Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

SOFIA BUNCY (HMP & YOI New Hall)

SOFIA BUNCY (HMP & YOI New Hall)

AWARD WINNER 2016-17: Sofia, from Muslim Hands UK, is granted an Award for pioneering ‘Muslim Women in Prison’, a ground-breaking initiative researching, and providing personalised responses to, the needs and challenges facing Muslim women in custody and after release. The project started at HMP/YOI New Hall and has now spread to other prisons across the country. [This Award is supported by Sodexo Justice Services.]

Sofia Buncy’s Award is for her ground-breaking work – the first in the country – researching and helping develop responses to the needs and challenges facing Muslim women in custody and post release. The major report she co-authored, Muslim Women in Prison: Second Chance | Fresh Horizons, explored the experiences of Muslim women in HMP & YOI New Hall and HMP Askham Grange, and is already having a significant impact.

Co-author and nominator, Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Projects Support Officer for Khidmat Centres, describes the 15-month research leading to key support services which are presently being cascaded through four prisons. National, local, and community (pp13) media coverage has helped raise the profile of this important coverage. (Indeed, our Trustee Zoe Williams’ report in The Guardian on New Hall also included previous Butler Trust Winner, Joanna Smith).

The work, says Ishtiaq, “had many inherent challenges that required sensitive handling. Prisons had to approach the idea with a natural caution and had to be convinced of the viability and benefits of the outcomes. The community opinions were very much divided on the need for such a project, partly because they could not see its relevance and partly due to the embarrassment that it may unearth for the image of the community.”

Nevertheless, he goes on, “Sofia successfully managed to get the Prison Governor (Diane Pellow) and reducing Re-offending manager (Susan Field) on board with the project and worked very closely with the Equality Officer (Jen Gagg) to reach out to women in these establishments and to build trust, rapport and respect with them so they would share their stories. Her enthusiasm and warm personality very quickly won over the prison staff and the Muslim women inmates.”

Although there are relatively few Muslim women in prison compared to their male counterparts, Ishtiaq explains, “the bigger issue overshadowing this subject is the strong stigma and taboo which being a female offender brings in dishonoring the ‘family and community name.’”

Sofia quickly identified Muslim women prisoners had other critical needs, he goes on, including “family mediation, deportation issues, legal and sharia advice and resettlement.” Another aspect of her work, he adds, “involved raising awareness of particular cultural issues such as the ‘birth of Muslim babies in prison.’”

As the project expanded, other possibilities, including new services, emerged, including an ‘Inspiration Muslim Women’s Speakers scheme’ at HMP Peterborough with high profile women coming to speak to those in custody.

The users’ words are extremely powerful testimony to the impact of the project. “Sofia has provided me with a new lease of life and something to look forward to,” said one, “It is possible to start again”.

One participant described how “There’s stigma and discrimination and gossip on the outside and that’s going to have a massive effect on my child and me. If you’re not from this culture you’re not going to get it at all… They don’t get that when I’m released their duty stops at the gate but I get another sentence from the community and that lasts forever!” Another said, “Since the Muslim Women in Prison project has started working with me I feel like you have raised my voice and now I’m heard.”

The issues were described in other remarks. “You give us encouragement, tell us its okay and that we will have a second chance and not to listen to what the Asian men in the community have to say. You bring out issues that we know other people won’t understand like domestic violence, past relationships, drugs, grooming, all that stuff none of our Asian lot want to talk about… You really try for us. You care. That’s why my family trust you to do the right thing for me”.

Butler Trust Local Champion Ailsa Stott, People Hub Manager at HMP & YOI New Hall, says “The Muslim women gained self confidence and were able to express more of their sensitive issues through the one to one meetings. These included community backlash, isolation from families, domestic abuse and grooming… We have already linked to other female prisons about this project and they are currently making arrangements to engage with Sofia.”

New Hall’s Governor, Susan Howard, explains that, before, “We found that our Muslim women accessed few services or support in the prison, but we knew there were needs.” Since then, says Susan, “The service developed has surpassed our expectations supporting both individual women and informing local and national policy.” Sofia, she says, “has led the project from the start and has been absolutely inspirational in her work and achievements.”

Sofia herself notes, “Being a taboo and ‘shut’ area of need, it had many inherent challenges. Foremost, Muslim women prisoners are not on the community’s radar. In fact, the community refuses to acknowledge that Muslim women could be capable of criminality in any shape or form whatsoever. Added to this, there is a strong sense of shame and dishonour which at best means women can be marginalised by their families and community and at worst can result in severe consequences.”

“The success of the project has led to it being rolled out to a further two female estates – HMP Peterborough and HMP Holloway – and we are now moving on to HMP Bronzefield since Holloway’s closure,” says Sofia; “furthermore, I am now in discussion with HMP Leeds men’s prison, who feel that the template developed will equally benefit Muslim men serving and due for release back to the community.”

Sofia says “The project has raised the profile of Muslim women in prison and paved a way for an open and a wider debate within the community” and “It has helped to reduce the reluctance of Muslim leadership to treat this as a taboo subject.”

As a result of her success, she adds, “I find myself being drawn into the unconventional position of tailoring community rehabilitation models for Muslim male prisoners – a challenge that I cherish! Also, I find myself providing encouragement to other UK based Muslim charities and community organisations to focus on Muslims in and post prison life.”

The simple but telling words of another Muslim woman in prison gives a sense of what a lifeline a project like this can be: “You are my breath.”

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