Women prisoners – 12 October 2020

Here women are in a prison cell together, supporting each other in their distress. They are of different ages, from elderly women to a woman who has a child. The structure of the picture, with a dead or dying woman lying in the arms of another, as others gathered around, echoes images the dead Christ in the arms of Mary in a pieta. On the window sill is a plant growing in a tin with the word ‘vita’ (life) written on it. Both inside the room and beyond the bars lies the possibility of new life for these imprisoned and abused women.

The picture is one of a series called Prison Paintings (1972-1978) by the Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa. In the series the harsh conditions of life in prison are presented as an immediate, everyday reality for the women, but they are also depicted through idealised portraits which underscore a strong commitment to existing with dignity in the face of oppression. Karamustafa shows the inmates negotiating the different aspects of their identity as prisoners, mothers, wives and friends. Karamustafa painted from memory of her own experiences in prison, deliberately choosing a naive style.

12 October is the day that Elizabeth Fry, Quaker and prison reformer, is commemorated. She was a strong advocate for the rights of imprisoned women, concerned that conditions were improved so that for the women and their children there was the possibility of safe living and the hope of a better future. She was the first woman to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, relating in that setting the appalling conditions for women in Newgate Prison.


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Luke 4:18-19

Gracious and loving God,
you bring good tidings to the afflicted,
bind up the broken-hearted,
and proclaim liberty to the captives;
we thank you for sending Elizabeth Fry
into the prisons with words of comfort and deeds of care:
grant that all who minister to those in prison
may be filled with your compassion
and be bearers of your hope;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Collect of Elizabeth Fry