From July 2011 until January 2016 I was part of the prison visiting team at HMP Holloway. I visited the prison every four weeks or so with a colleague representing a charity I worked for. We worked specifically with pregnant women or women who had been recently separated from babies or young children. I am a psychotherapist, but my position in the prison was not in this role, although there was an undeniable therapeutic element.
We would run a weekly group where any woman who was pregnant or had been recently separated from a baby could attend. We would also seek out any other women who may not have attended the group and visit her individually wherever in the prison she may be.
Some of the women we visited away from the group setting would be in shared cells. Sometimes it wasn’t possible for an officer to unlock the women. When we saw women in this circumstance, we would talk to her through the hatch of her cell door. The hatch is a small window with a flap, big enough to see the middle third of someones face when up close. I spent many hours supporting women in this scenario. Talking and listening through the hatch.
I’m quite tall, so would have to stand with my legs wide apart and lean down a little in order to get the positioning right for the best possible chance of being of benefit to the woman.
The women were often distressed. Some had just arrived, just separated from a baby they had to leave at court or at home. Some had been breastfeeding until very recently and were trying to manage the pain of both separation and engorged breasts.
Some were pregnant and getting to grips with the realisation that their baby may be born while they are serving a prison sentence. These were highly emotional and difficult interactions. These women desperately needed to talk and to be listened to, and all of this happened through a hatch, with me, a woman they had never met before. There would often be other women in the cell behind her talking or watching TV, and a lot of activity in the corridor behind me, officers escorting prisoners, doors and gates opening and closing.
For that time she and I worked hard at make the most of the time we had together. It was my intention to support the woman and show compassion and kindness in this less than perfect environment. I attempted to use my knowledge and therapeutic skills to develop a short term relationship with the woman, in a way that would be helpful to her.
Through regularly being in this position I have learnt a great deal. Before I had worked in this way, I thought that it would be pretty useless to spend a short amount of time with someone in a noisy setting with a physical door between you both. Since the experience I have learned that quite the opposite to be true. Although far from ideal, it is possible to develop a good enough relationship and provide support to someone in distress with all of the limitations of the prison environment. Women have said that the contact made a positive difference to their wellbeing, which has been a great eye opener and reminder to me of the power of kindness, compassion and unconditional support whatever the restrictions of the environment.
Those through the hatch visits were difficult, but so worth doing.