I started volunteering one day a week in a women’s prison in 2008. I was familiar with the kinds of life story I might encounter, but was blown away by the sheer volume of them. As I listened to story after story of abuse, loss, bereavement, pain, I felt huge sadness. I still do. Then for a while I was angry that these much-abused, brutalised women were being further brutalised by the harsh prison regime, which does little to reduce their likelihood of reoffending. I’m still angry. And then, despite all my best efforts not to, I got political.
I really didn’t want to… Like REALLY. I’d grown up around a lot of politics and it certainly wasn’t what I was planning on doing. No, I was changing hearts and minds through theatre, community projects, grassroots activism. But in the course of my frontline work, I could no longer stomach the themes of inequality and structural barriers to people being able to excel and to become all that God intended them to be. For example, 24% of people in prison grew up in local authority care. That isn’t a fair start in life, is it? In almost every story childhood neglect, poverty, drug addiction loomed large – I was forced to zoom out and look at why some people know loads of people in prison and others know no-one.
Prisons are mostly run by the state and they could be doing a far better job than they are. Decisions are made about who goes to them, how big they are, what happens in them by the state. These are decisions taken by politicians that have an impact on the lives of thousands. For example: a minister decides to shut a prison. The woman’s family now have to travel a further 50 miles to visit her, so they can only now come once a month and not once a fortnight to visit. She has a huge response to this news, self-harms and is put on suicide watch. That political decision and the ideology behind it has an impact in the real world. As people passionate about social justice, about valuing each person the way God does, we can make an impact at grass roots level and in Westminster. We can’t simply go on witnessing trauma and pain without starting further upstream and looking at the root causes of injustice.
Ultimately, I’d love to see the women I work with on those green benches in parliament. Women who are full of strength and kindness, who care about the hungry and homeless, because they are compassionate and because they know what it is like to be hungry and sleep on the street. Women who understand what is needed from our mental health services because 70% of people in prison have two or more diagnosable mental health problems and 25% of women in prison have had psychosis. To have a robust, representative democracy we need to have representatives from every sector of society, we need to hear from a diversity of voices. We have far too many white, male, Oxbridge PPE graduates who have only ever worked in Westminster on our green benches. Only 22% of our MPs are women – hopefully this time next week, there’ll be far more. For our democracy to thrive, to be democratic, it needs to reflect the demos, the people. I think if more nurses, teachers, bus drivers, prison officers became politicians we wouldn’t be struggling with so much political disengagement.
There may be external or internal voices that hold us back from engaging with politics or stepping out in leadership in this arena. I’ve found it hugely helpful to get some women around me who can encourage me and cheerlead for me. Find people who you can trust to help remove the barriers within yourself to achievement, who can hold hope for you when you’ve lost it, who can challenge, who can praise and love you well. Then get involved: talk to friends about politics, google to find out what the party you sympathise with is doing in your area, join them for a few hours, give financially to a candidate that you know or have heard is good, be active in political debates on social media, don’t just petition your MP or local councillors on an issue you care about, consider becoming one yourself.
There are many ways to get involved in politics, as Christians, as women, but whatever you do – get involved. Someone is going to run the country, why not you? If you believe in the kingdom coming on this earth, if you want to see equality, justice and restoration breaking out this side of heaven, then get political.
Sara Hyde is a leading left-wing thinker on women and the criminal justice system. She has worked in prisons for seven years and currently works with women leaving custody. Sara tweets about prisons, justice, arts, feminism and faith here: @SaraKHyde.