentially with their solicitors. One of the people inside told us "we need to meet them in the visiting area". Of course, these areas are supervised by prison officers. How are you supposed to complain about the staff or the conditions when there's a screw standing over you?
Politicians and right-wingers love the idea that prisoners have no rights, but I don't see how they can justify the work and pay situation in Cornton Vale. One of the women told us that they have to work full-time hours for the weekly wage of... wait for it... £10! This is a form of modern-day slavery (and obviously a boon to the companies who get their products manufactured on the cheap). A tenner on the inside goes about as far as it does outside, i.e. not very. Toiletries, tobacco, phone cards, sanitary products and extra food all need to be paid for out of this measly sum. And do not underestimate how important the chocolate bars and pot noodles are: the food situation is desperate as well.
"The meals are the absolute basic. We're starving all the time" - it really got me in the guts to hear this. None of us expect prison canteens to get a Michelin star, but it is unacceptable that cost-cutting and draconian policies are causing people to be in a state of permanent hunger. Surely one of the most basic human rights is to have food in your belly.
Inadequate food forces many inmates to consumer more fatty, sugary snacks. Obviously, this isn't great for your health, or your teeth. One of our new friends was able to tell us that they have to wait 2 weeks for a doctor, 2 months for a dentist. What if someone is in pain and needs a tooth out? Or needs medicine for a serious ailment? Despite their strength and determination, some of them are obviously struggling to cope.
It doesn't get any easier when you're looking after a wean. My heart goes out to the mothers and children incarcerated in such a miserable place. Nor is it any easier for the large numbers of prisoners who have been victims of abuse, who are trapped in drug addiction or whose crime is poverty - no other prison in Scotland has such a high proportion of people convicted for unpaid fines, shoplifting and similar offences.
Throughout the day I kept finding myself turning away. I just didn't want to look at it. Scotland is shamed by Cornton Vale and being there, seeing it, I felt very ashamed too. You can judge the level of civilisation in a society by how they treat those who need help. This society locks them up.
At the end of the day, we belted out a rendition of the old workers' anthem, the Internationale. A big thank you must go out to the accompanying saxophonist, who brightened our mood and helped disguise some of the comrades' hoarseness. Never before has the line 'arise, ye prisoners of want' seemed so profound.