Chris Tchaikovsky

When she died at the age of 57, Chris Tchaikovsky was “one of the country’s most effective and influential campaigners for penal reform for women.” (Roberts Y : Guardian 24/05/2022). Maybe this was her destiny and a testament to how she turned her life around and the lives of many women after running The Happy Firm, a criminal enterprise that led to a term in HMP Holloway in the 70s. It was here that she witnessed the specifically damaging effects of prison for women, sparking new political and social discussions which led to what would be her life’s work.     

Back in the 80s, a young and naive me, loved the women’s disco at the Bell in London’s Kings Cross, where the leather jacketed Sleeze Sisters, Pom and Trill, deejayed a mixed bag. Chris was always there, she ran the night. I can’t remember who told me to be careful when going to the Bell, or even why but let’s fast forward to January 2024. Travelling home from Manchester I sat chatting with the man next to me on the packed train. We talked about parenting teenagers and then got talking about our own youth and music. He was a hip hop kid and I was more punk and disco but somehow got onto talking about the Bell. He mentioned Chris Tchaikovsky’s name, which prompted me to say, “she was a bit controversial wasn’t she?” I was thinking of the leather jacket and the fights that used to break out. The answer that came back stopped me in my tracks. “She was my mum, she did a lot of good!” I couldn’t have got it more wrong.  

The instant I got home, I opened my laptop and discovered that in 1983 she co-founded Women in Prison, helped set up the Education Trust, contributed to the 1985 publication Criminal Women, numerous academic papers and conferences. Chris improved conditions for mothers with babies in prison, tackled the neglect of the mentally ill, challenged the causes of prison deaths and improved resettlement and employment opportunities for women on their release. Chris Tchaikovsky went on to empower many women before moving into writing plays for the Clean Break Theatre Company and the script for Bad Girls, the popular prison drama.  

I could see emotion come over her son’s eyes as we sat on the train. I wonder what else she might have gone on to do.

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