Supporting Sex Workers in Custody and Post Release event

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So for those who follow my twitter, you will know I attended a fabulous event yesterday at Askham Grange prison. And for those who received messages from me saying I can’t take my phone inside as I am going to prison, (to a chorus of “it’s about time”) now you know why.

It was a great event, from the actual material delivered to the friendliness of those willing to network and offer their help with my research. It was also a first for me visiting a female prison, and I was stunned by the beauty of the place. Completely different from what I expected. And seeing female offenders in such an open-prison setting reminds me that their identities are not just prisoners. The same as when dealing with sex workers, they are not just sex workers. It is easy to put people into a box when their identities are multi-faceted and fluid, their needs diverse and complex.

I would thank to thank the organisers, speakers and HMP Askham Grange for putting on such a welcoming progressive event. I would also like to think all the ladies at Askham Grange for their hospitality and wonderful food. It is set to be an annual event, so am looking forward to the next one already.

WC, one of the organisers and Custodial Manager at HMP New Hall spoke passionately about the needs for such an event and work in the area. He spoke of the Corston Report, that there are no national guidelines on how to support sex workers post release. WC said that 25 % of women in Newhall admit to having involvement in sex work.

JT, a senior member of staff in Newhall spoke of her personal passion of helping sex workers in prison after releasing the need. JT said there is a need to identify sex workers in custody in order to offer them the specific support they may require.

Genesis, (not a faith based charity) had speakers Joan Coulton and Emily Turner. I am very excited to meet with Rosie at Genesis next week and begin volunteering with them, I really believe in what they are doing. Their ethos is fantastic, non-judgemental, non-‘rescue’ based, they work with women at the pace the women want.

Genesis
is concerned with sexual health and safety. Many agencies are disappearing, and Genesis is 25 years old.
Emily Turner is responsible for The New Futures Project within Genesis. In a three tonged approach, this deals with sexual health, safety and life choices. Emily says in a way this could be considered an exiting programme, but it is only if they choose it.

This echoes my PhD research, ‘Sex Workers’ Experiences of Prison: From Punishment to Exiting?’.

Emily says some of the life choices women might make are to work differently, work ‘safer’, could be remaining in sex work but also getting another job alongside sex work, or taking up a course at college. This is wonderful, it is about listening to the workers and not telling them what to do. Emily also emphasised that exiting process is very up and down, and women return to the streets for many reasons. Genesis also works with women who have exited but still want support.

When looking at exiting, Emily examines what need to happen for that woman to be able to leave, i.e. referral to drugs team; benefits appointments, housing team. It is about partnership work.

The wonderful Alex Bryce manager of National Ugly Mugs was up next, delivering a strong and passionate piece about the organisation. Stigma is what makes sex work so dangerous. I think this is incredibly important to remember.

Ugly Mugs is a scheme whereby sex workers can report dangerous or dodgy clients who have attacked them/ threatened them/ stolen from them. 95 percent of sex workers who reported to Ugly Mugs who happy for the info to be shared anonymously, and 26 percent who happy to share with police.

Please do sign up to NUM and share, as it is an incredibly important resource for the safety of sex workers. It is not just applicable to street-based sex workers, but also those working in brothels/apartments or independently. Even if the women is in prison, the report can be made, the offender may well still be at large.

Gemma Lousley spoke for Drugscope on The Challenge of Change Improving Services for women involved with substance abuse and street based sex work.

Gemma spoke of the Corston Report 2007, the need for strategic coordination of resettlement pathways for prisoners and the barriers in accessing support. Gemma said there needs to be measures to increase accessibility of service, i.e. flexibility, evening opening hours, women-only sessions, outreach in prisons.

Gemma’s recommendations for policy and commissioners were to acknowledge the ‘multiple needs’ agenda and offer a range of services. The need for national and local strategies.

Haley Speed and Chris Charles of The Men’s Room really motivated me and excited me with their project and film. I am aiming to use photo ethnography, visual and creative methods, participatory action research. I want participants to be co-researchers and have a stake in proceedings. The Men’s Room is an amazing example of what I should be aiming for in best practice.

It is an arts based project which has received funding from the Arts Research Council. It offers meaningful activity and something different in the lives of sex working men. It is about building relationships and networks through creativity, with a minimum of 6 months engagement. The activities have multi benefits, it helps build up the men’s CVs as they are performing in some top venues, learning valuable skills. The structure of creativity offers ‘a different way of living’. It recognises their abilities, the person they see themselves as becoming, not just their sex working or criminal status.

The participants own the space, and the charity supports it. The participants make the decisions and take responsibility for the safety of the project. It depends on, and helps with, consistency and authenticity.

The project does not force exiting, and people can dip in and out of support, assess when they need it.

When the participants see their stories used in a positive way, it helps them.

This film and talk has helped me immensely and really fired me up for my own research. I am passionate about creative methods and PAR and seeing this incredible film and filled me with enthusiasm. It is also made me question myself why I am only including female sw in my research? A lot for me to think about.

Last up was Hazel Renouf, Criminal Justice Caseworker at One25 in Bristol. This is a truly inspiring project that has over 110 volunteers, and won National Ugly Mug’s ‘Star Project’. I loved the ethos, and the emphasis on relationship based working. Hazel emphasised that it isn’t about ticking boxes and fulfilling quotas but being there for the women. Hazel also said it is not about rescuing women.

Hazel helpfully spoke about the emotional impact on worker or researcher which was incredibly helpful and something I have already out provisions in place for. I think it is often overlooked the emotional toll such work can take on researchers or outreach staff. My research will be very self-reflexive, and I see identifying and recognizing emotions as a positive, not a negative. The need to protect oneself emotionally is key.

I had such an inspiring day, and look forward to seeing some of the delegates soon.

Some other links I would like to mention are the RISE scheme by The Reader Organisation and the Shutter Release project by Photo Voice.

Thank you for reading.

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