Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Behind bars

July 01 2020

22 years ago Ruth Wyner, director of a Cambridge homelessness charity, was imprisoned for letting heroin be dealt by serviceusers on site. Here she discusses politics and prison with Matthew Hobbs

“I used to get people knocking on the door of the night shelter saying that the Cambridgeshire police had taken them off the street and just driven them 10 miles out of Cambridge to drop them in a field in the middle of nowhere. There was a really harsh climate in Cambridge,” says Ruth Wyner, then Director of Cambridge homelessness charity Wintercomfort. She experienced this “harsh climate” first-hand in May 1998 when she and her colleague John Brock were arrested under Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act for, “knowingly allowing class A drugs to be traded on a centre that I was managing.”

Despite her admirable work in journalism, the homelessness sector and more recently psychotherapy, this is how I first heard of Ruth, a charity worker imprisoned while doing her job.

A born “people watcher” Ruth trained in journalism before experimenting with different styles of living including squatting a bungalow in Norfolk. It was here she heard that they were looking for someone to become Deputy to the Director of the Norwich night shelter. Here Ruth’s flare for innovation within community-led projects secured a reputation for developing and managing homeless services. By 1995 she was recruited as Director of Wintercomfort in Cambridge.

“It was run from an old bus in a car park where most of the local street homeless hung out.

"But then we got some funding to buy premises beside one of the college boathouses. I ended up running five projects from there: the day centre, the move-on projects, a rent deposit scheme, an outreach team and the winter shelter which became Jimmy's,” says Ruth.

She also secured planning permission and raised a million pounds for a hostel project. But with the landscape of homelessness in Cambridge changing, the police launched their campaign against Ruth. “They sent in two policemen undercover. They infiltrated the day centre 12 times and on nine occasions they were able to buy a £10 bag of heroin. On that basis they arrested me. That law was really set up for people who run crack houses, it wasn't set up for people trying to provide services.”

Despite regular liaison with the police over Wintercomfort’s activities, Ruth was seen as a threat, but why she became the target of the sting that shook the homelessness sector remains unclear. For some it’s simply because the police could, but for Ruth it’s because she became “too powerful”; a woman with strong ethical beliefs and the resources to challenge the status quo.

“It's quite Far Right really. I do know that 18 months after my arrest there was a clean-up at the Cambridgeshire Police by the Home Office. They realised there was a rather nasty presence and they had made me a target.”

Ruth was sentenced to five years in prison, but the fight was not yet over.

Fortunately, she had friends, who prior to sentencing assisted her in navigating the draconian bail restrictions drawn up to prevent her having direct contact with Wintercomfort. Alexander Masters, of book and film Stuart: A Life Backwards fame, became the gobetween, running between Ruth’s university office and Wintercomfort, carrying all the messages and resources they needed to keep the organisation going.

“When Alexander Masters phoned up and wanted a job I thought, 'Well he won't do very well on the day centre because it's quite rough and ready, but he wrote well',” says Ruth. But it was Alexander and service-user Stuart Shorter who organised the Cambridge Two campaign to support Ruth and John Brock’s release from prison with marches in Cambridge and London, “contacts with other agencies, a sleep-in outside the Home Office, a debate set up in Parliament by my local MP and articles in the press, TV & radio. I owe them everything.”

Ruth also credits her psychotherapy training as key to surviving in prison. “I sent myself on the Group Analysis course and then I went to prison. They wrote to me in prison saying, ‘We’ll hold your place’, and that was a lifeline; it made me realise that having hope for the future, having something meaningful is absolutely crucial to staying alive when you’re in prison.”

In prison Ruth soon met the very same people she was once trying to support. “I was amazed at how quickly I became a standard prisoner, it is brutalizing. Right from the start there's an awful trauma. I had an overnight in the cop-shop, then was put in the sweat-box and travelled down to London – it's really uncomfortable, a tiny cubicle, no seat-belts, you're thrown around all over the place, it's extremely hot and you're just like a piece of meat, That's how it feels – you become nothing. You lose yourself.

Home comfort: Ruth Wyner, one half of the Cambridge Two, spent time in prison as a result of doing her job running a homelessness charity. She says: “Help people to develop as human beings to deal with some of the impact of the traumas that they’ve been through.” © Matthew Hobbs

“The vast majority of the people that I met in prison had been abused; if you've been abused as a child, you're vulnerable as an adult. I don't think I ever met anybody who was down and out nasty because they wanted to be nasty. I knew that homeless people didn't choose to be homeless and I would say the same about prisoners. The prison environment is abusive and therefore abused people are being further abused. In my view locking up a human being is the worst thing you can do to them. The stress of being locked up is massive and it affects you viscerally as well as psychologically. I grew a cancerous tumour when I was in prison, I checked with the consultant and he told me that's when it started. That's just one example.”

With the campaign’s support on the outside Ruth was granted a second appeal after the first was denied; this time she won. The sentence was quashed although not the conviction. After seven months in prison for a crime they never committed Ruth Wyner and John Brock were free.

“So, when I came out it was only a couple of months later that I went up to be interviewed for the Qualifying Course in Group Analysis and they offered me a place straight away. It was held at Turvey Abbey in Bedfordshire, which is a very beautiful place and I was given a really nice room with a door into the gardens. At night I used to open that door and go out, just because I could. I think it was quite healing for me; it really helped put me back together.”

Following her release Ruth gave talks for those working within the Criminal Justice System, set up the Dialogue Trust and facilitated therapeutic discussion groups with prisoners. Today she is a board member for the Institute of Group Analysis and runs a low-cost private practice in Cambridge. She is a parent, grandparent and a keen lover of music, meditation and walking the family dog.

Despite her experiences, Ruth’s kindness, penchant for creative solutions and wry wit remain intact. “In prison, people have no control over what happens to them, they’ve lost everything, they’re destitute, many of them have families that they can’t get help from, they’re kind of caught up in a maelstrom of our society without any solid boundaries or anything to hold on to. That’s why it feels like spinning to me. If you can get people into a safe, humane, supported environment and help them to develop aspects of themselves then they have something to hold on to and a hope for the future,” says Ruth.

“I think groups are good at helping people to relate to others and to find themselves and to help each other; helping others is very healing. The kindness of some of the women in prison helped me. Oh, and I used to try to get around the system quite a lot, everybody does that, if you get one over the screws it’s a great pleasure.”