Before I went into jail, things were good.
I have two little boys, eight and six, and while there were a few ups and downs – I struggled with my mental health due to a traumatic childhood – we had a nice life. My boys were doing well in school, were never late, and we did loads of fun, creative stuff together as a family.
And then it all spiralled.
When I was sentenced to five years imprisonment at HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire, knowing I would be apart from my kids was the most heart-wrenching thing I have ever been through. The only way I’ve ever been able to describe is that in my chest, where there’s supposed to be a heart, it’s hollow like the inside of a tennis ball. Being separated from my kids was more traumatic than anything I’ve ever had to do, or anything I’ve ever been through.
For the first sixteen months of my sentence at Foston Hall, I wasn’t allowed contact with my sons. Knowing they were out there without me, knowing they would need their mum, was too much. Feeling like I wasn’t worth anything, I began self-harming.
Then, an officer in the prison took the time out of her day to talk to me, calm me down, tell me things can get better. To process those sixteen months, I dedicated my time to art. I made little storybooks for my sons, glued them together each week I used to send them one of those big C4 envelopes filled with sweets and poems and drawings – it was the only thing that kept me focused.
“If it wasn’t for that cause and the kindness of the staff, I don’t think I’d have made it. They changed my life completely.”
When I first went in, I was all over the place. I hadn’t processed any emotions and was literally just a big ball of anger determined not to let anyone take me for a fool. But I soon made friends with the other girls and started different courses, including CAMEO, an intense psychotherapy programme for women with complex mental health needs and personality disorders.
If it wasn’t for that cause and the kindness of the staff, I don’t think I’d have made it. They changed my life completely. I had never ever had anyone sit there and talk to me, and it touched me that these people who I had never met before could sit, listen to me, and ask me why I am way the way that I am. I had experienced a lot of trauma in my life, but I came to realise, like a lot of women there, prison at times felt a lot safer than being in the outside world.
I’ve suffered with terrible anger issues and emotional and mental pain throughout my life – but prison really helped me get through that. We did DBT, dialectical behavioural therapy, which helps process our emotions and so on. One of my goals at the beginning was to feel something other than feeling numbness, and that therapy was like an epiphany. Suddenly I got all these feelings and emotions, and I realised it was okay to feel sad, it was okay to feel angry, it was okay for me to feel happy.
Toward the end of my sentence, my behaviour started declining – because they told me when I would be released I was going to be placed not near my sons, but hours away to a hostel in Bedford. I can’t do that… as soon as I get out, I’ll be going straight to Birmingham to see my kids, I remember thinking. I had sat through all these courses, jumped through all their hoops, and this is what I got in return?
But thanks to an incredible support officer, Sue, moving me to Bedford was cancelled. When I realised I was going to be able to see my kids when I left, it was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever felt. I had done everything I was supposed to have done but, for once in my life, this time I was rewarded for it. I realised that had never happened to me before.
“I had done everything I was supposed to have done but, for once in my life, this time I was rewarded for it”
Since I left prison in June last year having served two-and-a-half years, I’ve been doing loads of courses through probation and social services. I’ve been job-hunting like mad, and I’m thinking of doing some volunteer work. I wanted to work with older people or kids but, because of my record, it’s probably not going to happen. So I’m thinking now just cleaning or retail, or really anything that means I can provide for my children. I want them to have big birthday parties, everything they deserve – everything I never got.
In some ways my record has held me back. I expected everyone to be a bit ‘ooh she’s been to prison, don’t trust her’, but so many people are treating me like I haven’t been to jail, like I’m a ‘normal’ mum. I applied for a job not long ago where they genuinely didn’t mind that I had a criminal record… it was my gypsy traveller ethnicity. ‘We can’t have her kind here,’ he told a friend of mine. It wasn’t even the crime that put him off, it was my ethnicity!
But with everything I have been through, I know I’ll get past this. Seeing my kids every second Saturday is getting me through. Shortly, I should even be able to have them overnight.
From the officers to the therapists, who went above and beyond for me and the other girls, I truly don’t think I would be where I am if I didn’t go to jail. I’ve always seen my life as a series of ‘episodes’. And that episode of my life that’s just finished? Sure, it had it’s up and down to start with, but it’s what made me who I am today.
As told to Charlie Lindlar. Kelly features in Prison, a Channel 4 documentary series. Catch the final episode on Monday 2 March at 9pm.
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