Toni was determined that on her release from prison she was going to turn her back on the criminal justice system. However, as she later discovered, the impact of her prison sentence meant that she’d go on to use her experiences in a much more positive way.
When I finished my sentence and left prison, I was determined to put that part of my life well and truly behind me. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go back to my old job but I’d been planning for my release and had lots of ideas about what I was going to do.
During my time in prison, I’d come across lots of people who, after going to prison themselves, wanted to continue to have some link with the criminal justice system and started working for organisations in this sector. That wasn’t for me – I wanted to get as far away from it all as possible.
In many ways I achieved what I set out to do. I reconnected with some ‘non-prison’ friends, got myself somewhere to live, started dating and got a job.
Outwardly, I was doing okay but inside I was suffering. There were obviously reasons behind why I had offended and whilst in prison, I’d started to work with a counsellor to address these issues but, as soon as I left prison, I buried them once again. My ‘non-prison’ friends had no idea what prison had been like and I found more and more that I needed to talk about it, to try and come to terms with it. I started to drink more and more to help me deal with my problems but of course, this only made things worse.
The drinking meant that I was regularly late for work and when I was there, I couldn’t concentrate. On reflection, my boss put up with me for much longer than he should have done but I eventually lost my job and couldn’t pay my rent. One night out of desperation I contacted a friend I’d been in prison with and asked for help.
She was amazing, she gave me a bed and board and expected nothing in return. All she wanted was for me to get well and during that time I came to realise how much prison had affected me. The shock of having to adapt to prison life; being exposed to a very different culture to my own; the lack of personal choice and my diminished sense of self-worth. I came to understand that very few people will be unchanged or unscathed by their prison experience.
I count myself lucky that I was able to recognise that I needed help. Prison had made me anxious and depressed and I started to worry that the deterioration in my mental health could put me at risk of re-offending.
Although I didn’t spend long in prison, it had a massive impact on me. The help I received from my friends and doctor was amazing and I’m now in a good place. Prison affected my mental health for the first time, and I can’t imagine what it must be like going into prison with pre-existing conditions; from what I saw, there was very little help available.
Ironically, I now work for the probation service on a reducing re-offending programme specifically for women. It seems as though I’m going to be one of those people with a criminal record that just can’t break free from the criminal justice system.
By Toni (name changed to protect identity)