Maggie Mellon on Day 1 of Justice Watch.
Like a good few other women I spent yesterday watching justice in Scotland’s courts.
The day started for me with a trip to BBC Scotland’s Edinburgh studio at 7.30 for a quick interview on the Good Morning show about the launch of Justice Watch that day.
What are our plans? To do what it says on the tin and just watch justice, for women, in our courts. Women for Indy was, I explained, going in to see why and how Scotland imprisons women at a higher rate than than any other country in the British islands? And many other countries in Europe? Four times the rate of the Republic of Ireland. And – shock – even higher than England, that bastion of unfairness and injustice. Despite the commitments of several governments over many years to cut the number of women unnecessarily in prison, the number keeps going on. Why and how? The government has yet again committed to reducing the number of women in prison, to ‘radical changes’, but will these actually happen?
Our suspicion is that far too much attention is being paid to prison and not to the services outside prison that actually work. There is no queue for prison. There are queues for Willow and Tomorrow’s Women and other services – that are scrambling for money and face closure every year. Yet as I got to explain to BBC Good Morning audience, they had been proven to be more effective, much better than prison.
Were women a special case? No, men matter too, and the waste of short sentences is wrong for men too. But when a man goes to jail, the home and children are not destroyed. When a woman goes to jail, a whole family can be devastated. Homes lost, children in care, the woman herself terrified about what is happening outside. Women who have lost their children and families because of prison can become fodder for the revolving door of repeat petty offending, alcohol and drug self medication.
So thanks to BBC Scotland for allowing the time to explain this properly. And off to Edinburgh Sheriff Court. I had the list of planned appearances from the Scottish Court website and had marked the names of women and the courts and sheriffs they were to appear in. Sara Sheridan was already there at 9,15 and we both went in to look at the lists of appearances, including the list of people being held in police custody having been arrested over the weekend. The staff were very friendly and helpful. And I saw this repeated throughout the day when bewildered relatives, and defendants, and witnesses asked for assistance and help. So something is working well in the malls of justice.
And these are pretty grand malls. The court is beautifully and expensively constructed, full of marble and stone and glass. The courtrooms are modern and comfortable. But my god – the contrast between the well heeled lawyers and sheriffs and even the more lowly paid clerks and security staff and the defendants was stark.
The poverty of the accused is what hits you first and foremost. These are people whose obvious ill health, and poor and cheap clothing, should be an accusation against society and its courts, and yet they are the accused. Teenagers milling about. Many without parents or family to guide and support them – leading me to suspect that these are children unfortunate enough to have been ‘looked after’ in care of their local authority. Not a named person to be seen here. Perhaps we should appoint sheriffs or legal aid solicitors? Certainly the only people with an interest in them are their legal aid solicitors, representing so many people that the attention they can afford is fleeting, if kindly.
So much to observe and we have not even sat in court yet! The group has assembled and we take our ‘I’m watching Justice’ selfies and pictures and distribute ourselves in two’s around the courts where women are listed to appear.
Justice Watch is a mass observation style initiative which will capture women’s experiences of justice in our courts in cities and towns, and bring these out to a wider audience of women. We are also watching national and local media for news about women in the courts. At the same time we intend to alert the public to the huge financial and social costs of using the criminal justice system including children who have to come into care, the loss of homes, and cost of rehousing, the impact on employment and opportunities for rehabilitation.We will be encouraging women across Scotland to take part over the course of the year, to make sure that we can cover every court in Scotland.