Monday, 20 July 2009

WI samples life inside Wandsworth prison (Guest blog)

Living less than half a mile from Wandsworth prison I have always been curious about its inner workings. An austere, Victorian place, I walk past it often and my local pub, the County Arms, sits in its shadow and is a favourite with prison officers.

Through the NFWI’s Care Not Custody campaign I was offered the opportunity to visit the prison, alongside several WI ladies from other federations and a journalist from the Independent on Sunday.

After you hand over your mobile phone and passport, the first thing you notice upon arrival is the friendliness of the staff. We met the acting-Governor, who told us in glowing terms how happy she is to work for the prison service. She was joined by two staff from the vocational skills team and they were also friendly and very happy in their work.

Having half imagined an austere and forbidding atmosphere I was pleasantly surprised by the warm atmosphere of the place. Of course as guests we would be given somewhat special treatment, but the rapport between guards and inmates seemed jovial and there appeared to be a lot of trust invested in the inmates.

When you think of a prison you automatically think of Porridge and sitting on a bunk ticking off the days: But not here. Wandsworth Prison has some excellent vocational initiatives, especially designed to help the inmates get jobs “on the out”. Dave, a guard and our guide around part of the prison, said the prison tried to mimic the outside world, where people must be productive and not just go to the gym or sit around all day.

To that end prisoners can sign up to study brick-laying, plastering, sewing, computing and even motorbike maintenance. Everything is geared towards gaining skills that will make the inmates more employable once they are released, and hopefully break the cycle of re-offending. There is even a small garden and chickens in one corner of the complex, with plans to expand.

For me, the most fascinating part of the tour was E Wing, the original Victorian part of the prison. In E wing we went to the “first night” accommodation on the ground floor (alcoholics are housed one floor up and drug addicts separately – for good reason – on the floor above).

This is where new prisoners are brought to be assessed and monitored during their first night. The prison psychiatrist explained that this is when inmates are at their most vulnerable and likely to self harm or worse. This is a real risk in prison. Just the night before our visit, we were told, a Chinese man who spoke no English had been hospitalised after pouring a kettle full of boiling water over himself.

No one ever plans to go to prison and inmates will often arrive at Wandsworth after a whirlwind trip from the police station, to Court and on to the prison. Shock, resentment, stress and anxiety are then at their peak. The prison psychiatrist told us this is why she believes diversion schemes should be favoured over custodial sentences – a key goal of our Care Not Custody campaign.

The prison psychiatrist estimated 80% of inmates have at least one mental health issue. It seems logical that a prison environment is going to exacerbate these underlying problems and make not one iota of difference towards rehabilitation and treatment. There must be another way.

Despite this, my overriding impression from the prison visit – apart from resolving always to avoid a more permanent trip inside – is that there is a dedicated team of people working to do a tremendous job within a system they know is not perfect.

Jill Grieve, Wandsworth WI (Guest blogger)

Let the digging begin...(Guest blog)

Wandsworth WI has found a novel way to combine the No More Violence Against Women campaign and the WI’s commitment to environmental sustainability by planting a vegetable garden for a women’s refuge in south London.

It really hit home to me what being part of the Women's Institute is all about last week when we did our first 'official' WI project together. We are a fairly new WI in Wandsworth and I am a very new President in this world of fabulously established, intelligent, beautiful and terribly witty women of the WI. It must be said that I formed the Wandsworth branch because not only did I aspire to be a Calendar Girl but I saw this as a way to campaign for things I truly believe in and genuinely do good things for the community I live in.

Our chosen charity is the Wandswoth Women's Aid, a fantastic organisation that houses women and children that have experienced domestic violence (which is obviously one of the WI's biggest campaigns). We thought long and hard about how we could add just a small something to enhance their lives after having been through such an ordeal. So we applied for a grant from Capital Growth to plant a kitchen garden in their backyard and were lucky enough to get it!

So the work began.... We prepared for a couple of months prior to the planting and finally on a(thankfully sunny) Sunday we embarked on mission one - clearing the garden. A big thanks to Fiskars for getting us some of the most fabulous tools any of us have ever used as they made the gardening easy and fun, not a chore at all!

The photographs show how much work we did, clearing, digging and planting yummy veggies for the ladies and children to grow and eat. We have began creating a manual for the house so they all know exactly what is growing and how to look after it as well as delicious, simple and easy recipes too. Hopefully if this project is a success we can roll it out nationally as the WWA is just one of hundreds of shelters throughout the UK - maybe there is one that could use the same care near you?

I can tell you there were a lot of emotions felt by all of us girls throughout the day and there were a few tears of joy as the sun went down over the beautiful garden we had created. Even more tears came as we watched the children's excitement once we had finished. They all swore they would love the garden as much as we do and according to the WWA they have been guarding it ever since and when the first tomatoes were red and ready to eat last week, well it was like Christmas had come early!

Rebecca Sullivan, Wandsworth WI President (Guest blogger).

Monday, 6 July 2009

Mili-band sends message to Ed: coal is not the answer

Standing as part of a human chain on the edge of a field in Hoo is not the usual way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But I was truly glad to give up part of my weekend to reiterate the dire message to Ed Miliband that the country does NOT NEED a new generation of coal fired power stations and just one on that field in Hoo would go a long way to negate all that the government promised it would put on the table at Copenhagen.

That “Eastenders” actress, Nina Wadia, should give up her Saturday afternoon, and on her wedding anniversary too, to join in the rally and walk a long distance round a field as well, indicates that people do care what happens to our country and to our world. Dirty coal is NOT the way forward in cutting emissions.

The NFWI‘s postcards to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change were signed by many people on Saturday. Ed, you have to listen.

Ruth Bond, NFWI Chair

WI join 'Mili-band' against 'dirty' coal power station

On Saturday 4 July, representatives from organisations including the Woodcraft Folk, the RSPB, Oxfam, and the World Development Movement went to Kingsnorth power station in Kent to form a human band around the site of a proposed new coal fired power station. The NFWI was part of the coalition, with members from across the country coming to take part. The NFWI believes that climate change is one of the most momentous challenges to face this generation, and that this is the year in which serious action must be taken. With the UN Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in December seeking a global deal on emissions cuts, the decision in the UK to create a new generation of coal fired power stations which do not capture their own emissions would clearly show that our government is not serious about tackling climate change at home.

After the event, we spoke to one of the members who went on the march to tell Ed Miliband (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) that he should say “no” to new dirty coal.

Was this your first experience of being on a protest march and what inspired you to become involved in climate change protesting?

My first experience of a protest march was the Stop Climate Chaos event in London in December 2008. It took me a number of years to get to where I am now; looking at news articles, reading a little more into the science behind the arguments, listening to experts talking about the issues all led me to believe that climate change is a real threat that we cannot ignore. I think it was the sheer magnitude of the threat that we face which made me want to get involved in actually protesting. At first, you can’t believe that nobody’s acting on the urgency of the situation, then you realise that the only way to promote such a sense of urgency is to stand up and make your voice count. The threat is so far removed from people’s everyday lives that it difficult to see how it relates, but the threat is so great that there is a real need for big events like this to push the urgency of the message home.

I’m really pleased to see that the NFWI is involved in things like this because, as an organisation, it has so much credibility behind it that can only help to further the cause of tackling climate change. It was also good to see other organisations like the RSPB, Oxfam and others at the event, as all of those organisations have the credibility and mainstream audience that will be really important in making a different to our climate.

What was it like being at the event on Saturday?

The atmosphere was really good actually! It was inspiring to see so many different people there, particularly families with children. Everyone was clearly so committed to the cause that it really made you believe that someone else out there cares as much as you – really inspiring for me. The speakers during the rally in the afternoon were also excellent – the Bangladeshi speaker who spoke about such traumatic experiences during her life, all as a result of our changing climate, had a huge influence on me. As I went home on the train from the event, I kept returning to think about her story and it did really make you think about what we’re doing.

Will you be coming to any of the events we’re involved in during the rest of this important year?

Yes! I’ll be coming to the Stop Climate Chaos march in London on 5 December and am trying to coordinate a group to travel there together from our local area. I’m involved in the Transition Towns initiative, alongside Friends of the Earth, so I’m trying to get a big contingent together.

I think it can be a little bit frightening if you don’t know what to expect from events like these, but I would honestly encourage people to attend as in my experience there is nothing to worry about. Even if it’s just to meet other people and find out what they think, it is so important to find out more about the issues. I would really encourage everyone to find out more about climate change, particularly about the scientific evidence, as that was what really convinced me that it was happening. Now I am so convinced that it is of the utmost importance that we all come together and tackle this issue, which really does matter to everyone as it will impact on all of our lives in the future.

Celia Carter, Terriers Evening WI, Buckinghamshire Federation