'I wish that I could be like normal people'

Madeline Petrillo
Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Through the publication of short articles, we are providing a space for women's voices to be heard. Madeline Petrillo, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, will tell their stories. She will use their own words where possible as recorded in a series of interviews for a project examining women’s pathways to desistance from crime. All names and other identifying information have been changed.

Please note: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse and violence.

Women who have experienced trauma can behave in ways that challenge us. Their stories are hard to hear. They dare us to look at them and listen to them but in doing so, we risk exposing ourselves to aspects of life we prefer remain hidden. Perhaps this is why the response to these women is so often to lock them away where they can’t be seen, or heard.

Alice has spent much of her life locked away.

I’ve been in hospital nine times since the age of 18, since I first got diagnosed. I’ve been in hospital quite a lot. It feels like for quite a lot of this year I’ve been locked up even though I’ve only been in prison for two months. I was put in a mental institution for four months. I came out in April then I came to prison in August.

Alice has paranoid schizophrenia she understands to have been triggered by having been raped.

I first got raped at 13. They went to my school but I didn’t tell the police. I don’t know. Maybe I was scared. And then I was raped again at 18, and I was raped again in January this year. I used to hate myself. I used to self-harm my face. I used to self-harm quite a lot but only on my face. I used to take a lot of drugs because of it. And I’ve got children and they’re not allowed to live with me because I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia now from being raped. Like, I used to think about it quite a lot and then it started to make my mind a bit unwell.

Alice’s cutting reveals a belief that she is somehow responsible for her victimisation.

I didn’t want to be pretty anymore, so I take drugs and then when I’m a bit drowsy I’ll start self-harming my face. I think it woke me up coming to prison not being able to have foundation, not being able to have make-up, because I haven’t got anything to cover my scars. Every day I’ve got to face what’s happened and what I’ve done.

Having make-up in prison was no luxury for Alice. It was a way she maintained some control over the impact of the sexual assaults on her emotional well-being.  Locking Alice up removed a mechanism she had developed for coping with what had happened to her. It also aggravated her mental health in other ways.

I used to hear voices quite a lot, like derogatory voices like calling me names and stuff, but I think that’s a lot to do with reflecting on being raped, so it feels quite evil. Since I’ve come to prison, I’ve started hearing them again, but I think it’s because I feel so down about my situation and stuff.

Alice committed her offence after relapsing into drug use following the last rape.

Sometimes I feel like if drugs had not been invented, some people would have killed themselves because of their grief of what they’ve been through. If they haven’t got something to help them alter their mood, they would just think of suicide. Because I’ve thought of suicide. I’ve done it enough times. When I got raped in January, I took an overdose and tried to set myself on fire. My legs were on fire. I’ve got all burn scars because I tried to kill myself when it happened. So it’s suicide you turn to or you turn to drugs.

Alice started smoking cannabis after the first rape at 13, 'to alter my mood and stuff, trying to help me cope'. They also provided a focus that kept what she termed the ‘resentment’ she felt from being raped at bay.

It used to make me feel quite busy and like I had something to do and focus on. You’ve always got something to do with drugs. You’ve always got to go out and get money for drugs, or you’ve got to go and buy the drugs, then you’ve got to take the drugs so it used to make me feel like I’m doing something, but it was nothing constructive. It wasn’t any good for me. It will make you do things that you wouldn’t normally do, like crimes and stuff. Put it this way, I’ve been under the influence of drugs in all my crimes. Apart from that, I’d never get arrested, never. I know that for a fact.

Alice had three previous convictions. As she said, all had been committed at times when she had relapsed into drug use following abuse.

If I had a meeting with you last year I would have told you, no, I’m never going to get arrested again and stuff, but it ended up happening. But I think it ended up happening because I got raped and then my life went downhill again, do you know what I mean? So sometimes I do get quite resentful quite a lot about the rapes.

The trauma that Alice has endured has not been limited to sexual assaults. She also experienced domestic abuse which she believes resulted in the loss of her unborn child.

It had happened on the Sunday, that the baby’s heart stopped and that day he hit me so bad. He kept hitting me and hitting me and hitting me. I believe in my heart that is why the baby passed away. The baby couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take it, so imagine the baby. The baby’s only small and stuff and babies aren’t designed to go through things like that. So I went through I lot then as well. I was put in hospital.

Alice had been locked up by her abusive partner but escaped by climbing out of a window one day when he was out. I left my house, my car, with just the clothes I was wearing...then I found out five months later I was pregnant. I was so very happy to have my child but it was just a lot to know I was having his child.

Alice tried to stop her ex-partner having contact with the child, but her mental health issues mean the child now lives with her ex-partner’s sister. The repeated sexual and physical abuse Alice has endured means that she is not able to look after her child, but the child is in the family of one of her abusers. This made fulfilling her role as a mother as hard as could be.

She was told she had to have 12 months of psychotherapy before she could apply for custody of her child. Not only had she been harmed, she had to go through what she perceived as further trauma to fix herself. 'I don’t really like counselling because they ask you so many questions and you have to keep thinking about what happened. I’m going to have to do it. And maybe it will help anyway, a bit.'

Alice saw being locked away in mental health units and prison as different. It’s not good going to a mental institution let alone prison. 'Mental institution is kind of different because it’s not really your fault. It’s because of your life that’s led you to have mental health problems but prison is because you’ve actually done the crime, it’s a bit different and it makes you face up to what you’ve done.'

It’s hard to look at Alice, to hear about what happened to her, to question whether any of this was her fault and to acknowledge that society’s way of coping with what happened to her is to lock her away. Keep her out of sight.

It’s a dream but so much I wish that I could be like normal people. When you’re on drugs it’s very hard to see yourself like everybody else, because you’re not really like everybody else. But now I’m off it it’s a lot easier to be able to know what you want in your future and to try and get it.

Madeline Petrillo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth where she teaches on gender and crime and is Course Leader for the Probation Qualification Framework. She previously worked as a probation officer, specialising in work with women in the criminal justice system. Madeline is currently undertaking research examining women's pathways to desistance. This is a longitudinal study with a cohort of women leaving custody exploring the factors they perceive as important to their desistance and factors they experience as presenting obstacles to change. 

Read the stories of other women in criminal justice from the Breaking the silence comment series here.