‘Drug addiction impacts your mental health, mental health impacts on housing, it’s like a ricochet effect, like a bullet bouncing off each disadvantage, you can’t stop it in its tracks.’ Amanda Hailes
This week I finally got to hear the radio documentary Unchained which was broadcast on BBC Radio Four. This powerful programme featured the accounts of a group of women who had been failed by the criminal justice system. I must admit that I cried as I listened to it. What makes this programme so important for me and why I was so emotional was that it featured two women that I’ve been working closely with for several years and who have during that time become very special friends of mine. Brenda Birungi also known as Lady Unchained is a performance poet and advocate for women in prison and Amanda Hailes is part of Hull-based women’s collective An Untold Story, a peer-researcher and campaigns for women facing marginalisation. Amanda and Brenda are also part of the first cohort of people taking part in our spokesperson network a pilot programme which gives skills and confidence to people with direct, lived experience of the big issues facing us today, to speak about those experiences and share their expertise, ideas and solutions for change. The ultimate aim is to increase the diversity of voices and perspectives we hear in the media and tell different stories.
“Only 5% of children stay in the family home when their mums go to prison. Had I been sent to prison for my minor crime, my child would have been taken into care. It’s a repeat of history and it makes me want to cry.” Georgia
Unchained is a programme that did all those things. Gave a platform to experts by experience to share the issues that led them to their short prison sentences and would help the listener understand more clearly the systemic failures of the criminal justice system and what was needed to create change. No jargon needed. Just their stories told in their own ways and in their own words.
In 2008, 20 year-old Brenda got into a fight in a nightclub to protect her sister. With no previous convictions, Brenda ended up serving 11 months in prison. It altered the course of her life. Two Government reports – the Corston Report in 2007 and the Ministry of Justice Female Offender Strategy in 2018 – have concluded that short-term custodial sentences do not work for women. At the same time, the proportion of women serving very short sentences has actually risen.
“When I was in prison, the large majority were only in there for a couple of months, a couple of weeks. They keep saying our prisons are full. Yeah, they’re full of women who shouldn’t be there.” Amanda
What came through in the programme were the routes to how women came into contact with the criminal justice system. Almost 60% of women in prison have experienced domestic abuse. Nearly half of crimes committed by women are to support someone else’s drug use. Women are substantially more likely than men to lose their children and their homes while serving a sentence of less than six months. And almost 75% of women sentenced to less than a year in prison go on to reoffend.
In prison Brenda wrote notes to herself to stay out of trouble. These were her poems. After release, she built a platform ‘Unchained Poetry’ as Lady Unchained. Brenda now shares her story and inspires others to do the same. She continues to inspire me and everyone she connects with.
It is programmes like Unchained that I want to hear and see more of. Compelling, honest, authentic storytelling, nuanced solutions focused and without judgement. Thank you to Brenda and Amanda who shared their stories alongside Paula, Krystal and Georgia. Thank you to the person who commissioned it and thank you to the team at the charity the Prison Radio Association who produced it in particular Jessie Lawson and Axel Kacoutié.
Unchained – The Making of My Radio 4 Documentary
CoronaVirus Lockdown Verses Prison Lockdown https://www.sounddelivery.org.uk/2020/04/lady-unchained-coronavirus-lockdown-vs-prison-lockdown/
Amanda Hailes at Being the Story https://youtu.be/qejVp6HZ5_k
Brenda Birungi at Being the Story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBTiaNUdbIo