I Used To Feel Shock That Women Prisoners Were Released Onto The Streets – Now It's Resignation And Disappointment

Catherine was 19 and, usually, the life and soul of our classroom. But as she prepared for her imminent release, she also prepared to return to the abuse and homelessness that prison had sheltered her from.
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The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series that hears from the people working at the coalface of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers.

This week, prison art teacher Mim Skinner remembers Catherine, a prisoner who was preparing for her imminent release – and the challenges that would come with it.

If you have a story you’d like to tell, email lucy.pasha-robinson@huffpost.com

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It goes without saying that prisons, with their locked doors and fingerprint scanners, are not exactly an open book.

I won’t pretend to know what it is like to go to sleep every night in a shared cell, or to only be able to see your kids at an appointed pre-booked slot, but the women I met in prison are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met.

I worked as a prison teacher and chaplaincy assistant for two years. It was easy to forget you were in prison when you were in the chapel. The lino floor and Brillo commercial carpet tiles that covered the rest of the prison graduated into a proper carpet as you crossed the threshold into the wide space.

The chapel day featured a jumble of intensely profound moments, daily pastoral admin and the regular business of people practising their different faiths. Weekly mass, faith support groups, Bible and Qur’an studies, prayer group, drug rehabilitation days, meditation and yoga classes, memorial services and pastoral cups of tea. The teas were my favourite. Moments when you could absent yourself from the hubbub of the prison and sit in the multi-faith room chatting over steaming hot tea served in the chaplaincy’s special supply of ceramic mugs.

It was on one of these appointments that I sat with Catherine to talk about her release. Catherine was 19 and usually the life and soul of our classroom and chapel group. She spoke about her son on every visit to the chapel and carried pictures of him with her, folded in her pocket, ready to be shown to staff and other residents.

But today her thoughts were not forthcoming. “Can I light a candle?” she asked, gesturing towards the low table in the room’s corner which held a stone cross and a handful of small blue tealights.

I passed Catherine a match and secured the rest back in their locked drawer, bringing with me the laminated card that held the liturgy we used.

“Who would you like to light a candle for today?” I asked. “Is it all right if we light one for me?” she replied tentatively.

“I don’t want to go,” she said quietly, looking into her lap.

I was, by this time, quite used to hearing people say this, but each time that fear of freedom, coupled with the idea that the best life we could give a person was to be locked on a wing, was equally heartbreaking.

“Of course you do. We’ve been thinking about this day for months,” I replied gently.

“I don’t. I’m so scared. Here is the safest place for me. I’ve got food and somewhere to sleep and people to help. What have I got out there? No house, no family, no support, nothing. You don’t know what might happen to me,” she said, blinking away the tears that had settled in the corners of her eyes.

She was right. I didn’t. But I could well remember the state she had arrived in earlier that year. One side of her face black, blue and raw. Stitches, administered by the healthcare team on arrival, held together a deep cut which protruded from her hairline. She had glazed eyes from too many pills and under her sleeves were dark imprints – small circular bruises that ran in a line across her wrists. When asked what had happened, she just shook her head, unable to relive the memories.

“You’ve not been told anything about your housing?” I asked. I used to be surprised by this, but the regularity with which our team chased up housing requests meant that the shock I had once felt in realising that women were released into doorways and community day centres was now replaced by disappointment, and even resignation.

“I’ve put three apps in asking about it but no one is getting back to me,” she said.

She lit the match on the spare empty box we kept by the candle display and, as she passed the dancing flame from match to candle, prayed aloud: “God, please protect me and don’t let anything bad happen to me, keep me safe, and look after the girls here too.”

As we washed up our mugs, Catherine announced: “I’m going to try and come back in.

“I’ll do whatever it takes. Not hurt anyone, just get caught shoplifting or something. I’m not going to last five minutes out there, I just know it. It’ll go wrong again and then I’ll self-destruct. I’ll end up drinking again if I’m on the streets on my own.”

We dried the mugs in silence and stacked them back on their trays. I felt more useless than I ever had, offering painting and prayers but not a lockable front door.

“I’m sorry, Catherine,” I said as the patrol officer unlocked the chapel doors to escort her back to the wing.

She was released at 9.30. Catherine put her white bin bag of possessions into my boot, a pair of red trainers visible as they pressed against the side of the thin plastic. We drove towards the McDonald’s on the other side of town, where I bought her breakfast. I’d expected her to be fascinated by the changes that had happened in a town she hadn’t seen for almost a year but she leant her face against the window and absent-mindedly chewed an already bitten fingernail as though she hadn’t noticed how the town had looked before.

“I spoke to my cousin last night who gave me an address I can stay at, and then after a bit I can get myself sorted. Get a place of my own,” she said.

I typed the address she had written on a scrap of lined paper into my satnav. The route took us 20 minutes away into a suburb. The front garden was high with weeds through which protruded the plastic legs of disused garden furniture lying on its back. Heavy bass filtered out through the front door, which was ajar.

“Whose house is this, Catherine?” I said, realising that it was the first time I’d asked. “I don’t know,” she replied.

I offered to accompany her inside, but she refused. I turned to hug Catherine. “If you need help, just call. You can reverse the charges. Or if you can’t get to a phone then go into the Salvation Army kitchen. They know me and can tell me how you’re doing.”

We said the Lord’s Prayer together in the front seat of the car and then I watched her walk through the front gate and into the house.

I saw her a week later at a community meal I help to run. “Catherine! It’s so good to see you. Are you okay?”

Her eyes were glazed and she swayed slightly as she spoke. “It is what it is,” she said, smiling under tired eyes.

“Is your house sorted yet or are you still staying at where I dropped you?”

“No,” she paused. “Not there. It wasn’t too good there. Bad things happened,” she said, not inviting any further questions. “I’m sleeping in town.” She threw an arm towards the open window.

A man in his fifties interrupted, putting a hand on Catherine’s shoulder. “Now, what are you saying to my girlfriend?” he said, addressing me.

“Leave it, Chris, I know her,” she replied.

I knew Chris too, as it happened, so did all the other volunteers, and the police. He smiled and left us to go outside for a smoke.

“He won’t leave me alone,” she said, shuddering. “I was in a doorway last night but he says I can sleep at his tonight, until I find somewhere better to go. I think I’m going to. He’s nice enough and I’ll just be awake all night in town otherwise. You can’t close your eyes when you sleep out there.”

“Catherine, please don’t go back to Chris’s,” I pleaded.

Chris returned. “Coming back to mine then?” he said to her.

“Thanks for offering, Chris, but I’ve found somewhere else for her,” I said.

“Yes,” Catherine replied, shooting me a grateful look, “thanks but I’ve got somewhere else. Maybe next time.”

I hoped my card had enough money on it to cover the Travelodge bill. It was more to soothe my conscience than anything, I reflected, booking her into the hotel. Because one night really wasn’t going to make much of a difference. She’d make her way into town the following morning and begin the cycle once again. And tomorrow I would not be there with my middle-class guilt and my credit card and, no doubt, Chris’s offer would be. Cynically, I was just insuring myself against hearing some bad news the following morning, which I would struggle to digest knowing that I could have prevented it.

Catherine disappeared for a while after that, but I was passed irregular updates about her wellbeing most weeks through a chain of people.

“I saw Catherine today,” Gareth, who ran the soup kitchen, would say. “She says to tell you she’s okay and not to worry.” Or a call from a support organisation: “We have a woman called Catherine McStay who said you could give a character reference for her?”

Surprisingly, though, these third-hand messages never came, as I expected, from the prison staff – despite Catherine’s efforts, she was not back inside.

And, eventually, a message from a guest at the soup kitchen let me know that she had been placed in a refuge. There is a stage, it seems, when things can become so bad that you are bumped up the housing priority list.

“She slept for the first two days solid,” the complex needs worker told me, “but she’s been around more now. She’s been weeding the garden today and then has a drug and alcohol appointment. She came on a trial period because we were a bit nervous to take her with her drug history but she’s been clean since she arrived.

“I guess she just needed someone to take a chance on her.”

Mim Skinner’s ‘Jailbirds: Lessons from a women’s prison’ is published by Seven Dials in hardback at £16.99

The Case I Can’t Forget is a weekly series from HuffPost UK that hears from those on the frontline of public service about the cases they have carried with them throughout their careers. If you have a story you’d like to tell, email lucy.pasha-robinson@huffpost.com.


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