Barbara Burton’s story: BehindBras

This is the fifth in the turnaround series of guest posts written by ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and now work, in one way or another, in the criminal justice sector.

Today Barbara Burton tells how she left prison behind to launch BehindBras, a social enterprise for women in prison.

Advice to my younger self

 Women don’t miraculously change overnight when they go to prison. The shock doesn’t transform us just like that. Sorry to inform the ‘short, sharp shock’ brigade. But I had a plan. Even before sentencing I had my own plan. That plan: BehindBras which officially launched this week.

All sorts of hurdles along the way have threatened to block my vision. A mission to set up a business to help women into work after prison. A vision which this week saw the launch of BehindBras, a social enterprise which trains and supports women from prison into the fashion and textiles industry.

Using the benefit of hindsight, this blog offers advice to my younger self behind bars about what will get me through to today’s reality.

 Breaking the mould

 For a start, you didn’t choose the easiest path, Barbara. There are several types of prisoners. The ‘old lags’- if you can call women that? – have done so much time they know what they’re doing. They know the drill, coping as best they know. Then there are newbies like me. As a first-timer you can play one of two cards. Stay quiet and timid for fear of upsetting anyone. Or and this is arguably the harder path, be assertive and loud, getting you noticed. This often earns you the reputation of pest, forever reprimanded and threatened. Breaking the mould of model prisoner isn’t easy, as you know.

Barbara:  Can I go to the gym, please?

Officer:    Sorry, no Barbara – the gym is closed today. There are no officers with keys available to let you in and supervise. Go back to your cell.

Barbara:  I want to work on my business plan. Can I go to the library please?

Officer:   No Barbara. You can use the computers in education at the set times. You know the library operates set times too. Rules Barbara, rules!

Go back to your cell. Watch Jeremy Kyle like the others.

Of course rules are rules. The business plan will cause difficulties but also give you hope and purpose in the four prisons you go to.

It’s going to be OK

 It may not feel like it now but your time inside will shape BehindBras. Hold onto that. You’ll come across ‘forgotten women’ with creative talents and good job prospects who could with better support rebuild their careers and families. Like the successful professional woman in her late thirties – not your stereotypical prisoner- who has gone on to set up a successful fashion business.

See for yourself the human cost of the system turning out just one in ten women who leave prison into work. What a waste. Especially when everyone knows work reduces reoffending. If only you could know, Barbara, that after prison you’ll design, manufacture and produce beautiful lingerie to support women who, for whatever reason, have found themselves behind bars. If only you could know, that in a few years time you’ll collaborate with prisons where once you were an inmate. That you could collaborate with top fashion experts and colleges to deliver courses to equip women to work self-employed or as employees in fashion, retail and all sorts of creative industries.

Believe in yourself I’d tell my younger self. One day you’ll pinch yourself. As you design your first bra, it’s made, then sold!… It’s going to be OK. If only I’d known.

Make bureaucracy your friend

On arrival in prison I had a 30 page business plan, growing to 110 pages by the end of my sentence. What you can’t know now but I’ll tell you with the benefit of hindsight is that the bureaucratic barriers of inside will equip you for the bureaucratic nightmare on the outside!

 Getting access to a computer in prison is one thing. The negative, obstructive bureaucratic attitude of some staff to anything to do with my business plan is another. Remember the time you were being shipped out to a different prison…

Barbara:                 Can I take the floppy disk with my business plan with me?

Member of staff:  Err, no. It’s prison property.

After my initial fury, thankfully with help from my solicitor and pestering, three days later the floppy disk arrived safely in my new prison!

Take heart though, at unexpected moments you’ll encounter champions. Like the man from an outside company. He will believe in your project. He will help you improve your plan.

So remind me how that wall of bureaucracy in prison helped to make BehindBras happen you may well ask of me today?

Well, it’ll enable you to dig deep and navigate the bureaucratic maze of prisons when you’re a civilian not an inmate.  It takes months to reach the right staff member to discuss your programme. Only to discover that the resettlement officer you’ve made connection with and holds the key to your success, has gone on maternity leave. All this earning not a penny!

If only you knew internal prison bureaucracy will provide essential training.

Doubts – there’ll be plenty. Pig-headedness will get you though

 Two overriding doubts persist: about other people’s perception and whether the women themselves will buy in. And yet every event, meeting and prison visit will prove if they exist at all, the reception is overwhelmingly supportive.

You’ve shown you are pig-headed, obstinate and optimistic. Traits which get you through your prison sentence and beyond. Keep busy, always be your polite self. Head up, hold onto your vision and get on with it!

Remember you’re doing this for personal self esteem, to give back to your family and loved ones and to prove to all women behind bars that they are no longer ‘forgotten women’.

 Above all my advice from Barbara today, to me then, behind bars?

Everything will be OK. My first bra proves it.

 www.behindbras.org.uk  was launched this Wednesday 31st May

You can email Barbara on : [email protected]

Or follow her on Twitter: @BehindBras

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