Rachel’s story: Two perspectives on surviving prison

This is the thirteenth 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. Rachel writes about the loneliness of being a prisoner, and an even lonelier existence as the partner of someone in prison. It hasn’t stopped her being determined to make a difference.

Fact and Fiction

I thought I knew about prisons – I’d volunteered there, studied them, watched documentaries and read all kinds of accounts, from prisoners and staff, past and present. I always thought, if I somehow ever ended up in prison, I would use the time to read all those books I hadn’t yet found time for outside.

And then I went to prison.

Prison life

Turns out, it’s not that easy to while away your time reading when you can only get to the library once a week. When the two women upstairs are bouncing off the walls all night, high on a mixture of prescription and other drugs. It’s hard to concentrate when someone who doesn’t know the real story is threatening you.

When there’s a sign in the shower reminding ‘ladies’ not to urinate in there. It’s hard to find the energy to care about a made up world when the world in front of you is so surreal: a woman who thinks her door is on fire, a woman who stands in the dinner queue dripping blood from a self inflicted wound, a woman who uses an asthma inhaler as a crack pipe.

Prison seeps into you. If you’re lucky, the people who love you will keep you sane. I didn’t pass my time reading books, I passed it writing letters – long rambling letters with descriptions and diagrams and outlines of my hands and feet.

I passed it using in phone calls that cut off every nine minutes, finding ways to make the things I described above sound funny  rather than scary for the people who loved me. I passed it painting (not very good) pictures and illustrating envelopes. I remembered how to knit and spent hours making tiny, holey squares to put together into a blanket.

I could only do those things because I had people to write to – and to write back. I had people to phone – and to send me money for the phone. I had people to send me paints and paper (although I had to argue for those in reception) and I had someone to knit a
blanket for.

I thought that books would keep me going but I was so, so wrong. What kept me going was the people who loved me – family and friends who still love me, despite the pain I put them through. Every single week I had a visit, every single day someone to talk to. I never went without money or post – even books, once the ridiculous ban was lifted (shout out to Barbara Gordon-Jones!)

On the other side

I made it out and now I’m on the other side – I’m the person keeping my loved one sane, making sure he has visits and money for the phone and things to read and do. Making sure he doesn’t give up on himself despite the long road ahead. Panicking when I see the news of yet another death in prison, another ‘disturbance’.

It’s harder on this side. In prison you’re surrounded by others in the same boat and no-one expects too much of you. Out here I don’t know anyone with a loved one in prison.

Ikuzo

Fortunately for me, my family and friends have been through it so they know how hard it is. And with the help of some of them, I am setting up Ikuzo, a transport service that will help others with a loved one in prison. (Ikuzo is a Japanese word, meaning ‘let’s go’).

Visiting someone in prison is expensive – people are held far from home in locations that are difficult o get to on public transport. I take three trains and a taxi each way to visit my loved one, spending five hours each way travelling, at a cost of around £90.

Ikuzo will provide comfortable, convenient and cost effective transport for families and friends. We’ll be starting with routes from London to the Midlands. We know that family contact is a factor in resettlement an in reducing reoffending – something that benefits the prisoner, their family and the community. Yet the time and cost make it difficult for families to spend time with their loved one.

We hope to make visits more accessible by providing families with an affordable means to get there but also by bringing together those who are  going through the same experiences. Earlier this year, the former Lord Chancellor described a prisoner’s family ‘the most effective resettlement agency’.

We need to give families the support they need to do their job well. We need to recognise the difficulties families face and find ways to make that easier, whether that is in cell phones, video calls, extended visits for those travelling a long way, family visits, or the removal of arbitrary dress codes.

If we want to reduce the estimated £13bn cost of reoffending we need to invest in families.

Let’s Go!

You can find out more about Ikuzo here

You can also follow them on Twitter: @ikuzoletsgo

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