A personal account of my journey into prison

The following account was included in the delegate packs at the Empowering Women, Transforming Lives conference at the Supreme Court, on 4 September 2019:

I have suffered mental health difficulties for most of my life. For many years, it was seen as depression and not until I was in my 50s, was it diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder. Suddenly, everything made sense. The impulsiveness, inappropriate anger, over-sensitivity, self-harm, attachment issues… 

Apart from a couple of minor infractions as a teenager, I had managed my difficulties without getting involved with the criminal justice system.  However, in September 2014, everything changed.  For the past 14 months, I had been trying to get help from the mental health services. I don’t need to go into details, there are many similar stories. I had the usual assessments and promises of help, but nothing ever materialised. There is no personality disorder pathway where I live, and the general consensus seemed to be that nothing could be done for me.  Out of desperation, I had threatened my psychiatrist.  I apologised soon after and was not charged but because of this, and my attachment issues, I was seen as a potential danger to staff.

All this time, my mental health was deteriorating. I was a full-time carer for my seriously disabled partner, with whom I had been for nearly 30 years. We had agreed long ago that we would end our lives should life became unbearable and, in September 2014, we decided the time had come. 

The plan was to overdose on paracetamol tablets, but I panicked and called for help. My partner was taken to hospital, where she was given the all-clear, she didn’t even have the allowed daily dosage in her system.  But I was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. 

My partner was transferred to a nursing home, and I didn’t see her for 16 months. During this time my life spiralled out of control. I couldn’t bear being in the house without her.  I spent my days in coffee shops and my nights sleeping in my car at service stations.  One day, the police searched my car and found two knives. One had been there for months; I used it for cutting my partner’s food up when calling for take-aways in the car.  I had put the other knife there for safety when sleeping in the car. I was arrested and charged with possessing two bladed articles.  I was tagged and bailed, with a 7pm curfew.

I was still waiting to hear if I was to be charged with attempted murder, but the date of decision kept being put back. Eventually, I broke my tag and was remanded to HMP xx. On the fifth day, I ‘panicked’ and set fire to my cell.  There was minimal damage, and no-one was hurt, but I was charged with arson.

I was transferred to HMP xx and nine months later, appeared in court for sentencing. The attempted murder had finally been dropped. That left the bladed articles and arson. I pleaded guilty to both. My barrister had told me to expect a community order, but the judge was concerned about me being in the community without support.

In court, it was highlighted that I was of previous good character; I had entered two early guilty pleas and that the cell fire was ‘arson simpliciter’, putting no other lives at risk.  It was accepted that my behaviour was due to desperation, a cry for help.

Nevertheless, it was a matter of public protection, the judge said, and the probation service was refusing to monitor me on the basis. As the judge said:

…well, if the psychiatrists aren’t going to supervise her, then they don’t want to supervise her either.

However, I had effectively served an eighteen-month sentence already and, as the judge said:

I cannot pass a sentence of four years or more on the facts of this case. 

Rather disturbingly, he also said,

This, in my judgment, would be a classic case for imprisonment for public protection with a short tariff, a sentence which is no longer available to the court. Life imprisonment is of course not appropriate.

I later questioned myself as to whether he had actually said those words; life sentence? IPP?  I subsequently paid for my court transcript to prove that, yes, he did.

Instead, it was decided that I would receive a two-year sentence and on release, probation would be forced to supervise me, under the terms of MAPPA (multi-agency public protection arrangements).  The Community Mental Health Service, however, refused to have anything to do with me.