Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Corntonvale Prison Demo

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 Stirling. Supporters of the SSP and Socialist Women's Network have gathered annually for the last few years to express their opposition to conditions at the prison and show support for the women inside. This year we were joined by activists from the newly-formed Edinburgh and Glasgow Feminists Networks.

It was the first time I've been along to Cornton Vale and the experience will stay with me for a long time. I've been to other prisons visiting people in the past but this one has a particular sense of grimness hanging over it. We were able to make some contact with a number of the inmates but I personally could not find the words to converse with them - what do you say to someone locked up in a place like that? Other people seemed to feel the same. It got easier when we sang. Prisoners' anthem 'Please Release Me' demonstrates the humour and defiance of the convicts.

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.



Anonymous said...

My sister is currently a prisoner in corntonvale and has been subject to many forms of abuse both mentally and pysically. My mother and father are currently battling to prevent other inmates facing the same nightmare which she has endured. She is 8 months pregnant and has had prescribed medication held from her, chained to an officer while in hospital 24hrs a day for 3 days, threatened by staff because she has spoken out, made to share a cell with bunk beds, not had enough food, had her mail from her solicitor opened and to much more to list. Hasnt anyone addresed the concern that these issues maybe the reason that the suicide rate is so high in corntonvale? My sister has never been in trouble before this, has no previous convictions, has no drug problems, doesnt smoke and drinks alchol very rarely. We dont ask for the prisoners to be treated with kid gloves because i know they are all there for a reason but i think our government needs a shake up now rather than later and to do this more people need to fight for these womens rights!!!!

East Dunbartonshire SSP said...

Anon - please contact us on eastdunbartonshiressp@hotmail.co.uk