The traumatic personal experiences of women in the criminal justice system often go unnoticed. Their experiences are ignored; their needs minimised; their support and treatment an afterthought.
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.
At 14 I went to a secure unit. I first came to prison when I was 17. I’ve been to Holloway seven times, Downview, Eastwood Park. I’ve been to prison ten…no twelve times.
Misha is 22. Imprisonment has cast a shadow over her life from early childhood. Trapped in the revolving door of the criminal justice system, there is a tragic inevitability to her story.
I’ve been around drugs and that since I was little. Like, when I was young, I was like ‘oh I want to go to Holloway’.
And now I’ve been here it’s like the biggest mistake of my life. Cos my mum had been to Holloway. And you see Bad Girls on the TV and you’re like ‘yeh I want to be one of them'. Cos I was around a lot of crime.
So I’ve been doing crime from really, really young. So I was like ‘yeh, I want to go to Holloway, be a big girl, tell my mum'. Cos my mum’s on drugs. Me and mum we smoke together, we commit crime together. From a young age I’ve always done things to impress her. Like I learnt to shoplift from the age of nine. When she come home she was like ‘well done.’ Made me feel better.
Misha’s story is a dreadful ‘hall of mirrors’ reflection of childhood. Elements are easily recognisable; she wants to make her mum proud, she wants to be close to her mum, she wants to spend time with her mum. Yet these normal childhood needs are horrifically distorted by the context in which she is living. In many other ways her experiences bear no resemblance to what many would consider a ‘normal’ childhood and adolescence.
This is the story of Misha’s life that she told me when asked how she had ended up in prison.
I’ve been in care. I went into care when I was I was 7 and I’ve been abused, in care. So that really emotionally traumatised me. And I’ve got a lot of mental health in my family as well. So I suffer from bi-polar, paranoid schizophrenia. So that never helped. I started hearing voices when I was younger. And then my sister passed away when I was 12. And…like I was drinking because, by the time I was 11, I’d been in 34 different children’s homes, foster placements. And that’s a lot.
My sister got diagnosed with leukaemia and I started drinking a lot more. When she passed away when I was 12, I got drunk and was gang raped in a park. So when that happened, I turned to my mum.
When I turned to my mum, my mum started selling me. So that’s a lot of abuse. Then I had my son. He was due to being gang raped.
My daughter was taken off me. Then I just got in abusive relationships. I was put on the game. By my partner. Cos he was feeding me drugs then when he got me proper hooked on heroin, he sent me out to work.
When I first got gang raped, my mum was in prison and I didn’t have anyone to turn to but another user and when I turned to her she just said ‘try this, it’ll help'. And that’s when I first smoked crack.
Then my mum got out of jail, got me with this other dealer and he was feeding me drugs more and more and then someone just injected me one day and from when I started injecting that’s when I really started doing crime. And like, before I even come in here I was a street worker. Then I just started hanging round with the wrong people, mostly my mum’s mates, and then just one abusive relationship to another. I’ve been put in hospital so many times through it.
I think having my daughter taken off me and not being given a chance….like I had my daughter and then come to prison and I was trying and trying and trying and I had to go to court for her and everything while I was in here. And to know you’re not going to see your daughter for 2 or 3 months without…it just…I’ve been in care so I know once my kids have gone in care I’m never getting them back. So I think that was just like breaking point for me.
And then I come to prison last year January, got out in March. This is the first time… I got out, got my drug worker to meet me at the gate. Went to the housing, got a hostel. Then found out I was pregnant. I was doing really well. I was working in a cinema. My mate works in a cinema and gave me like a trial basis. My partner’s violent innit. He kicked me down the stairs and I lost my baby at five months. And from when that happened I was just like, I’m destined for bad, do you know what I mean. Like nothing good can come to me.
In truth, there is nothing inevitable or destined about Misha’s story. A structural failure to protect was aggravated as she got older by an intransigent criminal justice system that, like the three wise monkeys refuses to see, hear or speak the harms that have been visited upon women like Misha. Easier to label her a ‘criminal’, a ‘junkie’.
Once you’ve come to prison you’re branded a certain way and that’s not a good brush to be branded with. So I want to change my life but once you’ve been in here so many times it’s just like ‘oh Misha’s back.’ And when you’re an addict they see it as ‘oh last time you said you were going to get clean, we’re not going waste our time.’ And they just don’t bother.
With an addict, sometimes they say they want to be clean but sometimes they’re just not ready. And when they are ready, they need someone and no-one’s there. And that’s how you end up staying in the same circle. Cos you think, well if no-one else believes I can change my life, whether it be crime, drugs, anything, then why should you? And then you end up doing the same things over and over again.
I had a psychiatric assessment when I had my son. They told me I’ve got emotional detachment disorder. It’s just another label. I know there’s something in it otherwise I wouldn’t be the way I am. But really, I just see it as another label. If my life was different, if I wasn’t committing crime, on drugs, then I most probably wouldn’t have these things wrong with me. Because I’m so unstable, because I’m in prison all the time, that’s why I can’t get no better.
Misha hoped to go to residential rehab from prison. Without this, she felt she would, inevitably, be back.
Them places [rehabs], they break you down. They take the whole of you away then build you back up. That’s what I need. Otherwise, how am I supposed to understand what I’m getting out of doing criminal activity? Why I keep doing it. Like, if I’m not on drugs, I’ll still work the streets. Cos this is a type of abuse to yourself.
When you walk out of them gates it’s like they just push you out. They don’t care.
Like many women in the criminal justice system, Misha knew she had to take responsibility for some of the decisions she had made. Yet at the same time, things had happened to her that were out of her control and had limited her choices. Drugs, mental health problems, sex work, victimisation, imprisonment were all metaphorically and literally restraining her. But to survive all she has survived takes strength. Her imprisonments had not destroyed her belief that she could one day take control of her destiny.
I believe when you’re a child and something’s taken from you like your innocence and you’re broken, it’s hard to get that back. I was brought up in a very dysfunctional family. There’s always been crime in my life, stolen goods in my house, weapons, that’s just normal. But it’s not normal. [When I self-harm], I’m not trying to kill myself. Why should I take my life when I’ve not done nothing wrong? It’s people that have done wrong to me. If they’d never done that, my life would not be like this.
So I think I’ve thought I’m going to show people I’m not this worthless, drug addict, criminal. I’m not that. I am actually a better person. Once you believe you’re worth more, you want more.
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 more about the Breaking the Silence comment series here.