The Amazing Woman Airbrushed From Prison Inspectorate History

In the week when there were once again combined calls for a reduction in the prison population, calls that were ignored and overtaken by the announcement from the Ministry of Justice that they were to build a further 500 cells for women prisoners, it is apposite to remember just how marginalised women still are in our prison system today – whatever side of the cell door they stand on.

Take, as just one example, the qualified medical practitioner Dr Mary Louisa Gordon; for those of you who know a thing or two about prisons, go on, tell me: what do you know about this amazing woman?

She died aged 79 exactly 100 years ago this year but, disgracefully, you won’t find a single mention of her on the Prisons Inspectorate website – despite the fact that in 1908 she was appointed the first ever female Prisons Inspector; a post she held onto for 13 years.

Her attitude towards and treatment of women prisoners, as explained in her 1922 book Penal Discipline, stands in sharp contrast to that of her male contemporaries, and the sneeringly demeaning categorisation of her approach as ‘feminist’ (reinforced by her well-documented connections with the suffragette movement) resulted in the marginalisation and complete dismissal of her work – so much so that Dr Mary Gordon and ‘Penal Discipline’ are virtually unknown today – lost in the history of time and an age when women were seen as second class chattels at best.

Nevertheless, her insights into the position and needs of women prisoners still retains a striking contemporary relevance that cannot be allowed to pass into history without mention.

Along with many other vintage and valuable prison publications, her book is available free here (https://prisons.org.uk/publications/vintage-publications/) to Enhanced members of #ThePrisonOracle where site-wide access to the definitive prisons website costs less than a cup of coffee a week, and which can be cancelled at any time.

The incredible work of people like Dr Mary Louisa Gordon must not be allowed to descend unnoticed into his history – and the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, should ensure her name, her courage, and her appointment as the very first female Prison Inspector are no longer forgotten.

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