This is the eleventh in a 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. Natalie Atkinson tells how her experiences in care and custody have informed her work with vulnerable young people in contact with the justice system.
So why did you choose to work in this field?
This is one of the questions I find myself being asked on a frequent basis. Obviously I am a young female from a northern background, so when I first present I feel I am often pre-judged and it is assumed that I have a lack of knowledge regarding young people involved in crime. I often say that I have always had an interest in the youth and Criminal Justice System, which is true in the sense that the ‘system’ has been a massive part of my life but I stay away from disclosing anything about my background.
Why? Because I have always been informed that you should not disclose your background to young people that you work with, within a youth justice environment. Therefore, technically I am living a lie in the sense I am two people, a YOS Case Manager and someone who has lived experience of prison. This is something which I struggle with to this day, worried that I will be judged for my background if I were to disclose it and on the other hand judged as being someone who would never be able to understand some of the challenges that young people and young adults face.
My experience does not define who I am, it contributes to who I am!
I am thankful every day for the life I have and the experiences that have helped me develop as a person. I spent 9 years involved in the care, youth and Criminal Justice System, spent 13 periods in custody and lived in numerous placements, at the time that was the norm. My life consisted of being involved in fights, being arrested, charged and processed back into the system. It was a security blanket for me and I often chose to go to custody, whether Secure Units or Prison I would feel that I had nothing to be ‘outside’ for and be better off locked up.
I didn’t make things easy for myself in custody I would often fight and behave like I did on the outside. I was angry; at myself, my family and the world in general. I felt hopeless and that custody was going to be my life. Prison changed me as a person, not for the better I became depressed, angrier and unable to cope with my life, which worsened when I was placed on anti-psychotics to ‘calm me down’.
Suicide and self-harm were among my first experiences of imprisonment, a woman hanging herself on the First Night Centre, other women laughing and carrying on as normal. You could say I adapted to prison life quite quickly, as I decided I needed to make a point and show people I was not going to be an easy target. I would often fight and attempt to gain control of my life by using aggression, violence and self-harm.
Things started to change for me, when I got sick of being in the same situation, being told what to do every day, people within the community looking down on me and when I started to understand my experiences of my childhood and prison. I am one of the lucky ones, who has always had support, I had great support from Professionals and this is something that has contributed to moving away from the toxic life I was living.
The experience of imprisonment
Consistent support for me is key for young people and young adults, to enable them to make changes to their life, however I still believe that many young people do not receive this and continue to live the life that they know.
Spending your teenage years and early adulthood in custody, is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life, as these are the most important years of your life where you are meant to develop and grow. I do not feel that enough recognition is given to the impact that imprisonment has on individuals and the trauma of imprisonment. From my experiences I believe that individuals are removed out of society, placed in a contained environment and often not giving appropriate support to be re-build their lives, rather they are moulded to conform to deal with the prison environment and expected to adapt to the outside life on their release.
The use of violence among young people in prison and the fear that sits with them during their prison time has a major impact on their lives and this is something that I feel needs to be address further. In order for a young person to ‘benefit’ from time in prison, surely they need to feel safe, be given appropriate support and be empowered to make changes?
Improvements have been made within youth justice, including the amount of young people in custody has reduced, however there are still many young people in custody that are struggling to deal with day-to-day live and have come to accept that this is their life…. Something which is not acceptable.
I am currently enjoying my life and just being me….
I was released from custody in 2011 and my life has been a rollercoaster since then, from completing an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, featuring in the media, and commencing employment in the youth justice field. However, the most important part of the last few years is building a life for myself, that I want and am able to shape in the direction that I want.
I am lucky to have the opportunity to have a good life and I hope that other young people in the system, receive appropriate support to believe in themselves and build a positive life.
You can follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nat89atk