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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The power of soaps (for women everywhere not just Archer fans)

Have we really got to the stage when the best way to achieve social reform is to get a story line on a soap opera?

Those people who are a bit younger than me may not remember the saga of The Weatherfield One, a major miscarriage of justice in which Deirdre Rachid was wrongly jailed for mortgage and credit card fraud while her conman lover Jon Lindsay walked free. Of course age may not have anything to do with it if you were not an avid watcher of Coronation Street at the time, though the national press was full of it.

As the BBC reported at the time, the case achieved the status of a cause célèbre when Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to intervene in response to newspapers campaigns and thousands of ordinary outraged people, even asking the then Home Secretary Jack Straw to look into the case.

Now, a similar ministerial intervention is on the cards, though this one is not so high profile, largely because it relates to The Archers, which has a smaller, possibly more select, audience. That audience though will certainly include Ministers of the Crown, as well as large numbers of Tory voting constituents in the shires of England.

The Guardian reports that the soap's story of Helen Titchener’s treatment in The Archers has led the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to push for greater prison reform. In recent episodes, the pregnant Helen has been refused bail for stabbing her abusive husband and agrees to move to a dedicated mother and baby unit in a prison miles away from her home and young child:

Gove told the Radio Times that the Radio 4 show and its “gripping” storyline was “required listening in our house”.

“As well as being superb drama, it has exemplified one of the virtues of public service broadcasting,” he said. “Helen’s story has brought welcome attention to the real problems many women face from coercive and controlling men. Now Helen’s plight has shone a light on the position of women in our prisons and reinforces the case for reform.”

In February, the prime minister, David Cameron, called for a rethink of the way the prison system treats pregnant women and mothers with babies. Ministry of Justice figures suggest 100 babies spent time living with their mothers in prisons in 2015.

The Archers’ storyline, which first introduced Helen’s partner Rob as a charming man two years ago before slowly revealing his violent and coercive nature, has already led to a campaign to support “real-life Helens” raising more than £130,000.

Following the controversial episode in which Helen was provoked into stabbing Rob, listeners have learned that she faces either six years for wounding with intent or 12 for attempted murder, as well as the certainty of giving birth while in custody.

Gove is of course absolutely right that we need radically to reform how we treat women offenders. There are too many women are in jail. As the Guardian says, a prison sentence not only punishes them, but also makes life much tougher for their children.”

The paper reports that there are only 64 MBU places in England and Wales and fewer prisons for women than men. In fact I suspect that all of those places are in England as there are no women prisons in Wales at all. Thus, when they say that women are often held further from their homes than men, even though they tend to serve shorter sentences on average, that problems is exacerbated this side of Offa's Dyke.

Nor is this a new phenomena, it is just a shame that it has taken a storyline in a soap to bring it to national prominence.
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