Chris Tchaikovsky & Women in Prison

WOMEN IN PRISON – 1983

‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society (is) futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it’s childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect, punishment is most family to her’ 

Chris Tchaikovsky.

Women in Prison (WIP) was established in 1983 by Chris Tchaikovsky, a former prisoner of Holloway, and academic Pat Carlen, emerging with support from Radical Alternatives to Prison (see previous post).

Chris had been in Holloway on minor offences, but during her last stay in the prison in 1974, Patricia Cummings burned herself to death in a cell. Chris learnt later another women burned herself alive in the prison and Women in Prison was originally a campaigning organisation, born out of a rage against the injustices she [Tchaikovsky] saw there. Christine Scott had died in 1982 after injuries sustained from throwing herself around her cell for up to 24 hours. A Belgian woman died the same year, refused an asthma spray or medication for a heart condition.

Women in Prison’s [WiP] original manifesto illustrates the organisation’s understanding of women as a minority in the Criminal Justice System, women making up 5% of the prison population. It sought to campaign and raise awareness of women as having differing needs in the prison system, as a means to seek to “unite women of all classes, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation in a campaign which, whilst highlighting and attempting to redress the injustices presently suffered by Britain’s hitherto neglected women, will also contribute to the wider campaign for democratic control for the criminal justice and penal systems”

Written in 1983, WiP’s original manifesto contained ten demands for women prisoners, and ten demands for all prisoners. Encapsulating a strong desire for prisoners to self-organise and be a collective democratic instrument to subvert and redistribute power universally and democratically.  

The first point of the manifesto of women prisoners was"Improved safety conditions, particularly in Holloway Prison where women have been burned to death in their cells" The first point on the manifesto for all prisoners was the democratisation of the criminal and penal justice system in Britain. The origin story of WiP should be understood in ideological terms associated with prison abolition, collective emancipation and solidarity and while the organisation focused on campaigning to change conditions for women, they were concerned with the prison system as a whole. 

Women in Prison ran many projects and services in Holloway between their beginnings and the prisons closure in 2016. Women in Prison continues to work today, supporting women in women’s prison in England. They recently moved from their Islington base, having been located in the borough since their beginnings, due to the rise in rents and the closure of the prison. Women in Prison run Women’s Centres in Woking, Manchester and Lambeth for women who have had contact with the criminal justice system.  They have a magazine (Ready, Steady, Go) that is produced for women in prison, by women in prison, that goes into each women's prison in England, and features women's stories.  

Women in Prison have a current campaign 2,020 by 2020 focusing on a radical reduction of the women's prison population. 

Chris died in 2002 at the age of 57 from cancer, her obituary can be found here. More information about Women in Prison's early years written by Professor Pat Carlen, can be found here. 

If you have any stories or memories about Chris, or the beginnings of Women in Prison please do submit them, or get in contact with us at info@hollowayprisonstories.com 

Carlen, P. (1985). Criminal women. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press