Alternative Law Journal
by Helen Barnacle; Bantam Books, 2000; 368 pp; $27.40, soft cover.
This autobiographical book on one woman's descent into drug addiction, imprisonment, parenting and recovery is important reading for everyone involved in the criminal justice system. Feminist criminologists tell us that the specific needs of women as a minority population in the prison system are routinely neglected. Helen Barnacle's story introduces the reader to the human stories behind the grim statistics about high rates of drug dependence, abuse issues and high post-release mortality rates of women in prison. It is also a story of hope with much relevance for criminal justice policy and practice.
In 1979 Helen Barnacle was arrested for drug-related charges. In 1980, she received a 15-year prison sentence; the longest drug-related sentence ever handed down to a woman in Victoria. The first third of the book charts Helen's journey from a bright child who was dux of her primary school to a troubled teenager dabbling in alcohol and drugs and, eventually, as a young adult heavily addicted to heroin. Helen's descent is slow and throughout the first part of her story there is a sense that if only there had been a pathway out she could have taken it. Her family background while modest and difficult, was not the story of extreme deprivation and abuse that characterises the lives of so many in the prison system. Perhaps, this difference provides one clue as to why, unlike many of her fellow inmates, she was able eventually to find the resources to embark on a different life course.
By the time Helen has her first hit of heroin, her path is set, as she writes: 'From the moment the drug entered my bloodstream I loved it. It was different to LSD, alcohol, marijuana, hash or speed. It was like the best feeling I'd ever experienced ...' (p.40). Helen vividly describes her alienation from the 'straight' world and her entrapment in an abusive relationship with a drug dealer. This makes compelling reading. No doubt Helen was involved in illegal activity, including drug importation. Ironically, it seems she was innocent of the drug possession charges for which she was imprisoned.
Helen discovers her pregnancy while in prison on remand. From the birth of her child her life begins to take a different course. With the support of high profile advocates she is successful in lobbying for her infant daughter to stay with her in prison. Her recollection of the moment three years later when her daughter leaves the prison is pro found: 'Don't cry, I kept repeating to myself. Don't let her see you cry. Don't upset her. I can't let her see me cry, I implored myself over and over, like a mantra to the gate. These useless words pounded round and round in my head as I tried to act like nothing unusual was going on' (p.236). Her journey through prison and to a life without drugs is not smooth. The barriers she faced included the rigidities of the prison sys tem, a particularly cruel prison administrator and her relapse into heroin use. Yet, in the course of her imprisonment she also is able to form a network of support and with the help of remarkable instructors she returns to education. After leaving prison, Helen becomes a registered psychologist and drug counsellor. Helen was also successful in achieving a writer's fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts that enabled her to undertake the autobiography.
The book is well written and moving. It contains many stories of courage and bravery, from the everyday struggles of women inmates through to a small band of dedicated individuals in Helen's family, kin networks and the prison system whose support enabled her to chart a new life course. Of particular importance were her brother, teachers, and of course her daughter. The support available to Helen, stands in stark contrast to her fellow inmates whose lives end tragically from suicide, murder or drug overdoses. A number of these deaths occurred in the immediate post-release period reflecting the high rates of death amongst recently released women. Indeed, these women die at three times the rate of their male counterparts.
This book is timely. It provides a human face to the imprisonment rates that continue to soar throughout the western world. For example, the most recent prison census indicates that the Australian prisoner population increased by 75% between 1988 and 1999. Helen's focus on her relationship with her child also brings to the forefront the neglect of parents in prison and their families. International evidence shows that the majority of prisoners are parents. Indeed, research con ducted in Queensland indicated that approximately 85% of female inmates are parents of dependent children. The continued neglect of the support needs of prisoners as parents is deleterious for children and for inmates. Additionally the loss of family ties is associated with increased risk of recidivism.
The book is not an academic work or a policy paper. Instead, it gives unique insights into one woman's experience of crime and punishment. The importance of this book as a document in understanding the human side of the prison system cannot be overstated. It brings to life the trends and issues at which the criminological research literature can only hint. We can be grateful that Helen Barnacle has lived to tell the tale and that she tells it so well. The core message about the importance of connection urges new ways of approaching criminal justice to promote the social reintegration of people affected by imprisonment, for their own sake and for that of the next generation as well.
Karen Healy teaches in the Department of Social Work, Social Policy and Sociology, University of Sydney. firstname.lastname@example.org