by Leah Thorn
About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.
I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries.
I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.
I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.
in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
take them, scapegoat,
I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.
A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Extract from a poem by Star
However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.
Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.
I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.