Next to his photographs of 40 women who have spent time in Low Newton prison, Adrian Clarke has juxtaposed short accounts from each of how she got there. Low Newton, near Durham, built in the 1960s and 1970s, holds 360 women, including lifers. Of the 85,000 in prison, 4,400 are women.
Is there a face you can call a prison face, as some see in a single mother a pram face? Most look puffy, pale, older than their years and above all tired. Some look scared, a few defiant, none happy. Dazed and confused would cover them. Some are pictured with china figurines, cherubs embracing, or one of those dancing flowers — things that would be ‘nice’, if they weren’t in such a mess.
It is not easy to guess the women’s stories from their portraits. One of the most charming looking, Patricia, says:
When I was 28, I persuaded an old man to let me into his house so I could use the toilet, but once I was inside I demanded money off him. When he refused to give me what I wanted — looking back, I don’t think he had any money —I stabbed him in the eye with a pair of scissors. I was given a six-year sentence.
Drugs are almost without exception part of the story. It is not, of course, for using them that the women are imprisoned, but for stealing, sometimes with violence, to buy them. One woman found jail so secure that she didn’t feel the need for drugs; another learnt to use a new kind of drug there. One has been on the prescribed heroin-substitute methadone for 13 years. ‘Someone should perhaps have put more pressure on me to get off it,’ she says, adding helplessly: ‘But there again, maybe that would just have led to more chaos.’
Behind the drugs lie dark memories. ‘My dad was a drinker and he’s been in prison for drugs offences’, says Michelle Simms (pictured), first sentenced for robbery aged 15. ‘He used to beat up my mum. It was to block out my bad memories that I used drugs.’ She stole and prostituted herself, but at least in prison ‘I could talk to people who understood what I felt. There was nothing in there, though, that was going to help me once I came out.’
Adrian Clarke has portrayed the unhappier survivors of the decaying north-east in previous collections, always full-on in muted colour. He is to Teesside what a more cheerful Henry Mayhew was to the London poor.
To get off the road that leads back to Low Newton these women need stable work and boyfriends who are not on drugs, or violent, or child-abusers. They’ll be lucky. Some see the moral demands too:
I have a friend called Bertie [says Christine]. No one else can see him but he’s as real to me as anyone else in my life. He sits beside me and he tells me to stop drinking and sort my life out. I’ve failed Bertie more than I’ve pleased him.