I learnt to drive a truck in prison: Dee’s story
"When I started I was IT illiterate, but within three months I could run a mile, bake an edible cake and turn the computers on without crashing the entire system."
My journey with education and the gym, for they go hand in hand, started almost immediately after I went to prison. At each establishment, I found myself instinctively drawn to the staff within the education and gym departments. Originally it was an escape from being locked in for hours on end. But then I realised I wanted to be back in learning and get fit for its own sake: for the fun of learning and then for the challenges it brings. To escape the increasing lock-in period I attended day classes, night classes and every gym session that was provided.
When I started I was IT illiterate, but within three months I could run a mile, bake an edible cake and turn the computers on without crashing the entire system. By the end of my 15-year prison sentence I had trained in horticulture, gained a theology qualification, started a degree in science mathematics, and trained as lifeguard.
Learning to drive a truck was one of those things on my ‘things to do before I’m 50’ list. Some people have ‘climbing Mount Everest’ or ‘learning how to scuba dive’, but mine was getting an HGV licence. So when I saw a poster on the wall of my final prison, advertising a scheme to attract women into the haulage industry, I put my name down straight away.
"A psychologist would find it easy to work out why I like driving a truck - I definitely appreciate the freedom and the autonomy of being on the road after spending so long in prison."
The company itself offered to contribute towards some of the cost of getting an HGV driving lessons, but I needed to raise the rest myself. My friends and family would send me money at birthdays and Christmas - £50 or so – and I worked out that if I sacrificed phone calls for a year it would all add up. I always had well-paid jobs in prison, mostly gardening, so I worked seven days a week and saved up. After they funded me for a distance-learning course in Christian studies, I decided to apply to PET for an Allt award, which funds people to continue their training or education after release. I was awarded £1000 towards the driving lessons, and I was good to go. In 2016, I was released on temporary licence to take my first lesson in a 16.5 metre-long articulated lorry, and one month later I gained by Class C+E HGV licence.
I got my first job, driving lorries for a confectionary company, literally days after being released from prison. It was coming up to Christmas and they were urgently looking for drivers. I haven’t been out of work since. I really love driving. I love the freedom; the fact that you’re the biggest vehicle on the road. I can listen to books, stories, listen the radio; I get go to places I’ve never been, and I’m responsible for myself. And I’ve got money in the bank. A psychologist would find it easy to work out why I like these elements - I definitely appreciate the freedom and the autonomy of being on the road after spending so long in prison.
I’ve been lucky - I’ve watched people struggle to get jobs after prison. I saw radical changes over my 15-year sentence - at the beginning there was every encouragement to take on different kinds of education and build different skills, but by the end budget cuts had placed serious limits on what was possible to do. I feel some of the biggest challenge facing women now in the Criminal Justice System have their roots in reduced funding, the use of increasing numbers of unqualified teaching staff and longer sentences. The policy of only funding course up to Level 2 is short-sighted and limiting to women. Women who will face enough challenges to finding employment while being restrictive in their aspiration and potential as well. The result will be loss of motivation and an increasing need to rely on charities to fund decent education at Level 3 and above. For a core of women who face enough educational challenges, this could result in a lost future, without sustainable and engaging employment.
"Women who will face enough challenges to finding employment while being restrictive in their aspiration and potential as well."
I’m not an office-based person, and I’m not a hairdressers/beautician-type person. These are the sort of skills women are encouraged to build in prison. Lots of women do enjoy it - and I appreciate being on the receiving end of it - but I’m not that way inclined. Not that the haulage industry would work for everyone - it’s very ad hoc – you can’t guarantee or plan anything during the working week; there’s not that stability. This could make it harder for women with young families. But there aren’t any physical reasons women can’t do it - the days when trucks were heavy are gone. Now you can turn the wheel with one hand and unloaded, most will beat most cars off the traffic lights. I’ve never had any negative reaction to being a woman - quite a few people are surprised – when I turn up in the transport office they think I’ve just come with a small van: “Is it just a box then?” they ask. People get impatient, but just as much with me as with another lorry driver. And it’s an industry that can cope with older women – I’m expected to work until I’m 68 now.
A year after leaving prison, I am proud to say I drive big lorries for great pay in an amazing industry that has embraced me: a brand new driver; a woman; and someone with a past. My future is full. I want to complete my degrees, gain my dumper truck licence, get back to horticulture and clear my name; whilst enjoying life and spending time with family and friends. That’s what’s important.