'You get plenty of punishment'

Madeline Petrillo
Monday, 7 December 2015

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.

The criminal justice system could be accused of acting as a sledgehammer to crack a nut in its response to many of the women who pass through it. In failing to hear the voices of women, it responds in ways that are, at least disproportionate and at worse, harmful.

This is Rosie’s experience.

My offence happened last year, but they didn’t put me in prison till last month. So I was starting to get my life back on track. Got a new home. Trying to sort myself out. Then they put me in jail…I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong.

Rosie was imprisoned for an offence of criminal damage. A taxi driver had dropped her at the wrong place following a night out. 'I didn’t know where I was so I went a bit hysterical. Because I’d been through domestic violence and stuff, I was just….at the time I was living in a safe house'. Rosie initially refused to leave the taxi and then, once on the street, kicked the door a few times. She admits she was drunk at the time. 'It was Christmas. I don’t really drink. When I have a drink it doesn’t agree with me. Everything was piling up on top of me. I just thought I’d have a few drinks and enjoy myself.'

Rosie was never asked about the things that were piling up on top of her during her journey through the criminal justice system. 'The Judge just sent me straight to prison. No report. It didn’t look like he had any interest.'

This was her first conviction. She was sentenced to four weeks in custody.

If reports had been requested, and if Rosie had been given the chance to tell her story, what looks like a harsh but commensurate sentence in response to her crime would have been revealed to be cruel, unnecessary and harmful.

I’d just been through a hard time really. My little girl died two years ago. So grieving. And I’ve got a critically ill son. So it’s stressful. I’d left a violent relationship. I had to leave the old house and was living in safe houses. They said they’d house me in a couple of weeks. It took a year and a half. I’ve got a critically ill son. He’s six. I inject him every day. My sister’s looking after him while I’m in jail. It’s just…if he has a fall, it can kill him. And he has IV injections so everything has to be sterilised. If he gets an infection, that could kill him. Last year was really bad. This year I started picking myself up. I got a new home. Then it come back to haunt us.

Four weeks is not a long sentence. It is not long enough to complete education or to participate in any rehabilitative intervention.  At this point, it was not long enough to be followed up by probation supervision in the community. It is long enough, however, for a life that was being carefully rebuilt to be destroyed. It is an eternity for a mother who every minute of every day she is separated from her son, fears for his life. In common with the majority of the children of women in prison, Rosie’s son was being looked after by members of her extended family. Only nine per cent of the children of women in prison are cared for by their fathers.

It’s hard to explain to a six year-old he can’t come with me and I can’t go to him. I can’t even speak to him on the phone. I get too upset. And with losing my little girl…that was hard as well because she wasn’t born with her illness. I didn’t find out until she was two. It just stopped everything. Everything slowed down. She didn’t move or anything. I don’t know. It’s difficult for people to understand. You’re grieving for her but she’s there. They tried telling me it was terminal but I didn’t believe them. Towards the end though I knew. When she stopped doing anything.

The fears Rosie had about her son’s welfare were intensified by having already lost one child, but also by them being isolated. Rosie had grown up in a traveller community. Shortly before her daughter died she had fled with the children because of the abuse she was experiencing from her husband.

After a while, it wasn’t even about the violence. He wouldn’t want me to have any friends, would tell me people are talking about me. He’d become, like, obsessed. I’d want to go to the hairdressers and he’d want to come with me. My whole life revolved around him. And he didn’t have a job so was around all the time. As he got older, he lost his confidence, like, when he was younger he didn’t care where I was. He’d pick up three or four girls at a time. But as he got older I saw a real change in him. As I got stronger as a person he got weaker. He’d try to bring me down, like, mentally. He wouldn’t let me be independent. If the girls came over for a conversation he’d want to listen in.

Sometimes you’d rather just get hit. Get it over and done with. It was easier just not to talk to people. Like when my little girl died I wasn’t allowed to grieve. I wasn’t allowed to cry. I had to be all prim and proper. Had to have high heels on, wasn’t allowed to wear flat shoes or trainers or…had to be like makeup on and had to look well all the time. I was like his trophy. I wasn’t allowed to just stay in on my own. It just got to the stage where I was like no, I can’t cope with this.

Because of her children’s health problems, Rosie spent a lot of time at hospitals where she realised people lived differently to her.

He went to prison for a while and I used to take my little girl to groups and stuff and got used to seeing other people and how they lived and how they were happy. And settled. I was really settled. And then when he got out of prison he wanted to go travelling and I didn’t want to. I liked being settled, in a routine. I got used to being on my own.

Rosie left when her husband was serving another prison sentence. Adjusting to life away from her community and coping with the backlash she experienced left her both vulnerable and resilient.

It’s like a cult really. You’re brought up to believe whatever they want you to believe. Like you’re programmed from birth about how to act, how to think. I got married at 16. It’s like two teenagers getting married. The boys are still wanting to go about having affairs. There’s nowhere for the girls to turn. You’ve been programmed that if your husband leaves you, that’s it. No other man will want them because they’re not virgins anymore. It’s hard. Because we’re led to believe you have to be in a relationship to feel worth something. And the girls have no money. If the husband walks away…they don’t have an education. Some of them are not, like, streetwise. They’re vulnerable and it comes where other traveller men prey on them because they’ve been married before and stuff. It’s depressing.

Rosie was courageous enough to leave despite all the challenges but was punished for doing so.

You get plenty of punishment. The other men, like, because I left my husband, they stopped my friends, from seeing me because they were intimidated. They make up stuff, just in case, God forbid, I did get on with my life and was happy. The men spread rumours like that you’re sleeping around just to ruin your reputation. They set up a ‘traveller shame’ facebook page and I was on it. Like indecent pictures and stuff. Two girls killed themselves because of it. I went to the police and they said there’s nothing they can do. I was bothered, but now I’m not bothered. Sometimes I feel a bit isolated. There are only two types of traveller. All of my old friends are married, got four or five kids. The ones that left are really wild. So I’m not mixing at all so I feel isolated. There’s no-one for me to talk to.

Against all the odds, Rosie escaped and survived. Almost a year had passed between her arrest and sentence. During this time her life had stabilised, there had been no other arrests, she was working out how to be the best role model for her son.

If I just got a job, my son…I would have broken the cycle a bit. He’ll be used to me going out to work…Work is not just about money. It’s about showing him. I’d love him to be a doctor or something when he grows up. But to get that I have to keep him away because he’ll be picked on when he’s older for going to school. How am I going to get work? I don’t even know how to go about it.

If the criminal justice system had listened to Rosie, imprisonment would have probably been considered unnecessary and harmful. But no-one listened to her.

I got a four week sentence. They put my son’s life at risk for a four week sentence. I don’t understand.

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.