"The girls, like all girls of that age, were bolshy and manipulative, and everything revolved around cigarettes". Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
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The girls in the prison had done some bad things, but what they did to themselves was worse

The bit they don’t tell you is that agency workers are often brought in when something bad has happened.

“It must be so cool to be in prison,” said my 14-year-old the other day. Orange Is the New Black is her favourite programme. “I know it’s not, really, but they make it look that way.”

They certainly do, and I wanted her to know how terrible it is.

“How do you know? You’ve been in prison, haven’t you?”

My children suspect me of all sorts of things. This is a new one.

“No. I’ve never been locked up. But I know what it is to lock someone up.”

She’d catapulted me back to one of the worst jobs I have ever had, which I’d wiped from my memory somehow.

For a couple of weeks in my mid-twenties I was sent to work in a girls’ lock-up unit. When I say “sent”, I mean by the agency where I’d signed up to do “residential social work”.

Most of the jobs were OK: a children’s home in Deptford, the elderly and people in sheltered housing in Lambeth.

The bit they don’t tell you is that agency workers are often brought in when something bad has happened. A riot, an accident, some kind of neglect that has caused permanent staff to leave suddenly.

This job involved working with girls under 18 who’d done really bad things. I didn’t ask what these were. I was let in to the building through a series of doors with locks, buzzers, codes and alarms and bombarded with information about emergency procedures and fire alarms.

The girls, like all girls of that age, were bolshy and manipulative, and everything revolved around cigarettes.

My first week in the job my stomach churned and I didn’t want to be there. I could see how quickly these kids could go from zero to ten in terms of violence, but that was not my greatest fear. Mostly they’d stolen stuff, refused to go to school and been fighting, but I began to see what the bad things they did really were.

The bad things were what they did to themselves.

They faked periods by cutting themselves. Inside. Yes, there. Not to mention burning and endless vomiting. This got them attention, “privileges”, and less time locked up. When I was instructed not to give one girl sanitary towels “because she’s done that to herself”, I walked out – well, let myself out through the complex system.

In the mid-Eighties no one discussed self-harm. We let them bleed.

Some years later a girl with cropped hair came up to me at a bus stop.

“Do you remember me?”

I did. She’d been one of the worst ones but now she looked happy and she introduced me to her girlfriend. I explained this to my daughter, who asked: “Are you saying she was locked up for being gay?” No wonder I’ve tried to erase that time, that place, that memory.

Suzanne Moore will be appearing in an NS event at Latitude Festival on 16 July

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.