Talking about unimaginable things to make them visible

Helen Mills
Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Dauntingly good', 

was the description Laurel Townhead at Women in Prison, who is working with the Centre on Justice Matters for Women, used to describe those who had signed up to the event last Wednesday. The sign ups to the Justice Matters for Women event had grown over the 30 or so we’d originally anticipated, to over 100 registered to attend. I was delighted, but with some trepidation. We booked a bigger room. And even then, at last week's event, every seat was taken. It was hugely stimulating to meet such engaged, knowledgeable, thoughtful and experienced people at Wednesday's Justice Matters for Women event.

My colleague Rebecca Roberts, Laurel Townhead, and myself set out to share the ideas informing the Justice Matters for Women project, our responses to it, what we see as the challenges and difficulties, and our thoughts about how to go forward. You can read our presentations in the attached document.

The most important thing we wanted to get from the day was a sense about what next: what would people find useful? How do we take forward this challenging agenda? I know I speak for all of us when saying the learning and thoughtful contributions those who attended shared was immensely helpful in this respect. These contributions came from various places: practitioners, women’s centres, campaigners, those with direct experience of criminal justice, those committed to improving outcomes for women, those tackling violence against women and those involved in research about women's criminal justice involvement. To have all these people in one room, contributing, was fantastic. It also made for a difficult job for our dedicated scribes for the day Zoe Ellis and Jordan Beaumont, interns at the Centre, so thanks to both of them. 

By the half way point, the word ‘we’ was being used. What ‘we’ should do next; what ‘we’ should be saying and to whom. This is not to suggest there weren’t areas of disagreement. Concerns were raised about how to ensure a committment to downsizing criminal justice doesn't come at the expense of women who want to use criminal justice interventions to address violence, for example. But it did make clear the scope and interest in collaboration. 

There is a well of experience, learning and understanding in the women's sector that is at risk of being obscured by the direction of travel the current transforming rehabilitation policy framework entails.Many of those present clearly felt this and wanted tools that would support them to respond to it. Part of the event involved post-it note contributions. As one such contribution stated:

'I'm concerned that too much local financial resource (and the space for the discussion) has irrevocably gone and what this means for prevention and early intervention agendas.'

I learnt that others are asking how we get out of the criminal justice box – not only in terms of how we get women out of prison or the criminal justice system - but how do we as campaigners, communities, practitioners, and concerned individuals avoid being trapped in a criminal justice silos that is fundamentally unhelpful for women. And for me that has been tremendously encouraging. I left feeling energised about what ‘we’ do next. When myself, Rebecca, Laurel and Rachel Halford from Women in Prison met today we were buzzing about what this could involve. Rachel mentioned one post-it that struck her in particular: 

'[we should] talk about unimaginable things to make them visible.'

Expect an update in the coming weeks about what we'll be doing next.

We created a storify of twitter comments from attendees. 

Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.