WI members taste life in UK's roughest jails

Concerned women go behind bars as part of their campaign to keep mental health sufferers out of custody

The women gathered outside Wandsworth don't look much like the wives and girlfriends usually seen at the gates of the country's biggest prison. While their ages range from 25 to 65, they all look very, well, wholesome. Standing under the imposing barbed-wire-topped walls – which the train robber Ronnie Biggs famously scaled back in 1965 – is a clutch of Women's Institute members, who are about to find out all about life on the inside. It is a long way from jam and "Jerusalem".

A few minutes and numerous security checks later, and the WI members are whisked out of the summer sunshine and on to the stark corridors of "E" wing, where they struggle to be heard over the endless slamming of heavy metal doors. The Victorian institution was designed so that, in an emergency, the sound of a guard's whistle would travel the length of the corridors; and, boy, does the sound of 1,661 prisoners carry. Noise is not the only thing to travel along the wing: it is lunchtime when we arrive, and the unmistakable smell of institutional food wafts down the hall.

None of the women has set foot in a prison before, but they are impressively unfazed and sit happily in claustrophobic cells, mingling calmly with tracksuit-clad prisoners and heavily tattooed guards.

"It is important that people get inside prisons and see what is going on," says Pam Knott. The pensioner is a representative of the Essex branch of the WI. "The Women's Institute care about their communities, and prisons are a part of those communities."

For the past six months members of the WI have been rubbing shoulders with convicts in some of the nation's roughest prisons, in an attempt to find out what services are available to inmates with mental health issues. The investigation is part of their ongoing "Care Not Custody" campaign, which is calling for an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems.

The women's visit to Wandsworth is timely: the night before, an inmate with mental health issues poured a kettle of scalding water over his head, and was rushed to hospital with terrible burns as a result. Such incidents are not uncommon: it is estimated that 70 per cent of Wandsworth's inhabitants have mental health problems, and last month a 25-year-old prisoner was found dead after hanging himself in his cell. However, the prison's psychiatric wing has just 12 beds.

"Prison can be very stressful," says Michael (not his real name), an inmate. "I am three years into a 10-year sentence for dealing cocaine. I'm doing an IT course, which helps. It is five days a week and it gives me something to aim towards, gets me out of my cell, and might help me secure my future."

Clive Harlow, a prison guard, says: "The early period in custody can be incredibly traumatic, and the first few days in custody are when people are at greatest risk of suicide. Inmates with mental health problems can get very aggressive and confrontational. One of our inmates gets really frustrated when he doesn't have cigarettes and starts cutting himself."

While not quite as sexy as Hampshire WI's recent call for the legalisation of brothels, with their latest campaign the national organisation is tackling not one but two taboo subjects: mental illness and prisons. The investigation is a topical one. In April, Lord Bradley, a former Home Office minister, published a report which found that too many offenders with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities are ending up in prison without access to treatment. The WI is keen to see greater funding for alternative custodial schemes for mentally ill offenders.

"These visits mean that now we know what we are up against," says Ruth Bond, chair of the WI. "The campaign stems from the fact that one member's son was convicted, not sent to the right place, and ended up committing suicide. The issue captured the women's imaginations."

The Prison Service is now the second biggest provider of mental healthcare in the country, after the NHS. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the country's 83,611 prison inmates have two or more mental health problems, ranging from schizophrenia to depression and anxiety.

Jazz Domino-Holly, 25, London: 'I want to see what we can do'

This visit was quite personal for me, as my uncle was a schizophrenic who was imprisoned and killed himself while in custody. It is a sensitive issue for my family, so they don't talk about it much. I really want to see what can be done for people who get put in this position. I'm also interested in ways that nutrition and alternatives to traditional treatment can be used to help people with mental health problems. I'm a member of the Shoreditch Sisters WI group. While our group is primarily craft-based – we are interested in reclaiming the traditional crafts done by the WI – we are also interested in the campaigns. We worked on the violence against women campaign, and it is great to get to go into prisons on this one. It is the only chance a lot of women will get, unless they are convicted of something.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
News
news
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week