Sophie Barton-Hawkins
“LEAVE HER TO DIE”, the words uttered outside my cell supposedly out of earshot. Another suicide attempt. Just another day in HMP for me. Another 855 to go. My life was full of numbers. TG6992… Cell C1-17… 30 red entries… 10 days CC… 10 adjudications…all this after only being in this jail for 60 days! I could decorate my walls with the amount of warning slips, IEP* slips and nicking sheets that were being put through my door on a daily basis, portrayed as a monster, caged in like a bear, roar of a lion. I was by no means “bad”. It was my first time before the courts resulting in a hefty 6 year, 5 year and 4 year concurrent sentence. I did myself no favours by informing the screws upon my reception to the life of HMP that should they bang me up with someone else I would batter them. Now I’m not a violent person I just like my own space. This slip of the tongue followed me throughout the 3 years that I spent within the confines of various 6ft by 8ft concrete boxes. I saw the inside of countless cells, all as scummy as the previous and saw some of the most vindictive, violent and manipulative people in the prison system wearing black and white uniform. I didn’t know how to fight but gave it my all if the need arose, I was trained in karate but not in the raw brawling and pool balls that accompanied many prison fights. I had a sharp tongue and a very quick mind and could often outwit the staff. The only problem with being smart is that the staff punish you for it. I can’t remember how many bouts of basic I did as there were so many and so often. I can’t remember how many times I cut up to ease the pain in my head from being kept caged up, though the scars I still carry are testament to how many times it happened.

I travelled through three prisons in almost as many months, getting moved along only when I had used up all the ink in the red pens for that establishment. In my third and final prison I was curtly informed by the Governor that if my attitude didn’t change then I would be spending as long as he could get away with locked up in the block. I found myself quickly marched down there, still cuffed from the prison transport, after telling him he was singing the wrong words to “Islands in the stream”, possibly not the smartest move of my HMP career but definitely the shock that I needed. I didn’t want to be blocked off, the cardboard table and chair did nothing for the décor of the segregation cells, the bare bed frame bolted to the floor and the mesh on the window filled with rotten tea bags and manky apple cores shook me to the pit of my stomach and the dubious stains spotted along the floor and walls did not bear thinking about as to what part of the body they originated from.

Even though I was in my third prison my reputation as being, in the Governor’s words, “the worst female offender in the prison system” had most certainly preceded me. Even nurses were now giving me red entries! I was sick of basic, sick of the boredom and I wanted my guitar back that was taken from me whilst on basic. What I found out whilst on basic though is that I could write, poetry being the general forte of prisoners I took to it like a duck to water, my note books were filling up charting my days spent in jail and documenting the many lows I went through. Writing made me want to start my education again. I had a good education compared to others in jail so I took 2 A Levels in 6 months, teaching myself as there were no teachers available to give me one to one tuition. I also attended the education block as much as I could and did every course there. Slowly the education staff were coming on my side and giving me good reports in the constant barrage of IEP’s I kept getting. Because of the education staff my wing file was slowly filling up with positive black writing. I became a Toe by Toe mentor teaching others to read as well as being a teaching assistant in the English as a Second Language class. My confidence soared and with it so did my sense of self worth, my behaviour calmed down and my attitude settled. Slowly people were saying my name in a positive manner. I still had a quick tongue and a very hot temper but my slip ups were not recorded as much anymore and I found myself becoming an enhanced prisoner which meant I could access distance learning. I undertook a 2 year creative writing course funded by the Prisoner’s Education Trust and an Open University course funded by Women In Prison.

I was approached one day by the Governor of Diversity and asked to become a diversity representative, in her words “you need to focus your tongue on something positive.” I became the voice of a group of prisoners and represented them in meetings with staff and arranged focus groups for them to have their needs met. I got told I could go for ROTL** if I kept up the good work. So I did.

I started to play the game the way they wanted it played as playing it my way had got me nothing other than a security file that took up half a filing cabinet! I got my first ROTL and went home to see my family for the weekend, this brief glimpse of freedom was what I needed. Upon my return to jail I was completely different, I had something to work towards every month and every month bar one for the remainder of my sentence I went home to see my family for 5 days. After several months of going home my name got put forward to work for Koestler as an art curator putting together an art exhibition at the South Bank Centre showcasing prisoner’s art work that I and several others had chosen to go to exhibition. People who came to this exhibition wanted to hear my story as a prisoner as it was a unique insight otherwise not afforded to the free world. Public speaking was where it was at for me. I had a thirst for it. A thirst for wanting to get the voices of the imprisoned to the minds of the free. From working with Koestler I moved to the open wing and started volunteering for a mental health charity and eventually got paid employment in a hotel and would go to work every day as an equal to those in my work place.

I was no longer imprisoned fully, only at night when I would return from work, and the ball and chain that I was mentally shackled by was getting shorter. I started approaching youth offending teams offering to mentor the young people on their case loads and got offered voluntary employment with Kingston Youth Offending Team. I got to work closely with the young offenders and shared my story of crime and imprisonment to try and steer them away from the path they were walking as well as mentoring them through offending related issues such as anger and drug abuse. From this work my name was referred to the MET police to accompany them into schools and Pupil Referral Units to speak to and educate students there. My name started to be passed around these higher regions and my name started to carry a bit of weight in a good way. I got involved with a charity called User Voice which is an ex offender led service for ex offenders by ex offenders and advised the Government on the Green Paper.

Since my release from prison in September 2010 I still volunteer with youth offending teams and have maintained full time employment constantly. I am approached for public speaking by varied organisations, I advised the BBC on their comedy “Dead Boss” and have had a meeting with Princess Anne where I was introduced as an expert on education in prisons. If someone could have said to me 5 years ago that I would be sat in a room with Princess Anne being treated as an equal then I would have laughed in their face. I am proof that anything can happen as long as you believe in yourself. Don’t let negativity hold you back, transform it into something positive.

*IEP-Incentive Earned Privilege.
You do well you get rewarded by a black entry and if you commit an infraction on the rules you get a negative entry in red pen. 3 of these in a
month results in your privileges being removed such as TV and canteen spend.

**ROTL- Release on Temporary License. When you get half way through your sentence and you fulfil every criteria you can go home for 5 days to
visit family, in my case monthly but this varies from prison to prison.

 

Article taken from issue 13 of theRecord.

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