Michelle Collins: Free thinker

When her cousin was locked up in Belmarsh high-security jail, the actress Michelle Collins became a regular visitor. She explains how these humiliating, often heartbreaking, trips have inspired her to join the fight for prison reform
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The Independent Online

My cousin has recently been released from Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London. He'd served three years of his sentence and came out on parole back in March. He is committed to not offending again and so tried in jail to get on various courses to prepare him for release, but was told there were no places.

Once he was out, he found himself in a Catch 22 situation. He was told he had to go on a release course before he could look for a job, otherwise it would jeopardise his parole, but then it took the authorities four months to arrange a place on one. So he's been getting very frustrated at the restrictions, sitting at home, unable to earn any money. His situation would be pretty hopeless but for the support of his mother - my aunt - and the rest of his family. In that sense at least he's one of the lucky ones coming out of prison because he has a family to go back to.

I don't want to reveal his name or what he was convicted of because, with all he is going through to rebuild his life on the outside, it wouldn't help him to have it published. All you need to know is that he is not a danger to society and never has been. But the system doesn't seem to recognise it.

In a funny way I've come to see visiting him every three or four weeks in Belmarsh as a kind of privilege. Not many of us see what goes on in our prisons. It's a case of out of sight, out of mind. Over three years, it opened my eyes. And now I am witnessing how hard it is for him to overcome the stigma of a prison record.

It's the very personal reason which led me to get involved with the Smart Justice campaign when it was set up two years ago and why this month I also helped launch the Smart Justice for Women initiative at Holloway Prison in London. It doesn't come naturally. I'm terrified standing on a public platform and speaking as me, not a character. I'm interested in politics but have no ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Glenda Jackson or my old colleague from EastEnders days, Michael Cashman, and switch from acting to getting elected.

I hate the word celebrity and don't want to be one of those people in the media who endorse this campaign or that but who don't really know anything about the issues involved. Doing the kind of work I do you can end up living in a kind of cocoon, cut off from reality. But I hope I've remained a pretty down-to-earth person. I live in a pretty average neighbourhood of London and I mix with ordinary people. My family gives me a very solid base in the real world and I don't have "A-list" friends. So I think I'm in touch with life. And over prison reform I have a genuine reason for being involved. This an issue we can't ignore.

It is certainly not a popular or sexy subject. No one is going to wear wristbands with "Free the Prisoners" written on them. But at the same time we all want less crime. I've been burgled. I've had my car broken in to. And, yes, it made me angry. But you have got to be a bit more intelligent than just saying "lock them up". The Government's own statistics show that greater use of prison in the past decade has not cut crime. Six out of 10 women are convicted again within two years of leaving prison. At present when we lock people up, too many go in bad and come out worse. That for me is the real miscarriage of justice.

Belmarsh is in Woolwich. Funnily enough I'm going to be filming there soon. I don't think the producers were very impressed when I said "Oh yes, I've been to Woolwich a lot recently - to visit someone in Belmarsh Prison." In fact they looked rather shocked. "Don't worry," I reassured them, "I won't be going there anymore because he's out."

We're a close family so it seemed natural to go and see my cousin. When I began visiting him in prison, a downmarket newspaper got hold of the story and ran it. It was as if they were suggesting that I shouldn't visit him, or that having a prisoner in my family made me a criminal too. The way they approached that story gives you some kind of idea of the closed minds you have to unlock when you start thinking about prison reform.

I'd only been in one other prison before I went to Belmarsh. I'd gone to see a friend at Ford Open Prison in Sussex. That was a very relaxed place. They were doing Aladdin as the Christmas panto on the day I was there and the magic word to summon the genie was "parole".

Belmarsh, by contrast, was terrifying. It's high security and the officers make visitors feel like criminals. One of the things I remember most about it was the children coming in to see their dads. I'm a mother with an eight-year-old daughter. Can you imagine trying to keep a family relationship going in those conditions? I think I'd probably rather my daughter * didn't visit me than be subjected to that. Mothers were even asked to take their babies' nappies off so they could be searched.

Over time I got to know a few of the prison officers and they were OK but the system puts people off visiting. It breaks the ties between prisoners and their families in the outside world. One family friend who accompanied me to Belmarsh refused to come again because of how they treat visitors. She said she'd never felt so violated in all her life.

Children are at the heart of the Smart Justice for Women campaign. Currently 18,000 children are being separated from their mothers because they are in prison. Only 5 per cent of them stay in the family home when their mothers go to jail. And official statistics show that a child whose parent has been in prison has a 65 per cent chance of following in their footsteps. We need to understand that cycle of damage better and finds ways to break it.

I know we talk a lot about men's roles in the home today and that's very important. But however much we have changed, it is still the woman who usually keeps the family together. I know. My mother was a single parent when my sister and I were growing up.

I am not arguing that women should never go to prison. If a woman is a threat to society or herself or her kids, then there is clearly something wrong and maybe some form of prison may be appropriate. But if she's not, we need to look again at the wider consequences of sending women - and in particular mothers - to prison.

More women, for instance, go to prison now for shoplifting than any other crime. Again, if a woman is shoplifting and she's making a good living out of it, then, yes, prison may be called for. But most women who shoplift are doing it because they're in debt, or they've got a drug problem, or they can't afford clothes for the children and so they steal them.

This isn't about feeling sorry for women over men, or saying that women should never be locked up just because they're women, but realising that for them prison doesn't work by any measure. Locking up a desperate mother for a few months who's shoplifting to feed her drug habit, or feed her kids, isn't going to stop her doing it again. And in the meantime it is going to do damage to her family. My sister is a child-protection officer in social services and she sees the consequences of locking mothers up. It's so hard for them when they're released to get their kids back. So let's avoid it. Let's make it a place of last resort.

What many need is counselling and rehabilitation. What they are getting in increasing numbers is prison. A woman is now twice as likely to go to jail for theft as she was in 1991.

There are places where such therapeutic work is going on with female offenders but we just don't hear about them. Smart Justice for Women is highlighting the work of facilities like the Asha Centre in Worcester which provides a women-only environment where offenders are helped to tackle the reasons behind what they've done - like domestic violence, drug abuse, lack of qualifications and low self-esteem.

We also need to question why so many more women are now going to prison than 10 years ago. Back in 1991 eight out of 100 women convicted of motoring offences were jailed. Now the number is 42. The reason seems to be to do with a climate of public opinion where people tend to be very judgmental, particularly about women - "Look, she taking drugs and she's got children; how could she?'' When it comes to crime, women get blamed more. Think Maxine Carr. Think Ruth Ellis. Even Myra Hindley. We expect more of women.

I've played plenty of flawed characters in my time. You can see that judgmental attitude to women in their story lines. Cindy Beale in EastEnders died in jail. It was as if it was decided that Cindy was so bad, not only did she have to go to prison, she had to die there too. And in childbirth. In Channel 4's adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum, I played Marigold, a single mother, who loves her kids but who's a manic depressive and so can't help letting them down.

I remember a few years ago going to a charity reception at Downing Street and talking to the actress Sheila Hancock. She told me she was interested in prison reform [she is also backing Smart Justice for Women]. And I remember thinking, "Why's she doing that?" Because of seeing what my cousin has gone through, I now understand. And I do believe that the public may be more receptive now to the message. Crime is an issue for everybody and Smart Justice and other campaigns like it are ultimately all about reducing crime by helping offenders not to reoffend. It appeals to our self-interest.

I know some people might look at me and say, "Who does she think she is, talking about prison reform?" Frankly, I'm past caring about such reactions. I know I've a good reason for doing it and because some people feel a connection with me through my work, it might just help. I love acting but sometimes it is not quite enough.

It is good to get involved in other things. And there may even be an overlap. A friend has written a drama which shows what it is really like to be in a women's prison which I'm hoping to be involved in. It's still at the development stage, but if it did come off it might contribute in another way to moving this debate beyond the very distorted image of who's in women's prisons and what goes on there that we get through watching Prisoner Cell Block H. *

Michelle Collins was talking to Peter Stanford

Inside story: women in jail

* Nine out of ten women are jailed for non-violent crimes

* A woman is now twice as likely to go to prison for theft as in 1991

* 41 per cent of women prisoners are jailed for drugs offences

* Two out of three jailed women are sentenced to custody for six months or less

* Nearly 66 per cent of women sent to prison are on remand awaiting trial or sentence. Of these, 59 per cent do not receive a custodial sentence and one in five are acquitted

* A woman is seven times as likely to receive a custodial sentence in a magistrate's court than in 1991

* Nearly one in three women prisoners are members of an ethnic minority

* One in three have made a suicide attempt

* Two in three suffer from drug problems

* One in four has been in care

* Half have been victims of domestic violence

* One in three has suffered sexual abuse

* One in three loses their home while in prison

* Seven in 10 do not have any formal qualifications

You can contact the Smart Justice for Women campaign by visiting www.smartjustice.org/women