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.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Former Prisoner

As 2018 draws closer, many seem to be reflecting on the last 12 months and identifying goals and dreams for the year ahead. I never stick to resolutions, so I won’t even bother to make any. What I am going to do is write a blog today, on New Years Eve. For the moments in the next year that I may need some motivation, because even I feel unmotivated at times. Maybe unmotivated it the wrong word, deflated would suit better.

Dear Former Prisoner,
Are we ever ‘former’? I don’t think so, I don’t feel like my sentence is over. I don’t feel like my punishment is over. When I committed an offence at the age of 19 and now, as a 27-year-old woman, jobs can be snatched away from me with no back lash, I can’t attend school trips with my daughter because I have an unspent conviction and I have to spend time explaining to people why I am at University at the age of 27 because I am outraged and hurt by the way our prison system attempts to break us down and then send us on our way. Over and over again. All in the name of justice?
Its funny how a not so educated view believes that when someone is released from prison, their punishment is over. Surprisingly, I would guess that the people who say this, really believe that it is right for that to happen also. Of course it is right, but it does not happen. We then go on to live a life treading on egg shells, worried, nervous. We get used to hearing no, used to being ignored, if we had the courage to try and move on in the first place.
For every door that is shut in your face, I hope you knock again. If you can’t knock again, do everything you can to build your own door and when someone in need comes knocking, be sure you let them in.
For every ‘NO’ you hear, go home and add it to your list of ‘NO – one will stop me’. Cry if you need to, have a few days in bed being miserable, when you feel like all of this trying will never pay off, when you almost accept that this is now your life, a life you didn’t have a chance to choose, a life the system tried to force upon you. Cry it out, get up and go back for more.
For everyone judging you, drop down at their feet and praise them for being angels on earth and never making a mistake in their life. Or not. Never become that person, pity them. Challenge them. Never become them. Other people’s opinions about YOUR life, do not affect YOUR life, unless you let them. Find the strength to let them carry on, while talking your truth because regardless of other people, you have every right to do so.
For every idea that you have, that didn’t quite turn out how you imagined it to, never stop dreaming. Idea’s keep your mind active, one might pay off one day. Possibly the only think no-one can ever take off you, are the idea’s you create and possess in your mind. Keep them, work on them and if they don’t work, have some more.
For every time you wake up and think ‘I just can’t do this anymore’. Take a break. Look after yourself. To give your best, you have to be your best. Remember, when you thought you couldn’t do it, every single day, for two years in prison. Guess what, you did it. You keep doing it, and you will do it.
For all of the moments you are consumed with fear, breath. Use that fear to fuel your fire. Be scared but keep going. Please, keep going. Fear is what they want, it’s what they need. I lived in fear through-out my childhood, fear of being alone at night, fear of finding my parents dead, fear of people finding out who my parents were. I then lived in fear, in prison, every single day, and then I was released. Nothing at all was changed in a positive way, from the day I entered to the day I left. Nothing. That is a system, that does not work. Now, I fear that I may be destined to endure failure and failure. I hope not.
Dear former prisoner, for a life that has tried to break you, many times. There ain’t a single tear, ruining your make-up. My only wish for you, in 2018 is to live without fear.

 

 

 

Society, Well-being and Prison.

I wasn’t going to blog until 2018. Today I have attempted to work on my social policy assignment while looking after my 10year old. That wasn’t going to happen, although I didn’t manage to type I did manage to read and whilst I don’t have the required attention at present to put my reading to academic assignment writing, I can blog on what I figure to be food for thought. I don’t think at present I have attempted a conclusion to what I am going to write however I still feel that the content for me, is worth consideration.
Firstly, I want to start by touching on well-being. Individual and societal. Each community, each person and each group of people will of course all have different views on what well-being means to them personally and for the society that they live in. Even in this first statement, the worry surfaces when we think about the people in power who make policy to look after our well-being.
While I can not speak to anybody apart from myself, I would hope to think that all round well-being for individuals would incorporate the following,
1. Health
2. Education and skills
3. Governance – Trust in how the country we live in is run
4. Personal finance
5. Relationships
6. What we do/employment
7. Housing and location

Here, I should state the obvious. All of the above, which are in no particular order are interactive and overlap. Now, in true Michaela style, I am going to break these down and explain how personal experience of prison is so detrimental to each component of personal well-being if we consider the above to be of importance.
Health – This would encompass physical and mental health. The very act of imprisoning a person and locking them in a cell for long periods, over a duration of time is harmful to one’s mental health. With limited resources available and time constraints on using facilities such as the library and the gym, sitting in a cell being entertained by only soap operas or music, if you have any, is how many a days are spent inside. During my two years in prison I was sent books, writing equipment and music. Apparently, it takes three weeks to process a parcel with a pad and a pen into the establishment.
If inmate after inmate after inmate is being processed into prison with issues relating to health, its all well and good providing doctor’s appointment and medication but for all the good that may achieve, if it actually happens, it is undone but the structure and regime of a prison system so incompetent in building people up on a day to day basis. Food that lacks any nutrition that is needed for health reasons, long delays in access to any kind of productive pass time, daily negative reinforcement from staff, self-harm from prisoners and from a selfish point of view, witnessing self-harm and/or the aftermath. Having arrived into the system with no mental health problems and having never even considered self-harm, for me the two vivid memories that I have from my stay at HMP and memories that will never leave me are the two where I witnessed the aftermath of self-harm and the night I stayed up all night pressing the panic alarm for officers to come and check on my neighbour who’s body was scarred from her knee’s to her neck in scars. For me, seeing this young girl emerge from her cell with self-inflicted wounds, all up her arm, pissing with blood all over the floor, was the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when the nurse came onto the wing, bandaged her up and then she was locked up again. I simply can not imagine how that feels. The thought of it almost brings me to tears and infuriates me.

Clean them up, lock them up and when they do again, greet them with “Oh for God’s sake not again”. This is the treatment I saw, first hand when officers were attending to a girl (19) who had self-harmed again. Following the night this happened, the girl was taken down the block for supervision. The cells were bars and only had a bed and toilet where officers can see in 24/7. Apart from limiting access to objects that can be used to inflict injury to ones self, what bloody good will this segregation and punishment do to a young girl who is a prolific self-harmer. None, and it doesn’t take a mental health professional to work that out, or a prison officer for that matter. Its intrusive, no doubt embarrassing and more punishment on an individual for a fault of the system not being able to meet the needs of vulnerable people within its care. Utterly shocking, heart breaking and horrific to witness.
Much more can be said on health care within our prisons, but I will move on.
Education and skills – Now, without going over old ground because I have already dedicated a whole blog on educational opportunities I had in prison, I will touch on this once more. There is no such thing as equality in prisons. There is not equal access to anything. Cleaning a wing is a job in prison to teach skills….. mopping floors, emptying bins, with no certificate or qualification at the end of it and for something stupid like £9 a week. Exploiting prisoners to work all week for shit money and nothing to show at the end of it. Forcing ‘jobs’ upon prisoners and punishing them when they refuse. Some people wake up in prison is a bad state, maybe bad news from home, anxiety, homesick, fear of release, and guess what, if we don’t go and sign in for our wing cleaning job we get an I.E.P warning, or worse. The only skill I learnt in prison was how to plait hair, from a fellow prisoner. There were months and months waiting lists for every course in prison, with you sentence plan that is made FOR you by someone who hardly knows you playing a part in if you can a course, considering the length of your sentence, you release date and a lot more in between.
Governance – Lets talk about trust in a system that has a duty of care. Its hard, if not impossible for me to have any faith in a system that I have seen cause so much heart ache, pain and suffering to so many. Now, I am not saying that everybody within the system who is at fault, and thankfully I had a great relationship with my personal officer who at least gave me a bit of faith in humanity. A system that favours punishment instead of rehabilitation, corrupt staff, bullying, favouritism and in my opinion, a system that builds prisoners, I can see why not many prisoners have any faith or trust in the system and establishments that hold them.
Personal finance – The best paid job in prison was Mon-Fri 8.45am until 4.45pm, DHL and £25 a week. Not many are given the opportunity of working outside of the prison for a proper wage and then its release with £46 and months to wait for benefits and knock back after knock back if applying for jobs. Fantastic for well-being, wouldn’t you say?
Relationships – I was given one free letter a week, extortionate rates to call home if you are lucky enough to have someone sending you money because the job wages are so poor. Maintaining contact with family was never greatly encouraged, parcels sent it took so long to process, family days were almost non-existent, visits were spent with my sisters telling me how rude the staff were, money was lost, paid into other prisoner’s accounts taking almost two months to rectify with my sister having to call every single day.
What we do & employment – A job, a passion, some stability that provides a suitable income is the reason most of us get out of bed in the morning. Prisoner’s do not have this opportunity. As stated previously with the wing cleaning job and the best job being £25 a week with DHL. They are being used to work to line the pockets of people making money out of their unfortunate and often predictable situation. With no benefit to their self.
Housing and location – I was sent to a prison 2 hours away from where my child lives, and that is relatively close compared to some of the women, with children, who I met there. Visits on a good day with no traffic was 7 hours out of my 4 year old daughters day. 7 hours, every Sunday for two years. Plastic covered mattress, plastic covered pillow, cold room, dirty graffitied walls, blood stained floors. This was my home, concerned with my well-being.
This blog and description is very brief, I would be here for days going into the depths of how a prison system accommodates for, enables and actively works towards improving  prisoners well-being. Many prisoners have entered the system from a disadvantaged life, the cycle of deprivation is maintained and intensified within the prison system and then at the point of release, many are in a worse state than how they arrived. This, I fear is no accident.
Just what is prison providing? The outcome of the system is re-offending rates, recall rates and a prison population far greater than is needed. Deaths and self-harm through the roof and guess what, charities and volunteers picking up the pieces of far too many lives shattered, unnecessarily.

 

Gratitude.

As I sit in this very cold kitchen with a steaming coffee and consider my last blog of 2017, I don’t know where to start. This isn’t a blog about prison or about life after. The words for those blogs come easy to me. While I reflect on my journey over the past year I feel immense pride. This pride isn’t selfish or personal. Granted, I have achieved a lot this year down to my own hard work and perseverance, with that being said, none of it would have been possible without many people who have believed in me, support me and help me along the way, and for that I want to express my gratitude.

 

Here I should name names. But I won’t! I don’t have time to seek permission to name individuals and I would like to keep this as a collective.

 

Through-out the year I have been supported by organisations and individuals. I have received emails from families of serving prisoners and feedback from my blogs has come in thick and fast from academics, people working in the Criminal Justice sector, Child Protection workers and many former prisoners. My writing has been criticised, challenged and praised. All is ok because ultimately, nobody has lived my life so I don’t expect everybody to understand, agree or even like what I have to say.

Ill say it anyway.

 

When I left my full time job and swapped it for a part time role elsewhere it was a massive risk. It provided me with time to volunteer with various organisations, using my skills and experiences to help others. My summer was spent doing various mentor training courses and applying for University. We are now in December and I had the pleasure of winning an award for Volunteer of the year and to date, my assignments from University have come back with a B and a B-. Not bad for a girl who left education at 16.

 

My course leader at University is amazing. From the day I met her she has been a great help. No problem is too big or too small. I feel at ease within my group to talk openly about my experiences and I am able to do so. I can already notice changes in my behaviour, my thinking and my general well-being brought on from my university experience so far. It really is the best thing I was brave enough to do. Its challenging, hard, enjoyable and the best opportunity I received this year. I hope the three years goes very slowly so I can enjoy it and work at it for as long as possible.

 

A special mention to my mentor, who undoubtedly is another amazing woman. Her facetime calls when I am in a state of sheer stress, sat at the table with my laptop, coffee and an assignment to bang out, provide me with reassurance that I am ok, doing well and she is an unquestionable source of support guidance and advice, if and when I need it. This woman has so much faith in my ability and a brilliant way of making me question and understand my own life and how to move on from my past. For another person to want success for me and help me achieve it, is new to me. Its so lovely and I cant thank her enough for everything she has done and continues to do for me. Actually, I was thinking about texting her after the completion of this blog, then my phoned beeped and she had text me. The law of attraction is some powerful force.

 

When I first started my blogs, I had no idea what I wanted to do with them. All I knew was that I had an insight into a system that so many people do not understand, do not care about and do not challenge. Little did I know, I would meet and be supported by so many people who do understand, who do care and who do challenge. What is so brilliant is that I have seen these people come from all walks of life. Its heart warming to see compassion, empathy and people going above and beyond their professional role, to help and support many people caught in a cycle and a system where they are written off.

 

Many of the people who have and who are supported my journey I have never even met. Emails, texts, letters through the post that get sent to me, with kinds words, motivation and humanity are just the nicest things to receive. Words from strangers, wishing me well and rooting for my success.

 

For all of you who read this, who have taken the time to contact me, help me with work, comment on my blogs, offer me opportunities to write or talk, offered me paid work, advice, support, a listening ear, a chance to help change a failing system, I owe you a lot. A simple thank you, I know most of you will say I don’t need to give anyway, but I am thankful.

 

I am thankful that you listen to my story, share my story and help me ultimately help others with a story. I am thankful that I get to see passion, dedication and resilience, day to day. Thankful to still be able to dream, to work hard, to live and now enjoy life.

 

This will be my last blog of 2017 and I begin my new job in the start of the new year. 2018 is looking like it will be even more crazy than this one, but I am ready to battle through it, as I have done for 27 years. Stopping isn’t an option when you have a mini me watching your every move.

 

Thanks to my daughter, who teaches me discipline every single day. Doing what you know needs to be done, even when you may not feel like doing it. My childhood was far from the norm and then I went to prison and damaged my own child’s chances. For that, every day I promise her I will get up and work so damn hard. Ill have sleepless nights of worry, early mornings of work and never quit, so she can see her mum is not one to quit on. While I worry about Christmas because this year I am not in full time employment, and worry about life as I am busy doing uni work and loads more, she tells me not to worry because I am doing this for her and other people and that it is important that I do well. I will be with my daughter on Christmas day, and she will open a present. Regardless of what we have or don’t have, we are together and happy and that is more than enough for me.

 

Mum, I know I don’t need to do anything to make you proud. You love me unconditionally, and I offer you the same. To see you happy makes me happy. There are times I haven’t understood our lives and that made for a troublesome few years. Look at your daughters now. We couldn’t do it without you.

 

This year, I have cried, laughed, I’ve been hurt, disappointed, elated, there are too many describing words I could use so I won’t bore you, it’s been a rollercoaster. Its been amazing, thank you to everyone who has been there along the way. Enjoy Christmas and lets spare a thought for the many who are separated from loved ones at this time of year.

 

 See you in 2018.