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A message of hope for women who end up behind bars

Memoir: Breakfast At Bronzefield

Sophie Campbell

SC Books, €9.44 pb.


Breakfast at Bronzefield

Breakfast at Bronzefield

Breakfast at Bronzefield

Most women who leave prison have no home waiting for them on the outside. Eight in ten are likely to be convicted of another offence within a year. Only eight per cent will ever re-enter the workforce. They're 69 times more likely to die within a week of their release than women in the general population.

Sophie Campbell (not her real name) knows this only too well. She was one of those women. Despite being "small, quiet and reasonably well spoken", she found herself locked up for two years in one of the toughest women's prisons in the UK on charges of GBH and assault against police officers.

Thankfully, she defied the statistics. Within two weeks of her release, she had a job. Within a year, she'd secured a place at a good university. Grateful for her good fortune, she has now written an pseudonymous account of her experiences to "expose the abuses that occur inside female prisons", and to help women navigate the pitfalls that face them on release.

She was first sent to HMP Bronzefield on remand while awaiting trial. The largest women's prison in the UK, it boasts of being "dynamic and forward-thinking", but if that really is the case, it must have changed an awful lot since the author was within those walls.

The privately run institution that she describes so vividly is one in which violence, hierarchies of control and racism (the author is black) were an everyday feature, and in which the welfare of vulnerable young women was routinely put at risk. That's probably why the first thing that happens on arrival is that she's asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement not to reveal anything that goes on inside.

Within a week, she is used to the regime and its rules. She learns how things work. How the women insult one another's looks and body odour as a way of dealing with the lack of control over their own appearance. The way the poorest inmates, most of whom come from deprived backgrounds in London, wear the most expensive trainers and designer clothes as a mark of status. The wings are full of addicts, their ages impossible to tell because their bodies are so ravaged by drugs.

Campbell didn't expect to be there long. In fact, she is in due course convicted of the violent offences with which she's charged and sent to another prison, HMP Downview.

She's no angel. There are physical confrontations with prison staff from which she doesn't emerge with honour, even if the incidents are in a context where brutality is commonplace, treatment inconsistent, and it's often a case of prison officers' word against theirs, "and mine counted for very little".

This book has been written and self-published in order to help women in the same situation, but in that respect, the message is quite tough. You're on your own. Not all will have the mental resilience to turn their lives around. What the book does offer is hope.

If there's a message, it's that more can and must be done to help rehabilitate women who've been through the prison system. Sometimes that message gets slightly lost in a more general polemic against rising poverty, inequality and the slow-down in social mobility. That can read more like an election pamphlet than a personal testimony.

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When she talks about "the root causes of crime", her argument often seems to boil down solely to economic circumstances. Campbell never fully addresses her own violent behaviour or the personal responsibility of the other women for their actions. "They'd lost hope," as she rightly puts it, but the innocent victims of the drugs trade and violent crime deserve some consideration as well.

The book would have benefited from the services of an editor at an established publisher, who could have helped fix some of its weaknesses, but that doesn't stop it being a powerful addition to the long canon of prison literature, as rough and authentic as the world it describes.

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