Sara Sheridan is a Scottish writer who works in a variety of genres, though predominately in historical fiction. She is the creator of the Mirabelle Bevan mysteries. Sara joined Women for Independence and spoke on our behalf in the run up to the 2014 Independence Referendum.
I was nervous about going into court. I’ve never been before except for once when I was called up for jury duty (the day after the referendum, as it happens). The case was dismissed so I was there for all of half an hour. I’m passionate about women’s rights, and was immediately interested when I heard about our new Justice Watch campaign. This follows the successful campaign last year against the building of a super-prison for women. The idea is that WFI members will visit courts across Scotland for a year. The aim is to find out more about what actually happens to women who are tried and sentenced in our courts.
Having attended the campaign’s open day in advance of the launch, I was compelled to get involved – there were just too many stories of young mothers who had been caught shoplifting goods worth hardly any money and ended up being sent away from their children. Prison is really ineffective at tackling crime rates, especially for low level offences. I feel that as a society we are punishing women in the wrong way and that in fact, we should be helping them in many of these cases. The prison sentences that were brought up felt all too close to Victorian-style punishments (transported for stealing a loaf of bread)
Going into the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh, the staff were really helpful. There’s a security search on the door (they went through my handbag, God love them). A roll of cases is posted just behind the search area and each court has a similar paper posted on the door so you can see who is being called up. There are relatively few women – the overwhelming majority of cases seen here are men. I slipped into court where the sheriff was, by chance, female. The cases aren’t called in the order on the door (or on the list at security) so you just have to sit and wait. I asked if I could take notes, but the clerk said the sheriff didn’t allow that (except for journalists).
What shocked me is just how mundane many of the cases were. There was standing room only in the public gallery and clusters of lawyers in capes around the front benches and everything I saw related to drunk and disorderly offences, somebody losing their temper at an ex or behaving badly enough to catch the attention of the police (which in many cases, seems just bad luck.) In one of the other courts I heard there was a soliciting charge brought. We are spending thousands on these cases and on the punishments and social work reports that they generate. But we’re not solving anything much!
Justicewatch aims to see the women’s prison population reduced to below 100 women from the 500 who are incarcerated in our country right now. We intend to educate ourselves and many more women about how the courts treat women offenders, and why so many end up in prison for offences that are usually associated with mental health, drink and drug problems. It’s somewhere we can make a big difference, woman to woman.
The 2012 Commission on Women Offenders recommended major changes in the system, to reduce unnecessary imprisonment. The Scottish Government accepted these. But we need to monitor what’s actually happening. It’s an odd kind of campaign, I suppose, just to witness what’s going on, but that’s what needs to be done. We often talk about making a different Scotland – I’m always inspired when Robin McAlpine of the Common Weal says we need to start now. So, here we are, starting now. After each court appearance a form will be filled in and statistics compiled from it, nationwide, so we get a clear picture of the crimes these women are committing and what is happening to them inside the system. It’s a way of making a huge difference – a burning social justice issue - and we can only do it if women donate their time to just sitting in court. It’s warm, I promise! It’s interesting too. If you’d like to get involved, please contact Women for Independence.
Sara's website; http://www.sarasheridan.com/