Delivered at the Empowering Women, Transforming Lives conference at the Supreme Court, on 4 September 2019:
I was in segregation and had nothing. No clothes, no radio, no writing materials and nothing to read. What I did have was a razor blade. I wasn’t often strip-searched because I didn’t have a substance abuse problem, so I was able to smuggle it in. I didn’t intend using it; I had it ‘just in case’. But after several hours of staring at the wall and listening to the shouting and screaming coming from the other cells, I suddenly felt desperate. I cut my wrist. It wasn’t a suicide attempt. I didn’t want to die but doing something extreme made me feel better. I didn’t understand it but couldn’t seem to control it. The cuts were deep and there was a lot of blood. I let the blood drip onto the table and then used it to write on the walls.
Deputy manager Paul (not his real name), came in and told me to wash it off. I refused. He took hold of my head and pushed it onto the bloody table. ‘Now are you going to take it off?’ he said, nastily. ‘No!’ I replied. He pushed my head into the corner of the table until it was against the wall. There was blood in my hair and on my shirt. I wanted to stop him and get him off me. I picked up some congealed blood from the table and wiped it on the side of his shirt. He got hold of my arm and put it up my back. ‘One move and I will show you a whole new world of pain’, he said. I didn’t move. He told the officers to leave the cell and said he would be the last to leave. ‘I bet you would love to go for me now, wouldn’t you?’ he whispered, but that was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t say anything. He said, ‘thanks for the assault’, and left.
A nurse came to see me. The wound was quite deep, so she put a couple of steri-strips on, and then dressed it. The next morning, I was given my belongings. I had a shower and was grateful for the clean clothes.
Paul had put me on report for throwing congealed blood at him and so endangering his health or personal safety. My blood could have been contaminated, the adjudicator told me, and it had caused Paul considerable distress. I looked at Paul; he certainly didn’t look distressed. In fact, he seemed to be grinning at me. I pleaded not guilty because I had not thrown it at him; I had merely wiped it on his shirt in order to stop him hurting me. There was no malice intended and I didn’t feel I was being reckless with his health. I was found guilty, of course, and received more time in Segregation.
You may be thinking ‘why didn’t she just try and wash the word off and all that could have been avoided’. That’s what the officers said afterwards. I had caused myself all that grief because of my bad behaviour. I have Borderline Personality Disorder. Therefore, I am an attention-seeker. The only person who tried to understand was the prison psychologist, but she didn’t have time to treat me. Her job, she said, was to keep me out of segregation.
By the time of the incident with Paul, I had already been in segregation a number of times. Out of the 12 months I spent in this particular prison, a total of 3 months was in healthcare and 5 months in segregation. My way of coping in prison was to draw pictures and write stories on the walls of my cell. Some of them were funny, some were dark, and some were extreme. Everything I was feeling at the time was displayed on those walls. I understand now how ill I was, but at no time did anyone want to know what they meant or why I needed to do it. It invariably led me to segregation, but I never thought of the consequences. It was a compulsion, and the only way I could find to calm myself down.
In segregation, my behaviour became more extreme. As a punishment for the graffiti, I had all writing materials confiscated. Instead, I used coffee to write on the walls. The way the coffee made the letters drip down the wall made the cell look almost gothic. I felt safe, cocooned, there was hardly a space left on the walls. Eventually, I was taken to another cell and left there while my old cell was cleaned. I had no belongings at all, and the water was turned off in case I tried to flood the cell. All I had was the water in the toilet and a toilet roll. I wet the wall, made a word out of the toilet paper, and stuck it to the damp wall. I won’t tell you what the word was, I think you can guess.
Prison is an extreme environment and it brings out extreme behaviour in people. Ironically, two of the most compassionate officers I met were the two female officers in the cell at the same time as me and Paul. But they were afraid of him when he was in that mood. He could be very jolly when things were going well, but he had a dark side. His officers loved him, though, he always backed them, whatever they did.
I will never forget my time in segregation. Not because of my experience. I feel I gave as good as I got. But some of the women seemed to have given up. And this is why, when I came out, I started my volunteer work. I have set up my own support groups in Derbyshire for people with Borderline Personality Disorder. And I have done a considerable amount of work for the Revolving Doors Agency, including contributing to the Bradley Report review, 10 years on. One thing that that many ex-offenders have in common is the desire to help those still inside and through the gate. As part of the Health and Justice Lived Experience Panel, I have been back into the women’s estate to speak to the women about not giving up. I want them to know that their life means something and that they can still achieve their ambitions, because they are worth something. This was part of the pre-release skills project that we devised and piloted, and that is now embedded at the prison.
I would like to finish with one memory I have of my time in segregation that I am sure will stay with me forever. A woman a couple of cells away from me was due to go to court for sentencing and had been fretting about it for days. Not because of her case but because of her elderly grandmother, who was making the long trip to see her in court. But on the day, the officers never came to fetch the woman. She asked the senior officer, time and time again, what was happening, but he told her to shut up. I heard him laughing about it to his colleagues who, I think, he was trying to impress. I remember the woman sobbing, saying over and over, why are you doing this to me?’ It was heart-breaking. I never knew her name and I never saw her but she, and others like her, is the reason why I will never give up trying to bring change to the criminal justice system.