From prisoner to case manager - Karen's story

In 2012 Karen received an 18-month prison sentence. She spent four-and-a-half months in custody, only to re-enter prison the day after she was released to mentor female prisoners. She now works as a case manager and also specialist employment broker in a prison in the south of England.

Before my case went to trial, everyone assured me that I wouldn’t be sent to prison. I was a single mother without a criminal record, being tried for a non-violent offence – I was told there was very little chance I would receive a custodial sentence. So when I was sentenced to 18 months in jail I hadn’t prepared myself at all. I’d left my daughter, who was eight, in Kent with a friend, just assuming that I’d be back that day – but obviously I wasn’t.

My sister had a break down when I told her – nothing like this had ever happened in my family. One day I was an independent person with a career and a child, the next moment it all fell apart – it was a complete nightmare.

Of course, my main worry was for my daughter. I hadn’t had the chance to explain to her what had happened, or to arrange who she would stay with. I spent a few days not knowing what would happen until eventually I was able to make a phone call and found out that she’d be able to stay with my brother. I was so relieved that she was in safe hands and would be able to go to school.

What turned everything around for me was beginning to act as a peer worker to other female prisoners. I helped with resettlement, training and education, and used my background in housing recruitment to develop relationships with local employers and get the women involved in voluntary work. I got so much from helping to empower women. A lot had never worked, were uneducated and lacked self-confidence. I met many who had come from abusive relationships and had been forced to work as prostitutes or sell drugs. For some coming to prison was the first time they didn’t have men controlling them and were able to really think about what they wanted to do with their lives. Teaching someone to read and write is very empowering, and securing an interview or even a job made a huge difference to women, and gave them hope for their future after release.

Although it has now been recognised that there is a direct link between poor education and offending and better provision has been made in the prisons, I still get the feeling that it is very much about targets and ‘box ticking’. We need a much more bespoke service, where the individual needs of women are identified and met. Women need to be empowered; many have come from abusive relationships and they need the tools to have the courage and confidence to rebuild their lives, for themselves and their children. Not every woman wants to learn how to become a beautician or a hairdresser! There also needs to be a much broader, more relevant range of courses offered in female establishments, such as the distance-learning qualifications offered by Prisoners’ Education Trust. Education should be linked to skill shortages, such as plumbing and driving large goods vehicles.

Prisons need to recognise that we live in a world where women are as capable as men, in all areas of work and have the same desire and right to learn a skill that will facilitate a real chance of sustainable employment.

As my sentence was coming to an end and I was preparing to be released on licence, the regional head of employment, skills and learning asked if I would consider returning to the prison after my release to continue to mentor the women. This had never happened before in the history of the prison - when I told the other women they thought I was joking! When I first arrived back – the day after I was released - no one knew what to do with me, and initially I had to work off-site. But three years later I’m still working at the same prison – I’m a case manager commissioned by Women in Prison; also specialist employment broker commissioned by CXK, a charity which supports children, young people, adults and families.I’ve got my own keys and am a full member of staff, but I stay emotionally very close to the women, and I think this makes a huge difference when working with them.

I believe very strongly that a woman’s experience of prison life is very different and, in many ways much more complex than a man’s. We are in many ways stripped of what makes us female; away from our children and families.

The most painful thing for most women in prison is being unable to protect their children. As a mother myself, being separated from my daughter was agonising and made the sentence much harder to bear. There has to be other ways of sentencing female offenders; the current system (run primarily, I have to say, by men) is cruel and barbaric. How many women who are imprisoned actually pose a risk to society? We need to be better at looking at different ways of punishing women within the community. We also need to recognise that people don’t simply wake up one day thinking “I think I’ll commit a crime”, it’s linked to circumstances – abuse; domestic violence; poverty. We need to become better at supporting women and allowing them to make clear choices. A few months’ prison sentence doesn’t do anything apart from separate a woman from her children and put her at risk or losing her home and source of income.

That said; I believe everything happens for a reason. As a result of going to prison I’m stronger and I’m doing work that I’m really passionate about. Eventually, I was able to sit my daughter down and explain everything. I think it’s made our relationship stronger. She’s dealt with it very well, and she’s very proud of the work I’m doing empowering other women.