Learning to break the habit – Emma’s story

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30 May 2019

‘Emma’ started her life sentence with a history of domestic violence, addiction and low self-worth. She tells PET how studying for a degree in English Literature helped her towards recovery and a positive future.

I had a lot of illnesses when I was young, and wasn’t at school very often. I was bright, but as you get older it gets harder to catch up, and the less you’re at school the stranger it feels to go back. I would skive a lot, hang out in shopping centres. I left when I was 15, before I’d taken my GCSEs. Around this time I met my son’s dad, and at 19 I fell pregnant. It was a bad, violent relationship. With domestic violence you don’t think or act for yourself. You live in fear all the time – there’s nowhere safe to go. I wanted to go back to college but never stuck anything out. My life was getting more and more chaotic – I started taking drugs, I couldn’t hold down a job, and I started committing crimes to get money. It came to an awful stop in 2004 when I received a life sentence under the joint enterprise law.

My dad was one of few words but he would write every week like he was Tony Blair saying, “Education, education, education.”

Going to prison was horrific. I was in shock. I wouldn’t say anything to anyone; I didn’t want to know the staff or the services. I would take all sorts of concoctions to get me obliterated. But as awful as it sounds I don’t think I would have lasted much longer if I hadn’t gone to prison at that point. In some ways I was safer in there than I would have been on the outside.

Some girls talk about epiphany moments, but the change for me happened very slowly. My dad was one of few words but he would write every week like he was Tony Blair saying, “Education, education, education.” At a point I must have started listening. It was when the prison started to offer more than just the basic classes. I took GCSEs in English and Sociology and an AS Level in Classical Civilisation. I started on an OU Access through PET and then decided to apply to do a degree in English Literature.

I’ve always loved reading, I have done since I was small. That feeling of getting lost in a book – you want to turn the next page; you don’t want to sleep so you can find out what happened. I would come back from the library with piles of books on all sorts of subjects – this week I’m going to read about physics, the next one gardening.

It was like as education grew in importance, drugs became less important. At first I used drugs as a distraction from the OU work, but gradually I was using work as a distraction from the drugs. You sat down with a book and some paper and next thing a couple of hours had gone by. Or I’d have an exam or presentation and I wouldn’t want to mess it up. I was a mentor in the education department as well by then and I realised people were depending on me. On dark days, where before I would have said I was sick and lain in bed crying, instead I’d force myself up.

It was like as education grew in importance, drugs became less important.

When you realise you can do something without being under the influence of drugs it makes a massive difference to your confidence. It changed how I was with the girls around me. Before I used to want to be part of the in-crowd, defining myself by other people. I was embarrassed about going to library and would hide books. But when I started to care less, I’d notice other people would see me trying and they would start trying as well, asking me for advice on stuff. Some of the girls in the classes really wanted to do well and they used to say they looked to me as an example.

If I was talking to the lasses in there I would say education is so important because it’s something just for you. No one can take it away. This is so important when you’ve been in abusive or co-dependent relationships. And there’s this enormous sense of achievement every time you hit a target or deadline. It feels good – I can’t say it enough just how good it can make you feel. Doing courses like I did is nigh on impossible without the funding. That support from PET is essential. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

I came out of prison earlier this year. I’ve got a part-time job and I’m volunteering with two charities, and starting to work with PET’s Alumni Advisory Group. It’s been hard at times, but the education has helped with the interviews – employers have seen my degree and it would start a conversation. They could see I’d made good use of my time. In the future, I’d like to work either in criminal justice or with women who have experienced domestic abuse. I want to help stop people from ending up where I did. I feel a million miles away from that person now.

Education is so important because it’s something just for you. No one can take it away.

I’ve been so fortunate with my family – we’ve always been close. Every visit they were there. I have a great relationship with my son now, and my dad has my degree certificate on his wall at home. I probably did it all for them as much as for me.

I would urge anyone in prison today to value themselves and their own worth. Take the opportunity to educate yourself, even if you begin with a lower-level course in something you like. You don’t have to dive in: slowly the change will creep in.

With your help, we can offer as many people as possible the chance to have a fresh start through education – donate to our 30th birthday appeal here.

(The name used in this article has been changed for the purposes for anonymity.)

 

 

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