"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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Labour slumps to fourth place in North Hykeham and Sleaford by-election

Conservative candidate Caroline Johnson eased to victory as Labour tumbled from second to fourth place.

Caroline Johnson was elected as the Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, while Labour slumped from second to fourth behind Ukip and the Liberal Democrats, who finished second and third respectively. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Stephen Philips.

The seat, which has been safely Conservative since its creation, backed Brexit by a 20-point margin on 23 June. The Tory victory, with 53.5 per cent of the vote, is one of the party’s all-time best by-election performances while in government. 

Johnson won with 17,570 votes. In second was Ukip's Victoria Ayling, with 4,426 votes. Ross Pepper recieved 3,606 votes, while Labour's Jim Clarke got 3,363 votes.

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