I spent 36 months in prison. I met hundreds of vulnerable women suffering from mental, physical and emotional abuse - abuse that continues in the prison system. More specifically, my experience demonstrated to me that if you are poor and black you are more likely to be sent to prison and to continue to be treated unfairly by the system.
Double Disadvantage, a report by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, and Women in Prison, focuses on the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women in the criminal justice system and will help inform the Lammy Review into racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Double Disadvantage finds that they felt discriminated against throughout the process, from the courts to prison. This must change. As a black woman who has been through it, the report draws attention to many issues that are familiar to me - and the government must listen to our experiences so that we can stop this injustice.
The court system
In the courts, many of the women who spoke to the researchers for the report felt they were treated unfairly by judges and juries, who they said were often made up of white men. I identify with this because I too was treated badly. At the beginning of my trial, the white male judge asked my lawyer where I was from. She replied that I was from the Caribbean to which the judge said he would need to stop the case until an interpreter was found as "people from the Caribbean don't speak proper English".
Throughout the trial the judge made derogatory comments. In addition, a member of the jury made faces at me and mouthed that she was going to "send me down". I felt helpless. I asked my barrister to take up the issue of discrimination but she advised me that it wouldn't do me any favours especially as the judge and I hadn't had the best start.
Women in the Double Disadvantage report also said they were not listened to or kept informed about what was going on in court. Most were unaware of whether they had a pre-sentence report. I was refused one. I was also not allowed to produce any character references although it was my first experience of the criminal justice system.
It was then that I realised I was alone and that there would be no justice for me as a black woman.
This became even more apparent once I was in prison when I met white women, with similar convictions, but who received shorter sentences. Many of these women expressed surprise at the sentence I received. The evidence shows that black women are more likely to be given custodial sentences than white women for the same offences.
Then there is racism in the prison itself. Black, Asian and ethnic minority women in the report talked about how they experienced racism from both staff and other prisoners.
My experience of treatment varied in different prisons. The now closed HMP Holloway prison, for example, was a more diverse environment and some staff worked hard to promote equality and diversity. There was also good support for women for drug and alcohol addiction and lots of other services including addressing women's spiritual wellbeing.
The system in another prison was very different. The building and physical structure might have been better than at Holloway but that doesn't matter when there is little support, cultural understanding and few positive relationships with staff, particularly in their attitude to black and ethnic minority women - something several women reported in Double Disadvantage.
To give one example, the canteen had fourteen tables where we would meet for lunch and dinner, the one time we could all get together. Officers complained that they were intimidated by the "black table" and they separated us. We were not alone, this was something other women told Agenda and Women in Prison had happened to black and Asian groups.
Afraid to speak out
In prison, women seek support from each other particularly from women of similar background who understand each other and share the same values. Officers didn't understand this and would break up groups and friendships to exercise control. Women were even moved to other prisons overnight, so, you would wake up in the morning and your friend was gone.
Women are afraid to speak out about being badly treated for fear of being moved to other prisons or in case reprisals are exacted by officers. I witnessed a black girl, who dared to stand up for herself. She was dragged out of her cell, unclothed.
Another issue is that little provision is made for cultural differences. Food and items available in the canteen were very limited - I and others managed to introduce some of the more basic items such as rice and peas on the menu and jerk chicken. It took a lot of meetings but by the time I left there were some changes.
We had to work hard to ensure basic items for hair and hygiene for the black minority community. All of which is so important for well-being and self-esteem and motivation. Like me, women in Double Disadvantage suggested they had to work harder to get privileges because of racism too. Even when you did acquire items the over-punishing Incentives and Earned Privileges system meant you didn't keep them for long.
At first, after release from prison, it was frightening. I was placed in temporary accommodation with three women who suffered from addiction and mental ill-health. They received inadequate support and within weeks they relapsed and were recalled to prison. All they needed was some help.
I've tried to be strong and confident but sometimes as a woman, it really hurts when you are trying to move forward and there are so many barriers to overcome to achieve basic human rights such as a safe place to live in which to rebuild your life. Even months later the struggle continues and I'm still in temporary accommodation and battling ill-health. It's no wonder women with no-one to turn to go back.
I wonder if society knows the true human and financial cost of prison? How long are we going to keep covering up our failings to support those with mental illness and the most vulnerable by housing them in prison? As Double Disadvantage recommends, there needs to be much more focus on community support rather than custody if we want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable women.
I wish that I, and all women that have had similar experiences, can stop being afraid and are able to express themselves freely and openly to raise awareness of the truth of what is happening in prisons. I hope the government will listen to what we have to say.
*Althea Smith is a pseudonym.Suggest a correction