My current role in Shine is very different from that of a PBC and so going in and speaking to the women in order to take referrals has been a new experience for me.
A typical day for me begins by entering the prison and awaiting a runner to come and take me to the women’s hall. Once the runner collects me I go up to the women’s hall where a room has been booked for me. I hand over my list of women to see to the staff on the desk and they will then call the women down one by one to see me. Some will decide to refuse to see me and whilst this can be frustrating it is understandable when you consider that they are in a regime where they have very little say over anything and so this ability to say no is one of the little bits of control they have left.
The women I see come from varied backgrounds and some are reluctant to provide much information whilst others are more chatty. The information that we require on our referrals is often very sensitive and personal and we are asking them to confide this to a total stranger and so it always a privilege if they decide to open up and tell their stories as this requires a lot of trust. Often their stories are difficult to hear and the majority of them tell similar tales of trauma. It is common for me to hear, for example, that they have experienced domestic abuse; they suffer from poor mental health and drug / alcohol addictions; they have self-harmed in the past; they have lost their children and, for the unlucky ones, have no contact with them. They all worry about losing their tenancies due to their benefits being stopped whilst they are in custody and many tell me that whilst they have been in prison their properties have been broken into and their possessions stolen.
One particular lady told me that her life has been filled from childhood with violence, sexual abuse and for the past few years she has been homeless and living on the street. She deliberately committed a crime in order to escape life on the streets and come into prison. Understandably she is anxious about leaving custody and does not know where she will end up once liberated. It leaves me wondering how it could be that life in prison is an option that you choose, however I know that she is not the only one who has made this choice.
Even though the stories these women tell me about their lives can be very dark they seem to feel better even just for having someone to speak to. They also all have aspirations about what they want to achieve once they are out like getting back into employment, going to college, re-building relationships with children and families and we always focus on these as our time comes to a close. Knowing that our mentors are so good at their jobs and can help them support them with this leaves me feeling optimistic about the future for these women and their ability to turn their lives around once released. I keep my fingers crossed that they will engage with the service once released because if our mentors can help them even with just one issue then they have a chance and if anyone can do it our mentors can!