How we're helping women prisoners survive drugs and violence in jail to invest in their future

“I was on a night out with friends and had been drinking for 12 hours,” says the former mortgage broker, who was 26 at the time. “I had no intention of driving home but somehow ended up behind the wheel with my friends in the car. I clipped the kerb and crashed into a tree, killing one of them instantly.

“The pain of what I did will never leave me. Innocent people were deeply and irreparably damaged and affected forever by my actions that night.”

Marie-Claire, now 38, received a 14-month sentence in February 2007 for causing death by dangerous driving. At HM Prison Eastwood Park, Gloucestershire, she was quickly exposed to the realities of life behind bars: drug taking, threats of violence from other inmates and humiliating strip searches by officers on a regular basis. On top of that, she suffered mentally while trying to deal with her grief and guilt, as well as the overwhelming fear of life post-prison.

“I ended up having an emotional breakdown,” she remembers. “For a long while I didn’t think I deserved a second chance.”

That’s why today Marie-Claire spends her time talking to inmates across the UK to spread a very clear message: that they can turn their lives around.

“Having well-run and well-funded prisons is important, but so is investing in the rehabilitation of women so their entire lives are not defined by their time in custody,” she explains. For many women, though, this might seem like an impossible task, given that even a short prison sentence can easily cost them their home, job and children.

“Just a few weeks in jail can change everything for a woman,” explains Kate Paradine, chief executive at the charity Women in Prison (WIP) .

“Many won’t have a house to go back to. They’ll feel unemployable, and in 90% of cases, when a mother goes to prison her children will have to leave their home to go into care or to live with relatives.”

In 2016, 8,447 women were jailed, separating around 20,000 children from their mothers. More female offenders served a sentence for theft than for violence, robbery, sexual offences, fraud, drugs and motoring offences combined, while 80% of those locked up for theft had shoplifted.*

Meanwhile, a report last year by The London Assembly found that female inmates were more than twice as likely as men to need help with their mental health.

What makes these figures all the more controversial is that 11 years ago, Baroness Corston ordered the Home Office to review women’s prisons.

She recommended that non-violent female offenders receive community sentences rather than custodial ones to help deal with the issues that had led them to offend in the first place, such as drug or alcohol addiction.

The report also recommended smaller custodial units closer to home – as opposed to large prison estates – so that female prisoners could maintain ties with their families.

“Baroness Corston advised building a network of women’s centres across the country to provide hubs for the range of services women need to tackle the root causes of offending,” says Kate. “But many areas still don’t have these. Where they do exist, they face a desperate funding crisis and are hanging by a thread, while some have already closed down.”

Marie-Claire’s experience of prison was a far cry from her previous life, which included a stable relationship with her then-boyfriend.

“Other inmates were openly using heroin smuggled in by visitors,” she remembers. “After just a few weeks, the bully of the wing threatened to throw boiling water in my face. Then there were strip searches, which were always totally degrading. For the most part, prison was boring, but it also had a constant underlying tension that something was about to explode.”

For Marie Claire, however, serving time was nothing compared to the guilt she felt for causing her friend’s death, which had a huge impact on her mental health.

“I hit rock bottom,” she says. “Everything about prison exaggerates the vulnerability of women by taking them far away from home and locking them up with mentally ill and often drug-addicted prisoners. Prison politics are rife, leading to rifts and violence.

Onewoman killed herself while I was there, and that in itself is traumatic in a small community.”

In fact, the rate of self-harm among women in prison is now at its highest since 2011, while nearly half of female prisoners have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Just last month, it was revealed that 21-year-old geography student Katie Allan killed herself in June after bullying by fellow inmates at Polmont Young Offenders Institute in Falkirk. She’d been sentenced to 16 months for a drink-driving offence where a 15 year old was injured, even though the victim and his family had called for her not to go to prison.

Marie-Claire considers herself one of the lucky ones. She says that during her time inside she came across some very supportive officers, one of whom suggested she receive help through the prison’s therapy programme. Meanwhile, her family showed their support through regular visits.

“I felt that I deserved to go to jail because of the gravity of my crime, but for people who have committed low-level offences, it’s not always fair to put them through that,” she says.

That’s why, when she left prison in 2008, Marie-Claire decided to help other offenders. Six years later, she set up her social enterprise project New Leaf to provide mentorship. But it wasn’t just offenders she wished to target – she also wanted to speak to employers to break down stigmas and increase employment opportunities for former inmates.

“We support all people, regardless of their convictions,” she explains. “All we ask is that they take responsibility for their actions and commit to making positive choices in the future.”

Four years on, almost half of New Leaf’s clients have moved into education, training or employment after their release from prison. And the organisation has also set up creative workshops in three prisons, producing goods to sell in garden centres.

“They have a safe environment to grow where they won’t be judged by their past mistakes or ditched if they mess up,” says Marie-Claire.

According to Kate, the UK is in desperate need of more projects like New Leaf.

“The answer to this crisis doesn’t lie in prison, it lies in practical services in communities to help women turn their lives around,” she explains. “For a fraction of the cost of prison, a woman can complete a community sentence, while seeking support from a specialist project and tackling the roots of her offending.”

For Viv Lyons, a similar initiative finally helped her break the 30-year cycle of her crime and drug habit. Sitting on a sofa in the lounge of Treasure – a housing project for female ex- offenders – she admits she’s lost count of the times she has been to prison.

“I have around 113 convictions,” says the 49-year-old grandmother and former heroin and crack addict. “From the ages of 15 to 45, I was going to prison every single year for shoplifting and fraud.”

But four years ago,  rather than being released straight back into the community where she would no doubt reoffend, Viv was met at the gates of HM Prison Holloway and taken to Treasures. After engaging consistently with addiction services for a few months, she finally accepted hope for a future without drugs and crime.

“Life is a lot more structured now,” she explains. “I’ve got a job and a routine which has helped me mend my relationship with my 30-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter, and I even help look after my grandchild now.”

Viv first went to Holloway at just 15 for fraud after using a stolen cheque book, and was on remand for three weeks before being given a conditional discharge due to it being her first offence. But it wasn’t to be her last.

“I had a loving family, but I’d started hanging around with a bunch of older kids who were always doing drugs and committing crimes,” she remembers. “Even when I did get caught and sent to prison, the sentences were short, so they didn’t really bother me.”

However, years of going around in circles in the prison system had its consequences. “It was devastating to be torn apart from my kids for months at a time,” she says. “But even they just weren’t enough to make me get on the straight and narrow. I couldn’t get clean and life was too chaotic to even think about looking for a job. Everything felt so hopeless.”

Viv’s last spell in prison was for shoplifting in 2014, when she served eight weeks of a four-month sentence. By then she was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder brought on by years of smoking and drug abuse, and needed equipment to help her breathe. A prison doctor warned her if she didn’t stop using, she would be dead within a year.

That’s why when Viv met Mandy Ogunmokun – also an ex-offender who worked for the drugs and alcohol team at the prison – and agreed to visit Mandy’s supported housing project on her release and attend a day program for recovering addicts in east London.

“I needed someone to meet me at the prison gate because I knew that if they didn’t, I probably would have gone off to use drugs,” she says.

At the project, Viv received in-house group support and therapy sessions. “Just being there made something change in me,” she says. “It took a while for me to understand that I needed to remain abstinent. Now my kids are seeing me drug-free for the first time in years, and I’m so proud of that.”

Mandy, a 58-year-old former addict who spent 20 years in and out of Holloway, founded Treasures in 2011. Since then it has supported almost 100 women in turning their lives around.

“I set this up with the belief that if my life can be changed, so can other women’s,” she explains. “But it can’t be sorted on a tick-box, three-month basis.

Some women are here for a few months, others for a couple of years.”

In 2016, Viv began volunteering at the project, and she’s since taken on a part-time job as a key worker, helping clients with benefit and housing applications as well as accompanying them to therapeutic groups.

“It’s given me a sense of responsibility,” she says. “It’s also helped me learn to communicate better and to have patience with people. Most of all, though, I’ve learned that it’s not all about me.”

Last June, the Ministry of Justice finally launched a new female offender strategy in an attempt to cut the cycles of reoffending and reduce the numbers of women in prisons in the UK. They also set aside £5million to develop new community prisons. However, this idea has been met with some criticism.

“Many of the services that support women in turning their lives around continue to face a lack of adequate funding,” says Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust. “If we don’t invest in these vital services then we all lose.”

Kate adds that although £5million has been allocated for the strategy, £2million of that has already been apportioned to domestic violence, so in reality it will receive £3million at the most.

“The funding is pitiful,” she says. “The former minister Phillip Lee, who led the development of the strategy, has said that at least £20million is needed.”

Which, says Kate, is a huge blow, especially as it’s clear that projects like Treasures and New Leaf really can make a huge difference.

Marie-Claire has recently been shortlisted for Outstanding Individual of the Year by the Criminal Justice Alliance, while Mandy explains that Treasures’ USP is that they offer “true care, straight from the gate”.

“Offenders need a loving environment – somewhere they’re not able to slip the net,”

she says. “These types of projects can help stop people returning to a life of crime, so why wouldn’t people want more places like that?”

Photography: Getty Images, Danielle Aumord

If you or anyone you know needs help dealing with mental health problems the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or visit Mind’s website.

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