"I did my degree while on a life sentence - now I help others." Michelle's story

"Learning in prison brought a different part of my brain to life – it gave me an escape. I just came out of my cell excited, sharing my knowledge. I felt I was doing something with my time." 

I was 22 years old with a six-year old daughter when I received my life sentence. Looking back at those early days in prison, I was suffering from emotional and psychological shock. I thought I would never survive. 

It was a couple of years into my sentence when I realised I didn’t want prison to be the end of me, and began to think about what I could do with my time. I started with a GCSE, but after that I got stuck: there were a few people around me doing degrees, but I thought I wasn’t really capable of that because I came out of school with no qualifications. But the Education Manager saw potential in me and told me he would write to Prisoners’ Education Trust to apply for an OU Access course. An acceptance letter came back, and that’s how it got started.

Learning in prison brought a different part of my brain to life – it gave me an escape. I just came out of my cell excited, sharing my knowledge. I felt I was doing something with my time. Prison is such a bizarre experience because it takes away so many years of your life, but I always want to tell people inside that you can get those years back by studying.

I chose social science because I believe there are a lot of injustices in the world. I was expecting the academic establishment to brush over this and pretend everything was ok, but actually it didn’t. The course gave you society as it is - it made me realise my position and it gave me the bigger picture. That’s why I loved it so much.

I always had the end goal of supporting women when I got released. I was once in a desperate place myself, and there are lots of women who simply won’t get out. I lost one of my friends in there. It can be a bleak, dark place. I knew I needed to be in a position of influence – to be as far up the ladder as I could be – so I could change things when I was released.

 "I knew I needed to be in a position of influence – to be as far up the ladder as I could be – so I could change things when I was released."

Five years ago, after serving a life sentence with a 14 year tariff, I founded my charity, Key Changes. Working in the Sheffield area, we offer mentoring, training and employment for women after they’ve come out of prison. When a lot of people get out of prison they are set up to fail, there are not enough opportunities out there. You do have a label and you do have stigma. I wanted to offer things that women could really use to become self-sufficient in the community.  Recently we’ve become a registered college, so we can offer NVQs in hair and beauty. We are also doing some printing, and we’ve gone on to PAT testing.

I’ve written a book about my journey through the criminal justice system and how I got there. It’s dedicated to ‘The Unheard’ because so many stories in prison go unheard. By writing it, I wanted to get people to understand what the criminal justice system is all about. The fact that it’s such a harsh institution and can destroy somebody, particularly if they’re vulnerable to start off with.

Now I’m out, I’m trying to rebuild my relationships with my family. This was very difficult when I was in prison because my mum has mental health issues and my daughter was very young when I went in. I used to write to my daughter a lot, but it was really hard for them to keep up visiting. I really fought to keep that relationship with her but it dwindled down.

What makes a difference now is that my daughter is proud of me. She’s just finished a degree herself, so having gained mine gives us something to connect over. I’m just proud I’ve achieved something. It’s nice to have something positive to say after all those years, and to be in a position to make a positive change to other people’s lives as well.