March 22, 2019

Dying in prison: Two women’s stories

2322The number of women who died in prison in England and Wales reached a record high of 22 last year, and more than half of them took their own lives, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen reported this week.
“Behind the statistics are stories of avoidable tragedy,” says Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest.
Most women who end up in prison have experienced a range of problems, such as addiction, mental illness, abusive relationships or homelessness – and if these problems had been addressed, Coles argues, things might have turned out differently.
Here are two of the stories behind the grim statistics of 2016.
Jessica Whitchurch
Jessica grew up in Nailsea near Bristol with her parents and three siblings, Ben – the oldest – Emma and Beth.
“We had a real rough childhood but we had good times as well,” says Ben.
Together the family enjoyed holidays abroad in France, Spain and Greece. And there were other happy family occasions – birthdays and Christmases, for example: the two would overlap because Jessica’s birthday was on Boxing Day.
But they all had spells in foster care – both parents struggled with alcohol and would fight. One day their father disappeared to live abroad, and in 2002 their mother died after a long battle with addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.
Ben was an adult by then, but the three girls were sent to different foster homes. Beth, the youngest, was 12, Emma had just turned 15 and Jess was 17″Out of us four kids, with everything we went through, I suppose one of us had to take the wrong turn,” says Emma.
Jessica struggled to find a job and would get into relationships with abusive and violent men. Things spiralled. She began to drink and take drugs – heroin, crack, anything – and turned to shoplifting to pay for them.
Her life became chaotic and her siblings would struggle to keep track of where she was and with whom.
“Jess was free-spirited, fun-loving and creative. She could speak German and Spanish,” remembers Ben. “But she was also very vulnerable and a lot of her prison sentences were to do with her violent relationships with men.” According to the Prison Reform Trust, 46% of women in jail report having suffered a history of domestic abuse.
Ben explains that she had wanted to be a youth worker – a job she would have been good at – but criminal convictions made that difficult.

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