Addiction, Pain, Mothers and Shame

“Flicking through FB and it disgusts me how many put on their profile work as ‘proud mummy’ yes that’s right for most of us but the few that put it on there don’t even deserve to have pets to look after, it gets right up my nose that they had children removed just like the so called daughter of mine that has had nearly 5 years to change for her boys goes on to have another baby, to again do the same thing with the same scum, well I’ve had enough here’s the PROUD MUMMY’S that had their children removed because they chose DRUGS or MEN over their beautiful children and they are all oblivious that they have done wrong, feel free to share my post”

This post then included 6 young women’s photos, looking vulnerable, one only in her underwear and most, under the influence of drugs. Only one of the girls in the photos published was the author of the above quotes daughter.

Now, I cannot judge anyone and I won’t. But as I think about this statement and the fact that it was published on social media literally ‘naming and shaming’ the most vulnerable women, who are in need of care. I feel I should offer my perspective, as the child of addicts and the woman who has witnessed recovery.

I’m not going to go in to detail because I simply do not have the energy, but just want to share a few important points, addiction is not a choice and women who are addicted to drugs rarely make any “choice”…. Addiction does not allow for any kind of rational choice!

The pain a mother feels when she has children and is suffering from addiction is like no other pain! I have seen that pain, and felt that pain. That pain is real and I am sure, dealing with that pain was too much in my own life experience which led to years and years more drug use! I have also experienced a drug addicted mother, close to my family, suicide because of her guilt of addiction and being a mother. I am almost certain that shame, stigma and societies responses to her also played a part in her ending her life, shortly after she was released from prison. I was about 10 years old and she left behind two daughters.

As a child of addicts, shame, embarrassment and victimisation were daily occurrences. I feel that the above quote which is very inappropriate has been written to highlight the fact that there are children who have ‘lost’ their mothers and that the children suffer. Let me tell you, posting images of women on facebook and calling them scum, druggies and a waste of space, is putting their children at even more risk of harm, victimisation and discrimination! Is really is not hard to realise that, is it? I know, I was one of them kids!

My sister contacted the mother of one of the girls whose image was posted on FB and shared our dad’s story of recovery with her. Hope, belief and support are key to change! Shaming those poor women’s photos on Facebook will do absolutely nothing to help them, nothing at all! Following the conversation I managed to speak to L who is homeless/sofa surfing and a mother suffering from addiction (I asked her if this was ok to share, and she gave me her consent). She is in her mid 20s with a whole life ahead of her, unsafe on the streets or being abused by an older man where she sometimes has to stay to get off the streets.

I met with her and have spoken to her daily over the past few days, and her mum and nan! She has called me twice just for a ‘chat’!

I simply cannot imagine how anyone thinks that shaming these young women is ok!

L is beautiful, hurt, sad, angry, vulnerable but young and able to recover. Recover with support, kindness and compassion.

I have created a just giving page to raise £500 to provide L with immediate support such as winter clothes, boots, a coat, sleeping bag, blankets, tent, toiletries and food supplies. I will personally buy the items and I know L needs them and will be delighted to see that not everybody thinks that she is ‘scum’ ‘a waste of space’ and should be ‘sterilised’

If you can, please consider using the link below to Support me in Supporting L over the winter

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/michaela-booth-1

They never even bloody asked for sympathy!

The funniest thing happened today. My dad collected me at 11.30 to go and visit the new addition to the family, who is currently in neonatal intensive care. On the way home we had a good chat about uni, work and my blog. Dad asked if I had written anything recently and I said no. He then said I should keep writing and I told him it’s not as easy as that. Something needs to happen to me. I didn’t think I would be writing today, tomorrow or even this month.

Here I am, a few hours later. Frantically arranging my thoughts and words to deliver a story that is only possible because of my dad. Infact, he is still at my home as I type and has no idea that I am feeling so fortunate to have him and his experience as a part of my life.

Let’s begin. I will put this blog into context hopefully in a few short sentences. We got home from the hospital and I had a quick browse on twitter, I came across a tweet that indicated addiction is a choice and not deserving of sympathy. That is ok. I know, there is so much wrong with so much of the world, and to be consumed by all of this, is impossible. We only have so many fucks to give about what we chose (I swore, forgive me J). As a child of addicts, a 17year period of living day in, day out with heroin users and 11years of being a close part of recovery…. I feel I am experienced in understanding addiction, being a part of addiction and overcoming addiction. This is not a blog to say that a person, who believes that a person who has lost their life to an overdose does not deserve sympathy, is wrong. This is to consider where I sit on the sympathy scale and to discuss my experiences and reasons that sit behind this.

Firstly, I have an issue with anybody who throws around “no sympathy” for people/addicts/prisoners etc when the people in question have never asked for sympathy. Everybody has sympathy for some kind of cause, one that is personal to you or I. That is fine. I have sympathy for some people/situations and other things, I don’t. I certainly wouldn’t be using a death of any kind to be saying “no sympathy for that” simply because it’s not a cause that I support. Also, the person who lost their life never even bloody asked for sympathy anyway.

So, I then considered this word “sympathy” and even though I can sympathise and empathise greatly due to my own life history, I know that I have never encountered a person addicted to drugs, who wants, likes or asks for sympathy. I’ve met many addicts throughout my life and I still know people, talk to people and engage with people often, who are addicted to drugs. The sympathy I have for people comes from personal experience and my interactions with people is not sympathetic, “I feel so sorry for you” but it is compassionate. You don’t have to sympathise, that is rightly so, your call however compassion should be used in every interaction, every conversation and every internal thought process. My own hope for this writing is that its read, absorbed and the word ‘sympathy’ and even the act or process of sympathising or not, is replaced with some compassionate thinking, talking and acting. I completely understand that for many, sympathising with a person who is a drug addict may be difficult or unachievable. Feeling sorry for a person who lost their life due to a drug over dose, also, for many people might be hard to do however if said person who sadly lost their life has never asked you to sympathise, you don’t bloody have too!!!!!!!!!

In my teenage years I was embarrassed of my parents. My life was horrendous. As a child I was living with family during rehab stays, separated from my sisters. Rehab was over and we were all back sofa surfing a living with other drug addicted families. Life was bleak. I’ve been put in danger, witnessed drug use, taken drugs accidently as a child and almost witnessed my own mother die of an over dose. If you had asked me at 17 years old to be compassionate or sympathise with my addicted parents, I would have laughed in your face and told you they chose to do what they do.

Fast forward to today. I have a much more appropriate response. Of course I can sympathise with anybody addicted to drugs. Becoming an addict is not a choice. Addiction does not allow for any kind of rational choice, that a person who isn’t suffering from addiction is afforded to make. Suffering, being the key work here. People who are addicted to drugs are suffering. Does anybody wiling chose to suffer? No, they do not.

No one has used drugs for the first time with the intention of being sucked into addiction. Surely everybody knows that don’t they? Sure, you can say “well don’t even try it in the first place”, you can also stick by that statement if you want to ignore or overlook the complexities of life, mistakes and regrets. You may not have turned to drugs when your life had hit rock bottom, great. Maybe your rock bottom isn’t on par with someone else’s. Maybe you had a better coping mechanism, maybe you had more support, maybe drugs just weren’t available to you. Maybe you didn’t have someone promising that this substance would ease the pain temporarily and before you know it, you can’t stop something you didn’t even mean to start. Maybe you haven’t woken up feeling like an awful parent and living with the guilt of drug use and addiction is too much to cope with, so you contemplate suicide and the only thing that is going to ease your pain is more drugs.

Maybe you think that accessing support for addiction is easy, maybe you even think that recovery is easy if somebody wants to do it. From experience, I am here to tell you that neither is easy. Life as a child of addicts was not easy nor a choice. My addicted parents lives were not easy, nor a choice. Recovery was and is not easy, and it was a choice, but it had been a choice time and time again and was not successful.

A message from the child of addicts, my parents do not want sympathy for suffering from addiction.

A message from the child of addicts, please show my parents some compassion for suffering from addiction.

What you don’t see.

I wanted to use this blog platform to offer some reflection on my first year at university. Sharing not just my educational and personal growth but to share my struggle and sacrifice along the way. As many of you who follow my twitter and blog know, my time at university so far has been amazing. I love it. I have been dedicated, enthusiastic and really put in the effort to achieve all I have in the past year. People would be forgiven for thinking that I have eased through this journey and had a lot of support along the way. This of course, is true. However, as with every social media account, you only see what I want you to. This is an honest account of what you don’t see.

The only reason I have managed to get through this last year is because of my life experience. My experience of education prior to university was poor to say the least. I never had support through SATs in year 6, aged 11. I never had support during my GCSEs, aged 15. My behaviour at school lead to me being put in top sets with strict teachers not because of my ability but because it was the punitive way the education system dealt with teenagers experiencing trauma. I was suspended from school just prior to sitting my last exams in year 11 to stop me from going to the end of year ball. I didn’t care at all. Looking back now, I somewhat envy the people I went to school with who are now close friends, 10 years later. I don’t speak to anybody I went to school with. I can see now that everything the teachers at school did, was to further exclude me from anything that may have led to positive experiences at school. How sad is it that I can honestly say, after really racking my brains to think… that not one teacher put any effort at all into ensuring I had equality of opportunity to succeed at school. Well, the proof is in the pudding. After failing miserably, or, being failed miserably at school. I have just finished my first year at university with no lesse grade than a B- . This is due to people showing that they believe in me, that they want me to succeed and that my traumatic early life experiences does not diminish my abilities to achieve. School wrote me off, my ‘trouble’ was too much trouble to deal with. My ‘trouble’ was not my fault as a child. My life at home was troubled; my behaviour at the time was ‘trouble’. I was not less worthy of help, I was not less worthy of support, I was not less worthy of achieving. I was however, made to feel as though I would never be accepted in school. The only way I was ‘dealt with’ at school was by means of exclusion and detention. That happened for 5 years. Let us just think about that. I was about 11 years old when I started high school, about 15-16 when I left school. From 11 years old to 15 years old, a school detained me and excluded me from education because I was ‘naughty’. For five years, they ignored my ‘troubles’ and made me think I was the trouble. AND punished me for it. Imagine, at 11 years old I forgot my PE kit. Because I was probably cooking my own dinner the night before, I was probably awake all night and then walked miles to school. Suffered physical and emotional harm at home and went to school bruised. And then, I got detention for having no PE kit. This didn’t happen once. It happened over five years and the professionals continued with their punishments. I would like to say that they didn’t understand the life I was living. They didn’t. Nobody can understand that life unless they have lived it however, they knew what was happening at home and chose to ignore it. They chose to punish a child of addicts. They chose to detain me rather than support me. They chose to exclude me rather that help me. Those teachers should be utterly ashamed of their practice. I feel sick just reliving the experience as I type it. I was written off by an educational system at 11 years old.

Fast word to my 27 year old self, a far cry from that 11 year old girl sat in detention writing lines, a far cry from that 21 year old girl crying in a prison cell. From my first phone call to my course leaded a year ago, she supported my application, the admin process and has continuously nurtured my own ability and growth. After my last lecture, I emailed her in tears thanking her for the dedication she shows me to ensure I succeed. I remember a conversation with her when I was feeling excluded from my placement. I know from an outsider looking in at my life, everything is great! For a girl to navigate through such a traumatic childhood, to leave a prison and then access a degree in Criminology and a job in health in justice, I am obviously doing well. What I am managing to do with my life now does not eliminate the young girl who was attention starved, abused and punished for things that were out of her control. I am still that young girl, in a 27 year old body. That traumatised child inside of me doesn’t leave, because the experience is no longer here. My lecturer offered me a safe space to talk about my feelings with my placement mentor and both said that my ability to articulate my feelings is great. Giving me the opportunity to talk about how I feel, because of what I have been through is miles apart from getting a detention at school for something that wasn’t even my fault.

This first year has seen me sit in a room with a mother in recovery from drugs, talking about her children. I left the room in tears and was sick in the toilet. I wiped my eyes and went back to the room.

This first year has seen me battle with the child inside me that says I’ll never do this. I couldn’t even finish school.

This first year has seen me sit in lectures about child abuse, about safeguarding and child protection. As is sat there and listed professional after professional who had neglected their duty to keep me safe. I left that lecture and cried, I then wrote a blog about safeguarding and went back to uni the next day.

I have only got through this year because of my life experience, but my life experience is what makes this journey so much harder for me. I post my grades on twitter and express my happiness, what you don’t see is the tears that I cry when I write about child abuse, when I write about maternal imprisonment, when I write about privilege and power and struggle to hold onto my own power and establish my position as a worthwhile student and employee.

Sometimes I try and lose touch with my own life and focus on academic work. Sometimes I feel like I want to move away from how I got to university and complete assignments using the reading list sources. I was struggling with my sociology work so much, I was in tears. I lost sight of real life and aimed to produce an ‘academic assignment’ because I ‘thought’ that was what my lecturer wanted to see. I called a good friend in a state of stress and Lee told me that my lit review was shit. I can take that, it was. I had never done a lit review before. After a 20 minute conversation Lee reminded me about my own life and to move away from being so academic I lose sight of real life. My real life. In the conversation, all Lee did was talk to me about my own life. Things I know, things I still feel and still see. Following that conversation I deleted my assignment and started again, having faith in my own ability to produce academic work, on my life. By far, this was the hardest assignment that I have written to date, and I was over the moon last week when I received my A- grade. I text Lee straight away to thank him for reminding me that my ability to succeed is already a part of who I am, what I have been through and not to let go of that in the face of ‘reading list’ pressures.

I have too many people to thank here by name, but for all of you who read this, offer me support, give me opportunity to move on with my life and help me along the way. I honestly cant thank you all enough. I am full of motivation, passion and determination but the path I am now on wouldn’t be walked if you guys hadn’t of given me the opportunities that you have.

Here is to year two!

 

Ten

 

Crystal is ten. Today she went swimming with her dad then she came home to me. We made cakes while listening to the top 20 count down on the radio. At times we would break in to song, even stop to have a dance off in the kitchen. We laughed, we hugged and we made great brownies. After, we watched some TV, Crystal went to bed, I went to bed. Crystal then got up and got into my bed. She fell asleep with me stroking her little face and I couldn’t sleep. She is ten. She is happy, well behaved, clever, polite, helpful, thoughtful and my daughter. How is she my daughter? I was never taught to be a mum like this. Today felt like how a home should be, how a family should be.

 

Michaela was ten. By the time she reached ten she had got drunk, she had smoked, had a fight and been assaulted. She spent her Sundays out on her bike trying to sneak into the swimming pool or get in half price with her mum’s giro book. By the age of ten she had had sleepless nights in fear, accidentally taken drugs, learnt how to lie and steal. Hugs for Michaela came when guilt got the better of the person who beat her. Home for Michaela by the age of ten had been a two-bed council flat with a family of five, or a room in a b&b and even on sofas or top and tail with family associates.

 

I hope, today, by the age of ten, I can’t sleep because I realise I have broken the cycle of broken children.

 

Prison took me age 21. The system didn’t care about the 10 year old Michaela’s.

 

I was, the same old me

I’ve been sick today. Something I ate. I’ve been in pain, drowning myself in self-pity. I felt miserable. I tried to eat healthy, to drink water, even to get some fresh air. I finally got to the stage of not being sick but the miserable feeling didn’t go so fast. I was lay on the sofa depending on Crystal to comfort me, payback for her sickness last week! I lay there and felt guilty for feeling low. Wondering why I felt the way did. Am I too busy? When I am not busy, I can’t function because having nothing to do is scary. Is it because I do a lot and sometimes I worry that I actually am not good enough to do all the things I want to. Is all of this in vein or good for some people but maybe not good for others? Is telling my story taking away the voice of people who have had it worse? A story more important?

As all of this ran through my mind as I tried to understand my feelings, I thought about all of the people who support me, who wish the best for me, who offer me help and all of the times I have heard the word ‘inspirational’.
If anyone saw or spoke to me today, rest assured, not many would have thought I was inspirational. To be honest, it’s a nice compliment but it’s not me. That was it. When I thought about that word, what it means and why I am not it, I automatically felt better. I feel better now.
Call me stubborn, I will smile and nod. I’ll even take fearless or agree with being brave. But not, inspirational. What does that even mean, to make people feel encouraged, or hopeful, or even warm inside? To me, it means overcoming hardship, helping others do to the same and challenging and changing systems that hinder the process. Hardship I have overcome. I like to think that throughout my journey I have helped people and will continue to do so. And, challenging systems is my thing….But….and this is a big and important but. I haven’t done this alone and I am not the only one who can do it.
From an outsider looking in, they may see a highly motivated girl who has been through a system and come out the other side, reformed, rehabilitated and ready to step up to support change. NO! I didn’t blog about my life before prison. Prison didn’t create this, it tried to take it, but failed. So, if I am an inspiration now, why wasn’t I an inspiration before? I was the same old me, doing the same old ‘important to me’ things at the time. I lived in social housing with parents on benefits and never saw anyone work a day in their lives, for most of my life. So, how come when I worked at the age of 16, had my daughter and saved up to move her out of social housing and rent privately, I wasn’t an inspiration then? When I didn’t become an addict, when all of my parents friends kids did. When I scraped through school, despite my home wreck situation, nobody called me an inspiration then. When I went to college and did a diploma in childcare and education, I wasn’t an inspiration.

I was doing what I needed to do.
I’ve been trouble and a troubled girl. I’ve been to prison, I’ve truanted from school, I grew up on a rough estate, with the same ‘types’ of people as me. We are the underclass, the downtrodden. The ones who do what they need to do, to keep going. That’s me. That will always be me. I never dreamt at school of a successful career and certainly nobody persuaded me to. I knew I didn’t want to live on ‘the estate’ for ever and I knew I wanted to work and go back to education when I had sorted out my own life. And guess what, I did that. Before I went to prison. So, what is my point?
I am only where I am now, because people have helped me and offered me opportunity and a chance. The chances offered as a former prisoner were minimal, but I took what I had and ran with it. The more I did, the more was offered and I kept on. The point is, circumstances and choice are the be all and end all. Any person in prison, given the right circumstance and chance, could be ‘inspirational’, furthermore any person, given the right circumstance could end up being a prisoner.
I am not the ‘exception’ I am proof that given people a chance pays off. Not everyone will have “keep knocking them doors down” stamina, sometimes we have to knock to offer.

I like my shoes mummy.

This is about girls, and shoes. This is about poverty and bullying. This is about the rich and the poor.

This is about a ten year old, whom makes me proud. THAT’S MY GIRL!

Last week I had left the house on Sunday to go and do the food shop. As I was putting on my shoes in the porch, I noticed my daughters school shoes had a hole in. While I was out I went to the shoe shop and bought her some new ‘cool’ school shoes. Size 5, black and sparkly. When she came home from her dads I asked her if she liked the shoes, she said she loved them and I jokingly said, “yea, me too… mummy’s new work shoes!”.

She tried the shoes on and they were too tight, it was too late to take them back on a Sunday so I said to Crystal to wear her old shoes on Monday and we would go back and swap her shoes after school. Monday after school came and off we went to swap her shoes. They didn’t have the same shoes in a size 6 so she chose some similar, just not with sparkles on. She was pleased with them, said they fitted her fine and they were comfy. Off we went!
On Tuesday I was working in London, Crystal had gone to school and was being collected by my mum. At 4pm I received text after text from Crystal and my heart sank…. I was on a train on my way home and she has text to say “Mummy, Katie said my new shoes are like her nans and has called me granny shoes all day” …. “Mummy, please can you go into the school tomorrow and tell me teacher to keep Katie away from me tomorrow” …… “Mummy it wasn’t very nice being called granny shoes all day”….. I could have bloody cried and screamed reading those texts…..bless her.
When I got home Crystal was ok, I didn’t make too much of a fuss about it and just said that if it carried on again the next day then of course I would go and speak to her teacher… Then I slept on it, I woke up the next morning and asked Crystal if she wanted to wear her old shoes for the day and I would take her to get a new, new pair of school shoes after school, to which she replied “I don’t want new shoes, I like my shoes mummy”. Off she went to school…… Katie didn’t mention anything about her shoes the next day and it saved me another £30!
Why is this story about 10year old girls and their school shoes important? It’s just kids, being kids….isn’t it?
I had bought Crystal new shoes, she had worn them. She had been picked on all day because of her shoes. So much so, that she text me three times in a row as soon as she got home, to tell me about her day. Thankfully, I was in a position to be able to go and buy another pair of shoes for Crystal if she wasn’t willing to wear the pair that had caused her to be the centre of the class jokes for a day.
When I asked crystal if she wanted another pair of new shoes and she said she didn’t want any because she liked the ones she had, I calmly said “ok babe, that’s fine”. Inside my head I was cheering her on, shouting at the top of my voice “THAT’S MY GIRL”
Now, what if I couldn’t take a worn pair of shoes back for a refund, or exchange and I had no money to buy a second pair of shoes in the space of two days?
What if ten year old children, wear shoes to school daily that mean they come home in tears because they get laughed at all day, and you as a parent aren’t financially able to provide another pair of shoes?
What if your daughter says “yes mummy I want new shoes, I didn’t like being called names by other kids all day so I don’t want to wear them ‘granny’ shoes again” ?

I was thankful that Crystal is a tough kid, I was even more thankful that I had money to provide what she may have wanted, should her bullying carry on.
I think back to when I was ten years old…. I had two siblings and addict parents. If I had ‘granny’ shoes, let me tell you. I was wearing them!
I just want you to think about the ten year old girl and her granny shoes…..

The back, is a mess!

 

I have been meaning to blog for a while. Started, paused. Stopped. Repeated! I thought I had something to say, then thought better of it… and I’ve been so busy with a full-time degree, two jobs and a ten-year-old!

 

Today, something special happened. I was at my work placement and my tutor visited to do my mid-way review. All went well, of course! My tutor has a background is social work and probation. She has a wealth of knowledge; her words of wisdom are always welcome, and her support and guidance won’t be wasted on me.

 

During my review, I was asked if I could explain an emotional reaction I had experienced during observing a group therapy session. On reflection, the only explanation I could offer was…..”Well, maybe I’m not as much of a hard faced cow than I think I am” We all laughed! My tutor then said she could reframe what I had said, in academic terms and link it to theory! Everything I need to do for my reflective practice journal assessment.

 

Now, I am confident with understanding a behaviour and linking it to possible theories. When it comes to myself, understanding how my behaviour may be theorised, I have just never considered it.  Its funny, that all behaviours can be explained. I was only explaining my behaviour at the weekend while filming the up and coming Woman and Prison documentary. Logic and emotion, we mentioned.  I identify a resilience, a strength and skill that I have to always think with logic and fact rather than emotion. Whenever I have experienced distress, discomfort or trauma, I never ‘feel’ anything…..I ‘think’ about it. How it happened, why is happened and WTF am I going to do now!?

 

I remember having conversations with my good friend Aliyah in HMP Drake hall and through challenges upon release and in daily life now. We are similar, and our personalities are like magnets. For me, any wobbles I encounter, I call her. Her voice is like a click, back to reality. Stop crying or screaming, tell me what’s happened and then we will discuss options. Our path is always with reason, with an end goal and with resilience.

 

My tutor explained a scenario, of two people. Both had experienced trauma in similar circumstances. Imagine your internal self as a wardrobe. We take everything in and sling it in the wardrobe. Now, some people who experience trauma have the ability to put everything neatly into their wardrobe. And, keep it neatly, forever! Taking out what they need, using it and then putting it back. Others, who may lead a chaotic life style have a very messy wardrobe. Nothings folded, its all thrown in, piled up and the doors keeping that wardrobe closed are bursting open. It’s a struggle to find what you need, use it if you can find it, and then put it back. If it comes out, it is often thrown back in and the wardrobe door is slammed back shut! And then there is me, says tutor. My wardrobe…. My wardrobe is messy but the front of the wardrobe is neat and organised. Daily, I can get what I need, put it back and maintain my wardrobe organisation. But, don’t dare hunt near the back! The back, is a mess.

 

When I was observing therapy. Something in the back of my wardrobe wanted to get out. It wanted to get out so much, even the front and organised part of my wardrobe, with the doors firmly shut, couldn’t stop what was at the back from making its great escape. Guess what I did when that happened…. I went to the toilet, cried, howled a little. Looked in the mirror, wiped my eyes, took a deep breath and put it back, neatly in my wardrobe and slammed the door. Went back in the room and continued with my work!

 

I really love my tutor’s explanation. She knows me, my back ground, my story and my dreams for the future and I have no doubt that she believes in me and will help me as much as she can in my journey! Her wardrobe story was exactly like my experience and exactly like my life! Even just being able to understand this, is greatly helpful!

 

She reframed my hard-faced cow comment to, I have a messy back wardrobe, a tidy front wardrobe and my behaviours and life can be linked to the theory of Intellectualization. After a little bit of research when I got home, she was right again!

 

She is magic! This journey, is magic!

 

Here’s to understanding your wardrobe!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positive Prison Collection

It’s been an eventful weekend… Lets hope for a week of productivity. I am sure it will be. I put a tweet out on Saturday asking for ‘positive prison’ experiences from former prisoners and anybody else working in the criminal justice sector. I had great responses for people of various professions.
I wanted to blog about ‘what is good’ to see what experiences people have had and what has helped them in their own journey. I know what I found positive in prison and life after, nonetheless I am a small fish in a big ocean and what has been good for me isn’t the same for everyone so the idea of this blog is to share a collective of ‘positives’ from a range of experience.
I suppose I will start. I can identify three ‘positives’ that were essential for me to survive prison (because that is what we do) and to live a successful life post release, as a mother and active member of society. Firstly, and this for me is the most important. Family contact. Enabling, supporting and educating, where appropriate, the importance of maintaining family ties. I understand that family contact isn’t and wont be a positive for all in prison, with that being said, for the ones who do have a supportive family, the opportunities and importance of being supported to maintain contact is vital. My family were my backbone through-out my two year sentence. Now, lets talk about prison playing a terrible part in helping me maintain contact. September 2013, my daughter’s birthday month. At this point in my sentence I was working out of the prison every day and returning at night. I had taken my daughters birthday off work, to remain in the prison to be able to call her in the morning before school and as soon as she got home. I did have a mobile and I could have called her on my train journey to and from work, but I didn’t want my conversations with my daughter on that day, overheard by anyone and I knew I would be in tears for most of the day, so staying in prison was the best option for me. Now, because I was out at work every day, I missed canteen day. When I arrived back to the prison on the day of the prison issuing canteen sheets, I asked the officer on my wing to go and get me a canteen sheet and drop it back off for me in the correct box, as I was leaving for work the next morning at 6am and couldn’t do it myself. For anyone who doesn’t know, this sheet is how we put credit on our phones inside the jail. The officer brought me sheet and I filled it in requesting 15 pounds phone credit for the following week (my daughters birthday week). The way the week fell with sending in our canteen sheets to receiving what we had ordered, my phone credit should have been on my pin on my daughters birthday. The day I had chosen to stay in the prison to talk to her. Did said officer take my canteen sheet and post it, as promised? Nope. My phone credit didn’t go on. I was distraught. I went to the office to ask them to please let me use their phone or to give me some emergency credit so I could call my daughter on her birthday, did they let me? No, they said because my sheet was ‘late’ that I would have to wait until the following day for my credit to be applied. My sheet was late because there were no provisions for prisoners on outwork to be able to submit their forms on time if they had been out at work on the day the sheets were issued so we were to rely on staff to post them when we were back to the prison. So, unreliable prison staff often hinder family contact. Thanks to one officer, my daughter didn’t get to speak to her mother on her birthday.
In addition to family contact, my personal officer was a positive experience for me, through-out my sentence, as I have said in previous blogs. She did anything within her power to support my home leaves after the horrendous decision from my probation officer to change my risk assessment from medium to high, after a year in prison and ‘model prisoner’ behaviour through-out my sentence. She also made time to call me to the office or come to my cell, just to see how I was doing, asking if there was anything she could do to help me with anything. She wasn’t working on the day of my daughters birthday, I know she would have let me use the phone to call home. If she said she was going to do something, she did it, or at least got back to me with a reason as to why it couldn’t be done. She got to know me, knew my sentence plan and liaised with the ‘resettlement’ team in the prison to ensure I was able to get places on what ever offender based courses they wanted me to do (minus the whole TSP fiasco). This officer sat with me, in tears, in my darkest moments, showing empathy and thinking of ‘solutions’ or at least things to ease my troubles. She also was me in what were ‘happy’ times, when I could finally go home, go on day release and release for work. When I was sad, she acted appropriately as if she actually cared about my pain and wanted to help me. When I was granted my home leaves, she smiled and said ‘well done’ and she was pleased. Obviously pleased, because she cared about the people in her care. It showed and she has and will always have a lasting affect on my life.
Finally from me, before I move on to other peoples experiences that they have kindly shared with me. The gym and access to physical activity. This was a massive part of my prison sentence. I achieved my level 1 and 2 certificate in Exercise and Physical activity in prison and worked as a gym orderly during my time inside. I ran on that treadmill like I had never ran before (nor since!). For many months I went to the gym every day, sometimes for hours and hours. The gym orderlies were an amazing bunch of strong women. Every day pushing for a better performance than the day before, targeting and tracking improvement, teaching and supporting new woman to the gym and equipment. It was for all of us, more than exercise, it was building up a strong mentality. In the evenings we had the music loud, set distances to run or weights to lift and such traumatic histories to block out while we were doing it. For our time in the gym, it was a time that ‘we’ were our only focus. ‘WE’ as in all of us, is was a community. We helped and supported each other in every aspect of our fitness. In that gym, in those months, we built warriors. I have memories from that gym, with those woman, that will last me a life time. I’ll share one, when I first started on a level 1 gym course, I was new to it, over weight, unfit and smoking heavily! One day the level one tutor was off work so our session was cancelled, that meant I had to join some already amazingly fit women who were training to be personal trainers and group fitness facilitators, on their spinning session. I had never sat on a spinning bike before and I gave up after less than ten minutes. It was hard, but me having to walk out made me determined to learn how to do it. I had an amazing woman on my wing, who was also a gym orderly and training to be a personal trainer. She taught me to spin, every night for two weeks. It was gruelling, painful and I bloody hated her at times. I vividly remember a lesson, we were in the studio just the two of us, we had a song called Titanium by David Guetta blasting, we did the whole spin routine, singing at the top of our voices “Shot me down, but I get up. I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away fire away. Ricochet, you take your aim, Fire away fire away, You shoot me down but I wont fall, I am titanium”. We sang it with conviction, we felt it. We built bulletproof women. Access to frequent gym sessions and physical activity were, for many women, life changing and life saving.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact me with their ‘positive prison’ experiences. This is the feedback I had.

Former Prison Officer – “One of the reasons why I left was because I kept being told I was a ‘care bear’. That is actually what I joined for. I wanted to help change a persons life. Six months ago, I was walking in town and a former prisoner came up to me and gave me a hug and said the service would be a better place with more officers like me’. That was my positive experience, at least the people I was trying to help appreciated me as a person, more so that my former colleagues”.
Current teacher in a prison – Feedback from a prisoner “While on the wing, (prisoner) stopped me to tell me that he is really enjoying business studies and that the teacher was always listening to him and when he got stuck, the teacher takes time to help. (Prisoner) is now interested in his options for future classes”.
Mark – Former Prisoner “A gentleman called Alex was someone I felt understood me more than most. I remember getting upset because I was close to release because I was scared of the challenges ahead and he listened and showed me empathy which I really appreciated. I was lucky enough to see him outside a year or so later and I was able to thank him again for helping me”.
Chris – Former Prisoner – “I was in the association room playing pool with another chap when suddenly a fist came from nowhere to the side of my head, knocking me to the floor. I was then jumped on by my attacker and he repeatedly punched me in the face. My pool opponent hit the alarm and got officers to the scene quickly. My attack wasn’t positive but the concern shown by other inmates and officers was. For the next few days I had a constant stem of visitors to my cell door checking I was ok and whether I needed anything. It shows how a real sense of community exists within a prison”.
Sammy – Substance Misuse worker in a Cat B prison – “Giving somebody the empowerment to remain in recovery is the biggest reward. Relapses don’t define a person, it is their commitment to remain in recovery despite setbacks. Within the prison community, staff are so overworked or limited that they don’t get the chance to have a chat and built up the rapport with somebody – in my role I get to do just this, just a ten minute conversation with someone can brighten their day”.
Ben – Former Prisoner “My positive experience comes from being a gym orderly and being able to access the gyms washing machine. It may sound small but with the laundry only done once a week and not to any standard, this helped preserve my self esteem and dignity”.
Gareth – Former Prisoner “There was one guy who facilitated my group at Grendon. Lets call him Dave. It was the first time in that jail that I had told people the story of me being a child. I had done this with psychologists for years who, more often that not, responded with little more that a nod or mumble. When I told the group, Dave burst into tears. At the time I was angry and could not understand or accept that he felt sorry for me. But it was the first time in a long time, that someone showed me a genuine response to what I had experienced. I can’t tell you how powerful that was”.
James – PEI at a YOI “ Sonny was physically gifted, intelligent, loved his rugby and had great potential. However, he also had the biggest self destruction button I had ever seen and loved a fight. In some ways there was an instant connection as he reminded me of myself at his age. We set up a Rugby academy and made him captain and then found ways to keep him engaged. Along this, we also had to find ways to stop him in particular from self destructing, for example when he would kick off id ask everyone to leave and just start talking about Rugby. I can remember times where I was just chatting to myself while he paced the room huffing and puffing for nearly an hour, until he finally engaged in conversation. Then we would walk back to his cell with no further problems and because there was no violence, he remained on the programme. Over time, the incidents stopped, his behaviour got better all round the establishment. He was granted ROTL, played rugby at a local club to help with his fitness and performance and joined Cardiff Rugby Academy upon his release. He picked up an injury, which then led to some bad choices and he got breached. I remember the call like it was yesterday. He called me to say he had let me down. I was gutted for him but the fact that he called me and that way made me realise the positive impact we have on the lives on young people in custody”.

From professionals to former prisoners, the running theme here is human interaction and empathy. The ‘keep on’ attitudes from prison staff are heart warming to hear of. I hope these brief stories on positive experiences have offered some hope, shown some commitment and inspire others to use human interaction as a vital tool for success.

 

Who is looking after the people in our prisons?

Today I spoke to a group of third year students on a prison and probation module at university. I spoke of my childhood, my offence and a brief of my experience in prison. I also had the pleasure of hearing from two probation officers who explained the complexity of their job roles and issues that have been faced since the privatisation of probation into NPS and CRC. We also heard from a prison officer. I wont mention names or their place of work, with that being said, the complete lack of preparation, apparent struggle with empathy and compassion and arguably a great deficiency of knowledge about an often complex, traumatised and vulnerable group of people within their ‘care’. I feel this is a very timely and sort after insight into the role of a prisoner officer.
As most, if not all people will know, who take an interest in anything to do with prisons. They are places of terror. Conditions are poor, resources are lacking, self-harm and suicide are at record levels and if I didn’t already thing staffing was poor, that changed today, in probably only 1 minute of a speech. Despite such a challenging environment, one thing that could and in my own experience has, brought calm to a storm, are the staff who are there offering an umbrella.
I can reflect on my own time in prison and probably raise concerns about some of the staff, despite me having personal feelings and opinions, I have to say, within the estate I was in the majority of prison officers were helpful, responsible and the most important thing, respectful. Respect, it really does go a long way. If you have been following my blogs, you may have read me touch upon my relationship with my personal officer. She was great. Supportive throughout my sentence, caring in her nature without being ‘soft’, she asked about my child, she spoke to my mum and sisters on visits and assisted me with most of the issues that I faced within the system. I never heard a disrespectful word leave her mouth for all of the time I was there, whether it be about myself or any other person being help in custody. I am sure she had her bad days, in fact, I know she did, but she never let her personal opinion, bias or prejudices interfere with her role.
So, what is the role of a prison officer?
I can only give an opinion on what traits and abilities I feel are beneficially to the role from my perspective as a former prisoner. I would like to think a lot of what I am about to say is common sense however after seeing what I think is common sense, more than lacking today, I’ll just go ahead with a list: Firstly, humanity. Working in every single job you do which involves interaction with people, be humane. This leads well onto a non-judgemental approach and through ‘common sense’ or professional practice learning, you need the ability to see the whole, not just what is presented before you at that present time, in that circumstance. As we move on from being humane and non-judgemental, we need to have respect. Regardless of our own inner feeling and thoughts on various crimes/offences. Now, I know this isn’t easy however, it is the most important skill in any work we do in a professional ‘care’ capacity. And for gods sake, if you don’t have respect, at least pretend you do when you are talking in that professional capacity. Humanity, the ability to work without judgement and respect for those who are in your ‘care’ I would argue are fundamental traits that make for healthy positive relationships within any work setting. I knew that before I began my degree, furthermore since the beginning of my degree it has been drummed into me every day.
What else? We need prisons to be a place of hope, without that, many people have nothing. With that being said, we need officers to be the driving force of hope when people are entering the system broken. We need officers who assist in facilitating change, who want to help, support and nurture change. I saw my personal officer more than I saw my own child and mother, for two years. Now, she didn’t treat me like a daughter, but she showed compassion to me, knowing I was somebody’s daughter and somebody’s mother.
There are a lot more things that officers need in order to protect, secure and maintain the prison environment as well as meet need for rehabilitation, care and support. I will move on now to probably the most shocking thing I have ever witnessed at any speaking event or conference. Now, I could pick these apart for days, but I don’t have time. I am just getting these out there for people to consider what roles professionals play while working with prisoners inside of and upon release from prison. I’ll call it, what not to do….
PLEASE DON’T SAY …..
“They (prisoners) are a pain in the ass and so needy, don’t ever promise them anything”.
ALSO, PLEASE DON’T EVER SAY ……
“They get everything they want don’t they, at healthcare, like if they have any problems with their teeth, its all for free”. (here, I should add….prisoners don’t get paid enough to afford dental care)
WHATS WORSE IS…..
“we aren’t there to help them, even if we want to, we unlock and bang up”
EVEN MORE DISTURBING IS…….
“We have a Psychiatric wing, its like a nuthouse, they are psychitzo” (they being, one assumes, mental ill patients).
LET’S CONSIDER THIS ONE………
“Being a female officer has its advantages because male prisoners open up more, you can just walk in to him kicking off in his cell and be like ‘oi dickhead it’s me’ and the trouble stops UNLESS they (the prisoner) are from a different race and then they don’t talk to women”
THE MOST HARMFUL BY FAR…….
“I’ve seen prisoners cut their ears off, people hanging, dead bodies don’t bother me”.

Hearing this is hurtful, harmful and harrowing. Who is challenging prison officer culture?

Arriving at Prison – From people who have been there.

So, I was in the library today doing some research for a current Social Policy assignment when I stumbled upon this .  Now, to the ordinary eye, it may not cause a grunt of huge frustration however to somebody that has arrived at prison as a prisoner, whether it be for the first time or tenth, we certainly know from first hand experience that what is written within this publication from Gov.uk about prison life is utter crap. I laughed out loud when I found it but after thinking about it for a few minutes I soon realised it is not funny at all. According to the page in question, when someone arrives at prison they have at least one interview and assessment so they:

  1. understand prison rules and procedures
  2. know what their rights are
  3. are told of courses available
  4. get the right healthcare

It also states, prisoners get issued with a prison number and their property is recorded and put in storage until they are released.

Obviously, the person who wrote this has never step foot in a prison reception area, but I have….

November 25th 2011. After spending around two hours in a holding cell below the courts in a state of shock, and travelling for a further one and a half hours in a prison van, I arrived at HMP Eastwood Park at around 7pm – 8pm. It was dark, freezing and raining. I was in shock, in tears, in physical pain. I had a ringing in my ears and an echo resounding in head, reminding me I had just been sentenced to ‘Years, Years, Years’.  There were 3, maybe four other women who got off the prison van and were awaiting to be processed into the prison.

I had a blouse on with a black blazer and high heels. I wasn’t expecting to be going to prison so I had dressed extremely inappropriately and had nothing at all with me apart from the clothes I stood in. I was asked by a prison officer to state my name, which I did and then he asked me “do you understand what’s happened today?”. I don’t recall my answer exactly but I mumbled something along the lines of yes, I think so. I must have looked exhausted, blood shot eyes, make up stained face, tired and in pain. Me mumbling that I ‘think’ I understand what has happened today, was good enough for the officer to then take me to a holding room, which was occupied by a few other woman and two prisoners who were working as reception orderlies. These two young girls were dishing out all the prison advice, asking all of the questions and telling absolute horror stories about the prison, what wings to avoid, what wings were good, what murders were there….. I would rather give birth a million times over than endure the ‘first time’ arriving at prison.

After about 40 minutes I was taken out of the room and back to the desk. I was asked by a prison officer my weight, my height and did I have any tattoos, was I pregnant, did I feel suicidal or like self harming? I wasn’t pregnant, I wasn’t feeling suicidal and I didn’t feel like self harming. I was also asked if I smoked, had I consumed drugs or alcohol in the last 24 hours and was I on any medication. Finally I was asked if I had children, to which I replied no, out of fear of social services going and swopping my child fro where ever she was at that time, because I had no idea of what was happening and what would happen to my to child. I was three days after I had been there that I told a female officer that I did have a child and she was with my mum.  After answering all of those questions, a female office took me a few steps away to issue me with the good old prison greys, and some flip flops, the only shoes I had were heels. After I had got changed I was put back in the holding room and the next woman was up to be processed. I did get to make a phone call.

After all of the other girls had been up to the desk and did what ever they needed to do, we were all taken to the induction wing and I was put in a cell with an alcoholic who had been in and out of prison for many years.

I didn’t see a nurse at all on the first night or even the next day for that matter. I wasn’t given soap, toothpaste, sanitary products. Thankfully, I wasn’t on my period but no-body asked me and I obviously was in no state to be thinking about all of the things I was going to need at that moment in time.

The officer who booked me into the prison certainly never told me ANY rules or procedures. The officer who took me to get clothes also never told me any rules or procedures. It dawned on my many months later that the prison ‘rules’ and ‘procedures’ and negotiable, discriminatory and dependant on who is enforcing them that day.

Apparently, according to the page in question, upon entry to prison, the prisoner is told their rights…… No prison officer, no Governor, no NOBODY who worked in the prison, through-out my whole two year sentence EVER told me what my ‘rights’ were.

It goes on to say we are informed of what courses are available. It took over a week for me to find out what courses were available. Not that there were many, but it certainly wasn’t information given willingly by officers at their earliest convenience.

After 6 weeks I was transferred to HMP Drake hall, the prison van could not fit all of us being transferred and all of our property. They assured us that the property would follow us in a different van. I was naïve and not wanting to kick off so early on, needless to say upon arrival to HMP Drake hall, again only with the clothes I had on. My property didn’t arrive until the following day. So, again I woke up to  no underwear, no toothpaste, no toothbrush.

Finally, it says that all prisoners upon entry ‘get the right healthcare’. COME ON……. prisoners are leaving with addictions, dying from suicide, living with vermin in their dirty cells and this is trying to tell us that at the first point possible, they are offering the right health care…. OK. I personally had no health problems, so to speak, so maybe I didn’t need to see a health care professional, but I find it HIGHLY unlikely that prisoners being processed into prison on a Friday night, are given the right health care…..having served a sentence of two years and knowing full well that the process to see a doctor via the app system took days if not weeks, I simply do not believe this.

Following my twitter post today, I have been sent various messages by prison officers, former prison officers and former prisons, below are some responses,

“Stripped of all dignity more like, this has never been my experience and I’ve been in more than once”. Former Prisoner.

“I arrived on a Friday evening of a bank holiday weekend, had nothing to my name, no induction until the Tuesday. No phone pin. I had to beg and borrow from a neighbour”. Amanda –  former prisoner.

“My son was in HMP Leeds almost two weeks before he was given an induction or his prison number. It took almost two months to get his siblings onto his visitors list and when transferred his property was somehow lost”.   Susan – Serving prisoners mother.

“More like a strip search and then kicked down a wing. I was taken from a holding room to a little cubical, strip searched and given some prison scrubs, as I watched the last of ‘me’ being packed into a box. With no real induction to prison life, it was trial and error. You’re thrown in to a situation that is unfamiliar and told to ‘man up’. Its not easy”.  Joel – Former prisoner.

“I was in prison for 14 years and I didn’t know all of the rules and regulations, most of the staff, some of whom had worked for the service for nearly 30 years don’t know all of the rules and regulations”. Former Prisoner.

“Since 2014 when they got rid of 10,000 screws we don’t stand a chance of getting anything right. The senior officers are stuck in offices, loads of new staff”. David – Prison officer.

“Arrival at HMP Chelmsford. The screw could see I was terrified and he told me, ‘If you don’t take that earring out, ill get an inmate to rip it out’. Former prisoner.

“When I arrived at the prison I had already been identified as being a vulnerable prisoner. No-one explained anything about what was happening or due to happen that evening. I was lead of the bus first. I saw a nurse who wouldn’t allow me any anti-depressants because I hadn’t brought any in with me, I was told id have to make a medical appointment but I wasn’t told how to do it. The following day, I hadn’t been in prison to put in my food order, there was no food for me, not even spares. Either that or someone totally forgot me. No-one came to bring me lunch or dinner that first day and I wasn’t unlocked and told to go an collect any. Thankfully, I wasn’t very hungry”. David – Former prisoner.

“When I got to HMP Bronzefield I was given a couple of bits and left to cry. There was a girl crying more than me so I comforted her instead of worrying about me. It is left to the neighbours to tell you what’s what”. Claire – Former prisoner.

“When I arrived at HMP Send, they had an insider system, they scared the shit out of us and left quite a few of us in tears”. Claire – Former prisoner.

“I have no memory of such things…..at any of the FIVE prisons I went to”. Ben – Former prisoner (See fonesavvy.co.uk).

This is the reality of entry in to the system for many. Many shocked, traumatised, vulnerable and heart broken people.