With the report on the importance of maintaining family ties being the topic of debate recently, I have decided to write something I have been considering for a while, but putting off due to being overwhelmed with emotion when I recall my experiences of life in prison as a mother and rebuilding the relationship with my daughter upon my release.
Before I am anything else, I am a mother. My daughter is my pride and joy. She is beautiful inside and out, a huge animal lover, a comedian, only child who is spoilt rotten but would give her favourite toy or teddy to anyone who is less fortunate than she is. Throughout her school years she has always gained excellent reports in all aspects of her education and she has a great social life and is always the life of any party or family gathering.
Let me give you just a couple of funny examples to explain what kind of girl she is. A few years ago my sister and daughter visited me while I was at work, My daughter was 6 years old at this time. I went to my handbag and gave her £10 to spend while she was out shopping with my sister. They left my place of work to go about their day shopping. When I returned home my sister told me they had walked past an animal charity event on the high street where they had a donkey to pet for a donation. My daughter had asked my sister for some money to give to the animal charity but my sister didn't have any change so my daughter said, 'Mummy just gave me £10 let's give them that." My sister said no, we aren't giving them £10 and my daughter replied with "Well, Aunty Soph, at least rip it half and give them £5".
On another occasion, my daughter asked me, "Mummy, if I do the washing up and clean my room please can I have some pocket money". This was strange as she was 7 and had never asked for pocket money before so I asked her what did she want money for. She said, "Well my school teachers are going to Tanzania to visit a school and I wanted to buy some school supplies for the children there because in Tanzania they don't have as much as we have at school".
She is so selfless. Any family birthday she always insists on making cards and gifts because in her words 'making stuff is nicer than spending money'.
Having been sent to prison when she was only just 4 years old, it really broke my heart and the guilt I feel still is hard to shake off no matter how much self-forgiveness I can practice. I missed her first day at primary school and that is still horrible to think about. Looking at her photos with her hair in pigtails, her rucksack was bigger than her back and she was so tiny and looked so excited. I have the pictures of her first day at school up in my kitchen. Missing birthdays and Christmases were hard, but this day is a day that I will never ever get back. The biggest milestone in her life and I missed it because I was in prison. My sisters and my mum took her to school on her first day, and all cried their eyes out waving her off. How was our baby starting school already and how was her mum missing it....
I missed her 5th and 6th birthday and two Christmases. I was sent to prison in November so the first Christmas was horrible. Nobody expected me to go to prison on the day that I was sentenced, with no pre-sentence report and no regard or questioning as to what measures I had in place to care for my child, which at the point I was sent to prison, were none. Five minutes before sentencing me to two years in prison, was when the judge found out I was a mother. I had dropped my daughter off at nursery on the morning I was sent to prison, headed off to court with all expectation on returning home that day. I didn't return home for two years. My daughter at 4 years old, had no idea what had happened. Thankfully, my mum took her in without even a second thought and cared for her during my time inside.
I called home on Christmas day 2011, holding back the tears I briefly spoke to my mum and sisters telling them how shit my morning was so far, then I spoke to my daughter, trying not to cry. I asked her a few questions and asked what did she get for Christmas, she named a few toys and items she had received and then she said "But Mummy, why aren't you here because all I really wanted was you."
I hung up on her because I couldn't talk through tears. I was hysterical. I went back to my cell where I remained, in tears for the rest of Christmas Day. Even just recalling that phone call has made me cry now. I still feel bad that I put the phone down on my daughter, but I didn't want her to hear me crying because she would have been upset hearing that.
The second Christmas I was applying for a home leave to be able to spend Christmas at home. My probation officer had approved my home leave, contacted my mum and said she had approved it and that I would be home. Then the bombshell that she upped my risk from medium risk to the public, to high risk to the public, knowing full well that regardless of her approving my home leave (yes, that's right my probation officer approved a home leave for a person she considered to be a high risk to the public) that prison wouldn't let out a high risk prisoner. The prison had no idea why she had done it and neither did I. I took me weeks to get an answer in writing, gather evidence to disprove her, complain to her manager and get her ridiculous decision overturned. Which I did do, but again, that meant I spent Christmas 2012 in prison too.
Throughout my two years in prison I had steady contact with my family on a daily basis. Letters, emails, phone calls and visits. In my last 8 months I was going out on day release at the weekends and spent 4-5 days at home on temporary licence. On these days I would take my daughter to school and collect her. While I was at home she would sometimes say 'mummy' and my mum would answer her. For a period of her life, I witnessed my daughter mistaking her nan for her mum. Whilst I completely know my mum did everything she could to care for my daughter it was still horrible to know that my child thought my mum was her mum.
In two years in prison I benefitted from TWO family days visits. Where my mum and daughter could come and spend the day in the visits hall for a few more hours than normal visiting times. They had a few games, lunch was provided and we spent the day making stuff with arts and craft material. In my opinion and experience, a lot more could and should be done for parents in prison to keep their bond and connection with their children.
Living without her mother for two years, I am sure has had a lasting impact on my daughter. For a year or so since my release she was always ok and happy with staying at my mum's, staying at her dad's and having sleep overs at friends' and family's houses. She never really 'missed me' so to speak. And she was used to living with my mum so she still used to go there quite often to stay, even when I was home. In more recent times I am seeing such a change in dynamic. She is very clingy, very anxious about me working, asking what time will I be home, how long will I be away, how long does she have to stay at nanny's for? Whenever she is not in my care, for whatever reason, I am always receiving phone calls and texts saying she is upset and asking when I will be home. She can't stand to be away from me now.
I am still appalled by the judge who sent me to prison, for not allowing a pre-sentence report, it was my first time in custody and I was a mother of a young child. As I previously stated, the judge found out I was a mother and sole carer of a 4-year-old daughter five minutes before he sentenced me to two years in prison.
My relationship with my daughter now is great. She is happy that I am about to start university, and despite giving up my full time job to pursue education, she says we may have less money but at least we have more time 'to do fun stuff together'.
Before I am a student, a bar maid, a sister or a daughter, I am a mother. I was a mother in prison and now I am a mother living on the outside. My role as a protector, a friend and a supporter never changed, only my location did. My daughter has a shoe box full of all the cards and letters I sent to her while I was in prison and she has kept them and sometimes reads them. I asked her if we could get rid of them (I want to) and she said no, "I am keeping them in case anyone every says you just left me".
I would never leave my child. Judges sentencing mothers to a prison sentence need to ensure that there is really no other option and that the woman can arrange and put in place measures for her child to be cared for during the time of incarceration. Thankfully, my mum was ready and willing to do so. But the judge didn't know that. I guess I cannot change the past, all I can do is concentrate on the future and be the best mother I can be, regardless of my past.