Unlocking the secrets of life behind bars

16th May 2003 at 01:00
From the Inside: dispatches from a women's prison. By Ruth Wyner. Aurum Press. pound;14.99, hbk.

A charity worker jailed in a case most observers believe should never have gone to court has published an account of her experiences. Reva Klein is impressed

Prison, like war, is hell. Everybody knows that. But as with war, every perspective from which a prison experience is told brings new insights.

From the Inside is written by a professional woman, a charity worker, who finds herself in prison. It is her story and the story of a system designed to break spirits and damage souls. That she was not broken or damaged is testament to her resilience.

Ruth Wyner was sentenced to five years in prison under the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1999. As director of a homeless hostel in Cambridge, she and co-worker John Brock were found guilty of failing to prevent drug dealing on the premises. Wyner, a 49-year-old veteran campaigner on homelessness, ran the hostel under a tough anti-drugs policy known to the police, as was its confidentiality pledge to residents. She maintained that she and Brock were unaware of drug-dealing in the hostel.

The case became a cause cel bre, the Cambridge Two campaign, numbering among its supporters actor Julie Christie, singer Joan Baez, MPs and trades unions. The publicity surrounding the case, which her appeal barrister, Michael Mansfield, denounced as one that should have never been brought, led to her freedom on bail after 208 days in prison. The appeal judge upheld the guilty verdict, but decided the original sentence had been too harsh.

While Wyner's book is an impassioned plea for prison reform and clarity in the law regarding confidentiality between workers and clients with mental health problems, its strength lies in her description of life in women's prisons and its human costs. A former journalist, she vividly chronicles her Kafkaesque journey from initial sentencing to her eventual release and its aftermath.

After being separated from her children - Wyner had a son at university and a 16-year-old daughter still at school - the worst thing about imprisonment, she writes, is the way it is designed to strip you of your identity. The dehumanisation that comes with losing your liberty infantilises, brutalises and disorients. Her initial stay at Holloway women's prison "contained a degradation that was previously beyond my imagination", she says. "We were just part of the institution's bureaucracy, which in itself was utterly confusing. Everything had to be applied for and waited for, had to fit into the system, whatever that was - I did not understand what was going on and no one bothered to tell me."

Once she moved to Highpoint, home to Myra Hindley for 36 years, she veered between acclimatising to the regime and fighting to avoid becoming part of it. One survival tactic she came to regret was her voluntary move to Kainos, a dubious Christian community within the prison that provided its members with soft chairs and, most important, access to toast. While she didn't quite sell her nominally Jewish soul to what fellow inmate Glenda called "a prison within a prison", she had to play by the suffocatingly paternalistic rules of the community, added to those of the prison, to keep her profile clean. (Kainos was closed after an independent evaluation.) She managed, thanks in part to the warmth and humanity of the women she befriended, among whom were heroin addicts who remained actively so during their sojourn at Her Majesty's pleasure. Heroin, she discovered, is the drug of choice in prison. Not only is it mentally numbing, but it leaves the bloodstream after three days, as opposed to cannabis, which can linger for a month: bad news for spot urine checks.

Her release brought relief and euphoria, which soon gave way to depression, guilt and alienation. After several months, life normalised and she moved into prison reform work. Then another blow came when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Again, she faced the music and came out the other end. When a friend asked her which was most difficult, prison or cancer, she didn't miss a beat - prison.

Neither prison nor her illness could kill Ruth Wyner's spirit. She has gone on to help establish the Dialogue Trust, a Cambridge-based charity committed to prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation, where she now works. This book is, among other things, a cogent, haunting illustration of why prison reform is a burning human rights issue.

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