30.10.20

Interview with Jacqueline Stewart

We talk to Jacqueline Stewart, Head of Participation at Clean Break, as part of our Black History Month Celebrations.

Can you tell us a little about what you did before Clean Break?

I’ve always been driven to work with people who are without privilege and who live in places where the resources are quite deprived. I feel the injustice and have always wanted to help those who are vulnerable and might need assistance, whether that’s been in the community or in schools.

Immediately before I came to Clean Break, I was working as the education lead for a youth offending service, trying to keep young black boys (in the main) from being excluded from school.

How did you hear about Clean Break and when did you start working with us?

I saw an advert for the role of Student Support Manager in The Guardian when I was on maternity leave and applied, but it was just too soon - my baby was still so young - so I retracted my application. However, they didn't appoint, and I got a call a few months later asking me whether I was still interested.

I did some checking and spoke to a friend who used to be head of arts and leisure at the Council and she said Clean Break was absolutely brilliant and to go for it because it was the perfect job for me…that was 17 years ago!

How did you feel when you first starting visiting prison?

What really struck me was the state of them; physically how repulsive and degrading and awful they were, the number of rats, it was disgusting and inhuman.

There’s something about seeing a woman in prison – an older woman, a pregnant women - it's just another level of everything, compassion, embarrassment for us that as a society this is what we do that, you know, feeling their shame but also seeing their joy that someone's come in, who hasn't got keys, and who's coming to talk to them, to work with them, to laugh with them.

But it was all those hurtful stories about being strip searched with male officers present, being told they have to take a shower, to have a pregnancy test, it was all those awful unimaginable things that really struck me and stayed with me irrespective of the race of the woman, it was a woman being treated like that.

When I say that, I don't want to just say that women are victims, there were real moments in those prisons where I saw joy, I saw nurturing, I saw caring, looking out for each other, I also saw a lot of resilience, a lot of togetherness, a lot of sisterhood in there. I saw moments where I thought my God, I'm in awe of you because even in this environment you have managed to create a maternal space.

Can you speak about some of the pivotal moments and reflections you have on the Criminal Justice System over the past 17 years?

I think one of the one of the biggest moments was Baroness Corston’s report in 2007 when there was a political will to show what was happening in women's prisons. She did her homework, she spoke to women in prison, and her recommendations were completely on pointe.

Another pivotal moment was the impact felt by the introduction of trauma informed work and organisational gender responsiveness by Stephanie Covington in 2014. Although representation wasn’t being addressed at the time, Stephanie also recognised that racism (in itself) is traumatic so when you think of the experience of imprisonment being traumatic, these two traumas are compounded for those women of colour who are in prison. They then have the debilitating lack of opportunity when they get out, so they carry that trauma with them throughout their journey.

There were more women’s prisons back when I started working at Clean Break, but even though we have less now, it is so stark that there are over 2,000 more women in prison. During this time, I’ve seen the decimation of the probation services, the rise in short term sentencing and the disregard for many of the recommendations from David Lammy and Baroness Corston.

Did you see systemic racism in prison?

During my visits, many Black and mixed-race women were telling me how differently they were treated. How they don't get the privileges, “I'm often being told I haven’t done that right even if I was halfway to earning it”. The privileges would be withdrawn. They would never get any of the good jobs (like gardening) which would allow them out into the fresh air. They would have their leave removed so they couldn’t see their children or wouldn’t be given release on temporary licence. These are things that were subjective to the senior officer and then backed up by the governor. It’s all about power. I met one or two people in prison I thought “you're an amazing prison officer,” and then there were many more that I literally shuddered at the thought of them having any power over anyone except themselves.

What these women were telling me was borne out by David Lammy’s Independent Review.

I don't really feel like the situation has changed at all; that's not what I'm hearing from the women who have done projects with us recently. I mean there's no more strip searches and things like that because of Baroness Corston and hopefully its more trauma informed, but we're still seeing the deaths in custody, we’re still seeing things that show there's a lot of work to be done. Prisons are not a place to make money from and once we start looking for profit from those places there will be a cost, but it will be a human cost!

Can you tell us about any of the women you have met during your time at Clean Break (and how racism affected their lives)?

I have three short stories about women who were innocent.

I was really struck when I met a young Black woman back in 2004. She was 23, had a partner – who hadn’t been living with her – but moved in when she became pregnant. Within a couple of months he had changed, no longer the man she had been romantically in love with. Despite her objections, he brought Class A drugs into her home, she couldn't do anything to stop him. Her family lived many miles away and she felt that by telling them she would be putting them at risk. The police raided the house and found the drugs. He was already in trouble and had other charges against him, so he told her that she needed to take the rap for him. He threatened her and the baby so in the end she decided to do what he said. They imprisoned her at five months pregnant, with a completely clean record, and they didn't even question as to whether the drugs could have been her partners. I asked why she thought this had happened, and she said she thought that “they were just happy to get someone.”

She had the baby in prison, and they handcuffed her all the way to the maternity ward, she was in so much pain and distress and yet still they restrained her. That baby remained on the child protection register until she was 18 even though her mother never took a drug in her life and was innocent of the crime. Her world was turned upside down, but she showed enormous strength and resilience and she is doing incredibly well and is now helping other people to turn their lives around

I met another woman in prison, she was older, in her early 50s. She had been a carer for 28 years, devoutly religious. She was part of a team caring for someone in their home when money went missing. There was no evidence that she (or any of her colleagues) had taken the money and when I asked why she thought the finger was pointed at her, she said “I can only think it's because I'm Black”. She was arrested, went to court thinking it would be thrown out, but instead got sentenced for six months.

The sum of money was £10! That floored me, it floored me! She is one of the calmest women I've ever met, she just said “I'm going to be praying, you know I'm sure they're going to find out that I didn't do it, I’m not a dishonest person I would never do that.”

She was a really positive influence on the other women in prison, praying with them, giving them recipes. She was released after two and a half months, spent some time with us at Clean Break and then moved to the Midlands where she could start again to rebuild her life and her reputation.

The third story is about a white woman who was also really young, she was doing an MA in criminology. Her boyfriend didn’t live with her, but without telling her, had stashed Class A drugs at her home because it was a safe place to hide them. He got arrested whilst out with friends and the police raided his flat, and on finding nothing, raided the home of his girlfriend. They found the drugs and questioned her, and although her boyfriend confessed that she knew nothing about them and took the full blame, they charged her, she went to court and she was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

She said the judge said to her that he “wants the full weight of the law to fall on top of her because there is no way a middle class, intelligent young woman like her should be going out with people like him, people like that.” She said the only word he didn’t say was white, she said he didn't need to. Her boyfriend was Black, he also went down, they still charged him, but it just wasn't enough they wanted her to be punished as well, to see the consequences of association.

These are just three stories, there were loads of women I talked to who said that “I'm innocent, I haven't done anything, I've been coerced!’ It's interesting to think how those cases would be looked at now, with a different pair of eyes but who would look back at these stories now and not say that that's a form of injustice?

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month (laughs) I do have to smile, I mean it's one month to celebrate good food, rich culture, fresh new ideas and I suppose it's also a chance to see many more black faces, new and old on our screens.

I look forward to hearing all the Members ‘sharings’ because there are people who have a myriad of different experiences that are connected to me. It’s an explosion of form, they are full of such rebellion and resistance they are emotive. I can feel quite sad but equally uplifted and empowered there's just more colour on the screen, things just get more colourful, noisier, vibrant and lively!

I'm joyful too because one of the biggest tools against oppression and suppression is humour and you know that's to be found in loads of places but one of the times I see it more is during Black History Month.

But then I think it's all crammed into one month! I mean we're not going to go and hibernate for 11 months, we need to be seen, we are a part of everyday that is the truth. We need to be seen and we need to be heard. I have this analogy which actually was part of a proverb someone told me and it's a bit like during the month we can sing and dance, do whatever with lots of pride and then during the other 11 months we've still got to dance but we’ve got to watch our side and what that means to me is in that month we're out there but when I say dance it means we still have to live, it’s a metaphor for living but we’ve got to watch our side we’ve got to be much more careful those other 11 months.

It’s important that people don't feel that they've been given a month to say every single thing that happens to them or what they'd like to see across the year and then are told to shut up.

What are your hopes for the future?

That’s a big question! I have so many so I’m going to break it down into a few bullet points!

  • To see the end of prison sentences for the vast majority of women - so that's the 83% that have done nothing violent
  • To see small community settings take the place of prisons
  • For women’s centres to facilitate gender responsive spaces for women but with feminist intersectionality at the heart so there's a sharing of that power
  • To see all of David Lammy and Jean Corston’s recommendations be implemented
  • For Black women to have a share of that power that could instigate change
  • For no one to be sitting in judgement because I don't think anybody has that right
  • For us all to remember that every one of those women I met in prison were once a little girl with ambitions and dreams and hopes just like everybody else and they've got a right to have a fulfilled life and to have improved life chances
  • To continue to advocate and ascertain access to women in prison and in the community
  • To share our creative stories, to reflect their pain, suffering, and struggles but also their resilience, joy, and successes; no matter how small because for someone else reading that that could be the inspiration they needed
  • I think we should continue to build the great legacy that Jacqui and Jenny have gifted us through Clean Break
  • I think that we should celebrate our shared struggles and the richness of our diversity

And finally, I would just like to give thanks for all our wonderful powerful talented community of women, our Members, staff, artists and volunteers – and my last thoughts are for all our continued health!

Photography: All The Lights Are On, Tracey Anderson

tags : Blog