One thing most people seem to be interested in when they find out I’ve been to prison is what the other people are like and what they’re in for. We all have preconceived ideas about it, I certainly did. I pretty much expected butch lesbians with prison tattoos, hard-faced cows (like the one that looks like Sam the Eagle from the Muppets that used to be in Bad Girls and is now in EastEnders and always wears skirts up to her armpits even though she’s well into her 40s) and meek quiet women who are scared of everyone else. That was the role I had picked for myself. Needless to say it was nothing like that at all. I was amazed at how…normal…a lot of the women seemed. There were people from all walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds and many different countries. It isn’t quite as simple to say that all of them declared their innocence, the different crimes that were represented were numerous and it and what happened to me made me realise that criminal justice isn’t as black and white as everyone (especially those Daily Mail readers) think it is. Assuming you could believe what you were told someone was in for, that is, which is not necessarily the case. But I wasn’t the kind of person to ask others what they’d done, there were plenty of people about to do that, and most volunteered the information, desperate for you not to think they’d done anything bad to do with kids.
Of course, what might be deemed to be the stereotypes (thanks to such quality productions as Bad Girls) were evident but nowhere near to the degree I was expecting. I did see prison tattoos. They’re illegal. And rubbish. And there were obvious lesbians, at least one of whom looked like a boy and reminded me of Perry from Kevin and Perry, “Fank you, Mrs Paterson.” I’m sorry if you think that’s lesbian-ist, but that’s how it is. Yes, I know I made that word up. There was also the odd hard-faced type, but that’s more my opinion than anything else, for all I know I was one of them. I’m often berated by builder types as I walk down the street for not having a manic grin plastered across my face. “Cheer up love, it might never ‘appen.” Oh do fuck off, I just have one of those faces. I’ve already mentioned the methadone queue and it shocked me to the core. But as these women are slowly weaned off drugs you get to see them for the people they might otherwise have been, albeit with a hefty dose of paranoia and occasional mania thrown in.
For the most part prison is populated with normal people like you and me. Really. And their crimes ranged from the seemingly minor like benefit fraud through the very popular drug importation all the way up to armed robbery and manslaughter. Scary stuff. I didn’t hear of anyone who was in for life where I was but they’re pretty rare in the female estate, although Rosemary West was supposedly resident in the segregation unit at Bronzefield. There are people who would argue that women shouldn’t be in prison, that it doesn’t work for them. Personally I think that’s rubbish, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you don’t know right from wrong, neither does it mean you’re incapable of doing bad things. It is true that the incidence of suicide is greater among female prisoners as is that of self-harm but is that a good enough reason to scrap this system for women? What about the men who commit suicide and self-harm? Where do you draw the line of who to treat differently?
In looking at the statistics of re-offending rates amongst all prisoners you could easily argue that prison doesn’t work for anyone. At least, not for the majority. Approximately 67% of all prisoners re-offend within the first 2 years of release. That is staggeringly high. And why does this happen? There are a number of different reasons for this, but the recipe for reducing re-offending has so many ingredients it must be incredibly difficult for most offenders to have them all. The National Offender Management Service says there are seven pathways to reducing re-offending. These are: accommodation, education training & employment, health, drugs & alcohol, finance benefits & debt, children & families and attitudes thinking and behaviour. Obviously these seven items may not apply to all but it falls to the prisons and most notably the probation service, both within prison and outside in the community, to make sure that offenders address each and every one of those that apply to them.
But there are myriad difficulties in doing this. There are only so many people working for the prison and probation services and they can only allot a small amount of time to each individual. If you take education, training and employment as an example you should know that amongst prisoners illiteracy or poor literacy stands at 50% so before you can even start to look at the potential of an ex-offender getting employment you need to address that. The problem is that the majority of people will have gone to prison with a short sentence, not long enough to help them. A great deal more may not want to learn to read and you can’t force them to take part in educational courses. The final nail in the coffin for prison education is that it is poorly paid, where I was if you chose education you were paid £10 a week, but if you worked in the workshops and your productivity was high you could earn up to £80 a week. It’s not hard to work out what most people go for.
With employment as well, even for those who do have an adequate level of education there are so many difficulties faced by ex-offenders. The main one is, of course, disclosure. By law if you have an unspent criminal conviction you must disclose this when applying for a job. They advise you not to do this until interview, you wouldn’t want to end up in the situation I had with my university application, being judged without even being met face to face to state my case. I’m not bitter. Much. But even then there’s no guarantee they won’t throw their hands up in horror and wrap it up quickly before hotfooting it out the door and running down the corridor waving their arms about. You never know.
I think the biggest hurdle of all to overcome is to get the offenders to want to help themselves. At a meeting of organisations who help offenders re-integrate with society I met someone who was a PPO, a Prolific and Priority Offender, someone who’d been in and out of prison their whole life. Even though they were free their attitude was all wrong. They were complaining that dole money was not available to them quickly enough on leaving prison (even though you’re given money when you leave) and that it wasn’t enough for them to buy the basics that they needed to attend interviews. I begged to differ when you consider the low cost of basic smart clothing in the big supermarkets these days. But as far as this PPO was concerned he could earn far more selling drugs and the sad fact is that that is probably exactly what he went back to doing before repeating the cycle with the revolving door of prison, again and again and again. The fact that people like that think they’re owed something really galls me. I never felt that way. I knew that if I wanted my life not to be ruined by going to prison I had to do everything in my power to make sure it wasn’t. I did all the courses in prison that were required of me, and more, to address my offending behaviour. From the time I first got there until the time I left this was an important part of my life. And my attitude completely changed over time. At first I was angry and would not accept blame for any part of what had happened, despite the fact that I admitted the offence, up to a point. But that changed and I realised eventually that I was fully responsible for a massive overreaction to a bad situation. Although I still will never agree that there was ever any intent to cause harm, to my eternal shame it just happened. Hey ho.
But I was very lucky. I had an excellent support network, friends, family, probation (at home and in prison), the prison, Inside Job. They all helped me to succeed in doing the things I wanted to achieve.
I was released from prison on home detention curfew on 5th January 2007 after serving thirteen and a half months. Just a week or so before I’d been home for Christmas and had a lovely time with my family, feeling completely normal for the first time in ages and even spending Boxing Day with my lovely boys. As arranged I met up with my old college friend, Adam, and several school friends and had a great time. And, somehow, Adam and I got together. It was completely out of the blue, especially as I’d thought he was still with his girlfriend, but it turns out they’d not been together for quite a while. We’d been best friends at college but, despite the fact that he may have had hopes then, we both knew it would never happen so neither of us had any reason to imagine it would have happened this time around either. But I’m very happy that it did, and the best part was that we didn’t have to worry about getting to know each other as we already knew each other very well. Apparently he was attracted to my “cold cold aloofness”. I’ve no idea what he means. He moved back to Portsmouth from Exeter and we got married in December 2007. Quick, maybe, but we both knew that it was right. And that’s enough of that because there’s every chance I’m going to make myself vomit. Let me offer my sincerest apologies if you, dear reader, have been forced to do the same. But here’s a wedding photo, you’ll see that even 13 years later he was STILL looking down my top. Shocking.
After my release Inside Job helped me to secure a job as an editor compiling an e-bulletin on the seven pathways I mentioned above. I was working again with Barbed in HMP Coldingley on the design and attending conferences and awards ceremonies, conducting interviews and all sorts which I would then write up afterwards. As well as that I was editing contributions from other people for inclusion. It would have been marvellous. Yes, would have. Sadly the plug was pulled after only a couple of months, it seemed there was a high degree of nervousness from the commissioning organisation and they decided to leave the idea, to my mind a bloody good one, in limbo for, well, you tell me.
I had to get a job, and quickly, as I had no other income. I was incredibly worried about disclosure but realised that I would just have to bite the bullet and get on with it, expect some knockbacks and take them in my stride. I didn’t have any other choice. I updated my CV (very carefully), uploaded it to a job site and started looking for jobs to apply for. I had decided that it would be highly unlikely that I’d get any media work anywhere other than London so thought it would be best if I tried to get a job as a software tester, something I had done some years previously. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind this to be perfectly honest, but that’s what I did. Very quickly I was contacted by an agent who had a job available locally and, without mentioning anything about being a violent criminal, I arranged an interview. Strangely enough I was incredibly nervous. I didn’t like the idea that I was going to give someone the opportunity to sit in judgement of me. The interview went fairly well, the interviewer was very likable, asked me loads of questions to which it seemed I gave the correct answers. Then he gave me a test. On Linux and SQL. I knew nothing about either. But I was “willing to learn” (please give me a job). Fortunately he told me that he’d offered jobs to people who’d known none of the answers before, so that was a relief. And then he asked me if I had any questions. This was it. I had to tell him about my conviction, and the fact that I was on tag. I told him. I expected a complete change in atmosphere, a distracted frostiness and a “thanks but no thanks”. What I got was “Oooooooooh, what did you do?” and a request to see my tag. You just never know what’ll happen. And I got the job. Unfortunately I hated it, but that’s another story.