One summer’s evening in 1984 seven women met in Central London in response to a proposal by Chris Tchaikovsky, Founder of Women in Prison (WIP), that we form a group to campaign against women’s imprisonment. All except me, and the partner of one of the other women, had been in prison. I was there at the invitation of Chris who, having read my recently published book Women’s Imprisonment, thought that I might be useful to the group, though it was decided that only ex-prisoners were eligible for full membership. So, the campaigning group WIP was born, and several more foundational meetings followed. And it was at one of those very early 1984 meetings that we decided to write a book to publicise both the harms of women’s imprisonment and the real-life stories of women sent to prison and thereafter too frequently stereotyped as ‘other’ – other than real women, other than real mothers and other than real criminals; as women, in short, whom prisons must feminise, domesticise and medicalise.

Four women volunteered to tell their stories, though each wanted to work in a different way. It was agreed that I would be overall editor and second-named co-author for three of the chapters, and that royalties would be shared between the four main authors. Only Chris chose to write her story by herself, and this she did, though we had several shouty arguments at the editorial stage. Jenny Hicks, a founding member of the Clean Break Theatre Company, also elected to write her own story and did so until she felt bogged down by detail in the last third, after which she typed the remainder before we edited together and highlighted some of the recurring themes. Diana Christina decided to tape and re-tape her story with me – alternately inserting commentary she approved of and then deleting it as she later changed her mind. This took hours, then weeks and then months – as several major theoretical arguments erupted and editor and author standoffs occurred along the way; and during which time the whole project was abandoned by all of us more than once. Josie O’Dwyer and I, however, still did days and days of companionable interview sessions, both of us checking and changing what was written as we went along. I don’t think any one of the women was ever completely satisfied with her final story, and it was certainly the most difficult book I have been involved with. But at last it was agreed that each chapter was ‘good enough’ to send to the publisher and Criminal Women was published in 1985 by Polity Press. Five reprints, a Dutch translation and publication in the Netherlands followed.

Now, 36 years later, The Criminal Women Voice, Justice and Recognition Network (CWVJR) has produced a varied, informative and stirring collection of narratives from women who have similarly suffered a range of injustices in today’s social, criminal justice and penal systems. I would have been very happy if there had been no call for such a book. Unfortunately, the stories here – of Vicky, Ruby, Betsy, Mary and all the others – indicate that the need for governments to rethink social and criminal justice for women in the UK is at least as great in the first quarter of the twenty-first century as it was in the last quarter of the twentieth. What is urgently required is a change in focus from the crimes of the powerless to the crimes of the powerful. Such radical change might result in women’s relatively minor crimes and disproportionate punishments at last being seen primarily through the lens of class, racism and gender oppressions, rather than being weighed formally on the scales of a crudely punitive criminal justice. Until, and beyond, that time, autobiographical accounts of women’s experiences of the judicial and penal systems will be essential for the ongoing development of a gendered and democratic justice for women.

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