A radio journalist investigates procedures when birching is re-introduced into prisons.
By Fenton Creek
Sally Horton (presenter): Punishment using the birch was, until this week, only ever used on the Isle Of Man until 1976 and in prisons until 1962. In both cases, only male offenders were punished in this way.
Sally: With several recent changes to legislation, the birch has actually made a come-back. I am here at EastwoodPark women’s prison in Gloucestershire and with me is Governor Clare Andrews.
Sally: Clare, this is a new development, how has it affected you here?
Clare: Well Sally, staff are broadly in favour. The birching procedure is fairly straightforward and takes up far less time and paperwork than other sanctions. We do, still, of course use other punishments such as loss of privileges, but the birch is proving to be a useful tool.
Sally: And what do the prisoners themselves think about it?
Clare: A mixed reaction but some quite like the idea. This morning, for example, I had to discipline a prisoner for an offence and was able to offer her the birch as an alternative to losing remission. She was quite happy to take it.
Sally: How many strokes of the birch are normally given?
Clare: Usually between ten and twenty-five.
Sally: As many as that?
Clare: That may sound severe but we use quite a light birch. The individual strokes don’t hurt that much, but they do add up to a painful experience.
Sally: And how is it applied? Seat of the trousers or across the knickers?
Clare: Actually on the bare bottom. It’s not effective over clothing and it also means we are alerted in the rare case of bruising or skin damage.
Sally: This is the birch here?
Clare: Yes, it’s about 20 inches long with up to a dozen strands of rattan secured with a leather handle.
Clare: Native to Asia, it’s actually from a palm tree. You might have heard of the Rotan used for punishment in Singapore – this is the same material.
Sally: But not as severe I trust.
Clare: No, the twigs are much thinner and having a dozen moderates the stroke.
Sally: Today, for the benefit of listeners, I’m going to find out what that feels like. Not a whole 25 strokes though!
Clare: We’ll take you through the whole procedure with just, say, 3 strokes to give you a feel.
Sally: That sounds plenty enough for me. So what happens now?
Clare: To start with, we’ll put you in one of the actual cells, then come and fetch you and take you along for your punishment.
* * *
Sally: I’m now in my cell which is, to be honest, rather basic but clean and comfortable. I do admit though, that I’m rather nervous. Ah, the door is being unlocked.
Female voice: Sally Horton, I’m PO Fiona Lambert. Time to go for your punishment.
Sally: We’ve left the main cell area, and are now being admitted to a small bare room containing nothing in the room but a small table with three plastic boxes on it. Another female guard follows us in.
Fiona: If you could just please take your clothes off and put them in the left hand box, the empty one. Keep your shoes and socks on.
Fiona: Yes please.
Sally: I’d been expecting to take my pants down when the time came but not strip completely. I’m now getting undressed in front of two women whom I’ve never met before. I can’t say that it’s a comfortable sensation.
Sally: My clothes are now in the box and I’m wearing nothing but the radio mike. The middle box, I note, already contains a set of clothes.
Fiona: Right, we’ll take you down to the Punishment Room, PO Benson (indicating the other officer) will lead the way.
Sally: We’re stepping out into the corridor – and remember I’m now completely naked – and turning back the way we came. Now we’ve stopped outside a door marked ‘Punishment Room – please ring for admittance’. Fiona presses a button by the side of the door. Nothing happens.
Sally: Er, may I ask what’s happening now?
Fiona: There’s another prisoner being punished, we’ll have to wait until she’s finished. Ah, here we are.
Sally: The door is opening and, oh, a naked woman is coming out, presumably having just been punished. PO Benson takes her by the arm and leads her back up the corridor. I note that her bottom is rather red.
Fiona: In you go please.
Sally: I’m now in the punishment room. There’s another officer whom I’ve not met and also Governor Clare Andrews who is holding the birch which she showed me earlier.
Sally: In the middle of the room is a sort of a bench like an upside down V with a padded top. A dark blue towel is draped over the top.
Fiona: Prisoner Horton, Ma’am. (She consults her clipboard). 3 strokes.
Clare: Prisoner Horton, you are to receive 3 strokes of the birch which I will administer. The officers will prepare and position you.
Sally: I’m being led across to the bench.
Fiona:Bend right over the bench, there’s a rail you can hold if it makes things easier.
Sally: I’m now bent right over the bench, my bare bottom in the air.
Clare: Let’s start.
(sound of a light slap)
Sally: Aah – owww!
Fiona: You can stand up now.
Clare: Punishment is discharged. Take her back.
Sally: I’m escorted out of the door and back into the passageway. On the way back we pass another naked prisoner being escorted to the punishment room.
* * *
Sally: I suspect it’s not usual practice to drink tea with Governor after a birching, but that’s what I’m doing.
Clare: How did you find it?
Sally: First shock was having to strip completely naked. I thought I’d just have to take my knickers down. Why is that?
Clare: It keeps thing simple, and also when you’re being escorted naked down the corridor there’s no doubt who’s in charge.
Sally: That’s certainly true. I saw the looks on the faces of the other two women and I knew just how they felt.
Clare: Also, if a prisoner is being troublesome we can put them into a strip cell – a little bare dark room – for a few minutes until they settle down.
Sally: The next uncomfortable bit was the bench. I felt very exposed bent over that with all my intimate parts on view.
Clare: The stripping, the walk through the corridor and bending over the bench are all part of the punishment. Some prisoners find it worse than the birch itself. How was that by the way?
Sally: It stung but I didn’t get any lasting pain and my bottom is a bit red. A different story if I’d had the whole 25 strokes though! Clare, thank you very much for you time.
Clare: You’re welcome.
Sally: Well listeners, the birch is back in prisons, and in women’s prisons for the first time.
Sally: The same legislation which re-introduced the birch here has also put the cane back into the Head teacher’s study. That’s something we’ll look at in a future programme. Meanwhile, back to the studio.
© Fenton Creek 2014