"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

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage