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.

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home