Note from the editor: this text contains a discussion on issues which may be triggering and difficult to read. However, we decided to publish it as it concerns hard questions prison abolitionists need to face. (zb)
The View Magazine started at the request of the governor at HMP Downview, a new governor, who was woefully inexperienced and had been transferred from another men’s failing prison, HMP Wandsworth. She asked me to start a prison magazine and then promptly banned it because she didn’t like the magazine. The education manager looked disapprovingly down her pinched nose and told me it was depressing and demoralising. I was immediately taken off the magazine committee. She tried to cajole and coerce the remaining women on it to stay involved. They refused. She tried by asking a group of prisoners to start something fresh. They declined. For once, solidarity in sisterhood properly fucked the man.
She thought it would be a glossy brochure for this barbaric instruction responsible for ruining and disrupting countless lives. It was a truthful account of life at HMP Downview in the words , pictures and poetry of over 50 women prisoners.
I had sent a copy to my solicitor and others that I wanted to share the beautiful content by women prisoners who initially resisted the idea of a prison magazine and doing anything even remotely cooperative. As more of the younger women came forward with sketches and childlike drawings of idealised women with heart shaped faces and impossibly long eyelashes, drawings of pyramids encasing the eye of Horus, others became intrigued and started to venture their ideas too.
The magazine was written as a piece of protest art, but we had to be careful. The prison service is hypersensitive about any form of criticism to the point of paranoia. Most prison publications are clumsily put together, not very well edited and look like Sixth Form newsletters. We were determined that The View would be the Elle of penal publications.
Our first and only prison edition contained complaints about unlawful recalls, articles, poetry and prose, women’s her-stories with mental health and the pain of being an IPP (Indeterminate Public Protection) sentenced prisoner, with no end date. The art was powerful and poetic. What were the thoughts that lay beneath the few strokes of a colour pencil or brush strokes?
A woman who had received a prison sentence of over 25 years for allegedly grooming a child was being bullied by the other women. Nonces inhabit their own particular circle of prison hell. People avoided her, spat in her food and called her names. There were others who said they would kill her and she was so frightened she would not leave her cell. I tried to stay out of it. I had earned a degree of respect with my paintings and ability to write coherent complaints to the prison authorities, MPs and ministers.
I was warned of the newcomer, told for my own good, it was better not to help her or even to speak to her. I don’t like silly rules, whether they are made by prison governors or other women, so when she reached out, I responded. She wanted to show me her drawings. She asked me to come into her cell, which was filled with Pagan iconography and paraphernalia and – her art. She was keen to tell me that the stories being spread through the prison about her were not true, but I diverted the subject. We just talked about our art.
I was intrigued by the rows of pictures she had drawn, quite naive, flowing and graceful that covered her notice board. Her art, and talking about mine transcended the labels that society had given us, we were two creative women, sparking off ideas, faces lit up in the way that only the muse can ignite. She asked if I would help her trying to access her vegan boxes because it was the only food she could eat, and I said I would help her write a letter. She didn’t need any help, she was articulate and intelligent. It struck me hard that the frightened woman, who was receiving death threats and was being treated as a vulnerable prisoner, so basically not allowed to leave the wing, was being judged for the worst thing she had ever done in her life. She was vulnerable and all she was, was a widget in a perverse and broken system, the sum total of everything bad she represented. The scapegoat of all our fears and horror. No redemption in the eyes of the courts or even in the eyes of other women in prison.
Her art transcended that. It opened up a vista, for me, into another view of the same person.
The magazine caused a ruckus in Downview, the prison authorities realised that I had had free reign over issues that they would rather keep under covers and certainly not published in a prison magazine. I was threatened, I was warned, I was served with adjudication papers for having an unauthorised article in my possession when my cell was repeatedly spun and they found pages of the magazine I had been allowed to take back for editing. The adjudication (that never took place) led to a seven-week delay in my parole hearing. I was then ghosted to another prison in West Yorkshire, and then sent back 200 miles for the parole oral hearing two hundred miles back. Nothing came of the adjudication but the Offender Manager who was opposing my release from recall after 15 months succeeded in delaying the process. I was eventually immediately released, and the Parole Board made the unusual determination that the recall had amounted to unlawful detention.
Baroness Uddin who is a close friend spoke about the magazine in the House of Lords in July 2019, when Lord Farmer’s report on women in the criminal justice system was being debated. I had sent her the magazine and she was so impressed with its content, she spoke about it in her speech, when she brought up my case during this debate,
“I had not heard from her [Farah] since late 2015 until last year, when I found out that she had been released on license. A few days into her time out she disappeared, and I learned a week or two later that she had been recalled. It is no surprise to me that, even in Downview, she began assisting others who, as she said, were in greater need than her. She has gathered women and produced an incredible magazine, The View, using her own artistic and creative talents and those of other inmates.
In the magazine, she describes her experience of being recalled and of the system since. I will read part of her comments. She says:
“I have been recalled because I dared to tweet about how appalling NPSL Hammersmith were. I am horrified by the chaotic, inefficient way OMU deals with recalled women—the Parole process is a mess and feels interminable and my mental health has deteriorated. I have felt suicidal and have wanted to harm myself—and it has taken a toll on my children”.
Creating art and the magazine probably saved me in HMP Downview. It was a prison where I had history. I and others had exposed governors and officers raping vulnerable women prisoners and it took 5years but eventually, one of these governors was handed a five-year prison sentence. One of the women had been a friend of mine and no one at Downview would do anything to help or to stop this abuse of power. So, when I was brought back there, some 10 years later, the decent staff were honourable and behaved with dignity. The others tried to bully me and the security department did literally all it could do to cut off contact including with my solicitors and my then partner, by intercepting even legal mail and my paintings I was sending to him. My children and friends wouldn’t get my paintings, I felt utterly disconnected.
I have a mental health diagnosis of C-PTSD ( Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) I tried to self-harm, I thought about taking all my antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication that I had been given to keep in possession and I was desperate.
I was allowed to have art materials sent in and paints and nice watercolour paper were the route to maintaining some semblance of my sanity. I painted a lot of women; women who look powerful and strong, women who didn’t look like anyone’s victims, and were not vulnerable.
I know my painting inspired other women to paint and the first issue of the View at Downview was filled with their drawings. The woman who had drawn me into her Pagan cell turned out to be a good administrator. She offered to come into the education department where the magazine was being produced and help us.
She started to come out of her shell and came to our weekly magazine committee meetings. She asked if she could give the magazine some art to publish. Gradually the bullying lessened and women started to accept her, more interested in the art than the rumours that cast such a long shadow over her. The prison started to take her appeal for vegan food seriously and she was given a box of food to supplement the awful prison diet at HMP Downview as she could not eat a lot that was on the general menu. The transition from exile to acceptance, even within the microcosm closed world within a prison was a powerful one. Her art became bolder, and she stepped into her body, no longer a cowering shadow hiding away, somehow afraid of inhabiting who she was. Women started to ask her for nuts and some of the vegan chocolate and goodies that she was given. They wanted her to paint their kids and grandchildren. Prison life is transactional and about finding what you can do that other prisoners need, in order to survive. Art allowed her a way in, to belong.
Creating art in prison is like exposing the core of who you are, narrating the hidden emotions and fears and secrets that are too frightening to let out in this traumatising and brutalising environment. When I am engrossed in a painting, my mind is entirely absorbed in the process of the making, outside troubles, narky officers, unprofessional governors all sift away, the way the tide washed away scars made by footprints on a beach. I have to concentrate and focus and think about where the brush stroke or pencil will mark next, there is something both satisfying and meditative about it that feels restoring.
There is not enough art in prison any more. One of yet another of Chris Grayling’s failings (remember the book ban?) was to cut back on creative courses and further privatise the education department on prisons. Far too much focus is on reading and writing and basic skills, at the lowest Level 1 NVQ, and anything that allows expression or personality is stifled. Women’s art in prison speaks of hope, of forecasting and depicting better narratives for themselves. The UK’s creative industries sector is worth over £100bn and employs over 2m people. Women should be trained in creative arts and encouraged to produce art and gain meaningful employment, outside the standard low paid and menial tasks that are on offer generally to women who leave prison.
Art brings freedom from behind bars and is a new bridge to creating a fresh future, free from offending, because it builds confidence and self-esteem as talent is nurtured, and we see skills develop. I think about my sisters incarcerated and the wealth of creativity that is unleashed when pen or brush is put to paper. Art is our way of opening doors and changing people’s minds about women trapped in the criminal justice system.
Farah Damji is a woman with conviction and a campaigner for women’s rights in the criminal justice system. She writes for The View Magazine , which is available by subscription on the website here.