Woman gains a new identity through learning

An ex-prisoner describes her experience of education, as a child, during her sentence and beyond:

"The beginnings of my journey through the criminal justice system started when I was a teenage girl. I didn’t adapt well to becoming a teenager and overnight I think my parents thought I had become a monster!

I discovered alcohol and drugs around the age of 13 and over a period of time the things that I was good at; studying, playing musical instruments, playing netball, swimming and running became less and less important.

My weekends would be spent hanging around with older people, going to raves and clubs around the country. It felt exciting and fun but there were many consequences even then. When I was at home through the week, I couldn't get up for school and relations with my family became volatile. I stole items from shops to fund my weekends out and left school with only two GCSEs. The young girl who could have done so well was on another path.

Stock photograph of two women with books and a calculator

Criminal lifestyle

After leaving school there were a couple of years of relative stability. I got a job working as an administrator and took courses in Business Administration at college. However, things started spiralling out of control after becoming acquainted with heroin at the age of 18. Constantly borrowing money off work colleagues and taking days off work sick didn’t look too good and in the end I was asked to leave. The problem was I now had a drug habit to support and very quickly stealing to fund this became normal. It wasn’t long before the criminal convictions started to accumulate.

Prison life

My first experience of prison was a week on remand when I was nineteen. It completely shook me up and I was determined never to go back there again. But this was to be the first of many visits inside. Prison became normal and it became more and more difficult to cope with day-to-day life outside. By the time I received a six year sentence in 1999 when I was 21, I was pretty much beaten by the life I was living. My mum told me a while after that she was relieved when she received the phone call telling her I was back in prison because she feared she would receive another kind of phone call telling her I was dead.

I felt hopeless and was sick and tired of being in and out of prison and addicted to drugs; I really wanted my life to change. The problem was I felt so far away from the girl I was at school, my ambitions had disappeared and my self-esteem was practically non-existent.

My journey back

My journey back into learning started whilst I was in prison. I heard that there were organisations such as PET and Women in Prison providing funding for distance learning courses and I couldn’t quite believe it. I applied to Women in Prison and was successful in gaining funding for a GCSE psychology. I absolutely loved it and it got me talking to lots of people in the prison when I had to develop my own little research project as part of my coursework. I took the exam not long after I was released from prison and passing the course well and truly hooked me into learning.

Not long after I was released from prison I went along to an open day at a local college. They ran a foundation year for a degree in Health Studies and Social Science which really got my attention. However, I was pretty sure that when I told them where I had recently come from they would turn me away. My confidence was very low and it felt to me that I was branded with the words 'ex-offender' on my forehead. However, they accepted me and I started the course a couple of weeks later. It was such an amazing feeling but also very scary. I told myself that I would give it a go but not hold out too much hope of getting very far with it. To my astonishment though I kept getting top marks for my essays and at the end of that first year, I received student of the year award out of my class!

I immersed myself in the learning and it was really like a light bulb came on in my head. I finally had something positive to focus on and something which I enjoyed and was good at. I constantly doubted myself and lacked self-belief but I carried on and in 2006 I graduated from university with a 2:1 degree.

It was such a proud moment which led onto so many other opportunities. Over time my self-belief has grown and although I still have my moments of doubt, I don't let them hold me back. It is now almost twelve years since I was released from prison and it feels strange to look back at my life and how it used to be. I feel so far removed from that young girl who entered prison at 19 and even the one who was last released at age 24.

Learning has been such a big part of my journey and continues to this day. I have two degrees to my name and my thirst for learning continues. Learning has perhaps been the biggest and most important aspect of my change in identity from offender to ex-offender to human being. I very rarely feel like I am branded with the 'ex-offender' label and today my life is full of so many opportunities (as well as the odd challenge – I’m not going to lie)! I have worked in the criminal justice sector since 2006 for a number of different charities and in that time have continued to develop many valuable skills.

I am learning each and every day and like to inspire other people who perhaps feel like I once did and who are looking for that opportunity to change. So for anyone thinking about it I say go for it and don’t let that negative thinking hold you back.