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.
Tasha is 23 and was serving a short sentence for assault when we spoke. It was her first custodial sentence. She had assaulted a nurse whilst she was a patient at a psychiatric hospital.
Her story of how she came to be at the psychiatric hospital is one of a vulnerable and troubled young woman for whom the criminal justice agencies are both protector and persecutor.
I was in the mental hospital because my ex-partner put me through DV [Domestic Violence]. So I ended up having a breakdown and ended up in hospital…I was with him for two and a half years. He threatened me with a knife, tried suffocating me so…it started two weeks after I got together with him but it took me two years to get out of it. He wasn’t working. He was with me all the time. I wasn’t allowed to go out without him. I wasn’t even allowed to go to the corner shop without him. Every time he went out he locked the door so I couldn’t get out. And he took my phone with him so I couldn’t call the Feds [police]. It felt awful.
One night, two friends were round and he hit me in front of them. They managed to punch him and knock him out and that’s when I left him. As soon as I escaped, I went to my friends’ and called the police. And he got convicted. He got a conditional discharge which I don’t think was harsh enough.
Without minimising Tasha’s offence, the contrast between her punishment for assault and her abusive ex-partner’s is stark. Tasha had hit a nurse who was trying to sedate her whilst she was in an emotionally unstable state and was sentenced to two months in prison. Her ex-partner had abused her physically, sexually and psychologically for over two years and was given a conditional discharge.
Tasha describes leaving the relationship as an ‘escape.’ Trying to escape was already a familiar aspect of her life. Indeed, she had gone into the relationship to escape her mother.
My mum was putting me through a load of child abuse up until the age of 18. She was completely hitting me, throwing me down the stairs, putting soap in my mouth, making me eat things I didn’t want to eat, mustard and stuff, making me drink bleach. She’d threatened me with a knife as well and tried drowning when I was younger in the bath…It started from two. I remember. I remember everything. It’s hard not to remember. People say ‘you’ve got a magnificent memory.’ But if your own mum is hitting you, how can you forget that. So I left her at 18 to go and live with him.
The police have been a constant feature in Tasha’s life, but her story reveals the problems of criminal justice agencies being the initial response to this type of situation.
The school found bruises on me but when I told my mum, she kept me out of school. So it was quite difficult. I shouldn’t have said anything. So I was out of school for two years at primary. Then went back in year 7. Then they actually called the police to school. The police had a word with my mum but my mum just said ‘oh no, I’m not touching her, she must be doing it at school’ blah, blah,blah. So she got away with it…When I did try and talk about it when I was younger, no-one listened.
The police could have potentially offered Tasha safety but because she was unable to make herself heard, their involvement only aggravated the situation.
As soon as we got home she started beating me up again. Then she kept me out of school. So I haven’t even had the chance to learn...
The criminal justice system is designed to treat people either as victims or as offenders. For Tasha, and many women in the system, this results in inadequate responses that, at best offer temporary safety and at worst, punish behaviours developed to cope with their experiences, or places them at further risk of harm. Tasha had experienced all of these as police tried to offer some protection within the confines of a system designed to punish.
I’ve had other breakdowns but the police keep taking me to the same hospital and because I was kicking off in the hospital, they kept restraining me. Once I was kicking off so bad they had to take me back to the police station. I feel harassed by them. They’re always knocking on my door.
When I was arrested for this I had 16 of them come to the hospital. This time, the police sedated me to get me to hospital. But they had no choice because I was running about on the road with 48 paracetamol in me. I’ve spent more hours in the police station than anything. I don’t know, since I left my mum I’ve spent about 400 hours in there.
Tasha was not able to fully explain her experiences and behaviour.
I don’t know why I am so angry. I think it’s because of what I’ve been through in the past. It’s made me an angry person. Sometimes I can bite my tongue. Sometimes I can’t…I just don’t know why everyone keeps being violent to me. Maybe I’m an easy target. Every relationship I’ve had with people, even if it’s a friendship, every relationship I’ve had has always been violence.
However, Tasha is very clear about what helps her. Firstly, talking and being listened to:
I liked it in there [the psychiatric hospital]…the staff talked to you. You could have a laugh with the staff. All the patients were nice. You’d help each other out. It was really good. It was not what I expected…
I had counselling every week in hospital. It was alright but every time I was there I was just crying because I was so emotional. Then gradually it got better. When I get out I feel better knowing I’m going to be talking to someone about my problems every week and trying to get over it. Because all this time I’ve blocked it up and not spoken to no-one about it. But every week I’m going to be talking to two or maybe three people. It makes me feel better.
Secondly, a routine;
I started working at a supermarket when I was 16. I was working over 70 hours a week so I wouldn’t have to go home and suffer. I want to get out and work and have a routine. The supermarket…there’s routine there and time flies. I’ve been doing education here. I do love Maths. I do like five sessions a week and I love it. And associating on my landing. So not many things have been getting into my head.
Finally, a place to live:
I’d like my own place now. I’m tired of staying in police cells or hospital or staying with mates. When I lived with my ex, when he was putting me through that, I felt so uncomfortable. He was smashing things up. He was like ‘this is my flat, I can do what I want.’ I hate that, when people say this is my flat. I want to say that. In eight months I’ve moved like four times.
Space to talk and be listened to, a routine and a safe place to live are what Tasha feels she needs to maintain stability in her mental health and behaviour. Prison provided all of these things for two months but is yet another temporary, inadequate response to her situation. If criminal justice agencies were not the favoured means of addressing gaps in social and personal support services, two months in prison could have been two months of intensive community support that established foundations from which Tasha could achieve some of her goals in life. It is incongruous that a prison or police cell is repeatedly used a place of safety.
When I get out I’m scared it’s all going to come back into my head again. That’s what I’m wary of. I’m going to find it quite difficult. I’m going to find it really hard. In here, I’ve got everyone around me that I need. But when I go out I’m going to be real nervous. It’s just coping. I’ve just got to cope…I want to move on from this. I feel like I’ve got stronger. I’ve managed not to cry and keep strong. I’m pleased with myself. Hopefully that carries on when I get out.
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.