As Together launches its new ‘Common sense approach to working with women offenders’, its Our Space Gallery Curator, Eve McDougall recalls her experience of being sent to an adult Victorian prison when she was just 15 years old. Over 30 years ago, Eve was sentenced to two years and actually served two years for breaking a baker’s window to steal some bread for her and her hungry siblings. The bread she tried to steal turned out to be part of a ‘fake’ window display, but the impact her incarceration had on her childhood and her mental wellbeing was very real…
A police station is a scary and isolated place for anyone let alone a child. When a child under the age of 16 is taken to a police station there should be a specialist counsellor present to look oot for them and to make sure they understand what is going on. I didn’t feel safe in there and when I was strip searched it was the most humiliating and shameful thing. It jist made me feel like a ‘nothing’.
Being locked up in an adult prison at the age of 15 years old for a petty crime was a shock. What was more shocking was that a room full of educated people, including a social worker, couldn’t see that this child needed help not incarceration. They didn’t even discuss an alternative or listen to what my lawyer was saying: “This girl is a minor – she is only fifteen”. Nobody listened to him; it was like his words floated off oot the window somewhere coz it wisnae tae the ears of the people who had ma life in their hands.
Being handcuffed and taken away to a prison that I had heard so many terrible and frightening stories about wis yer worst nightmare. Thoughts an feelings in total turmoil like the washing in a machine going roon an roon wi nae final spin. How can these people lock me away in a jail? If this is an example my elders are showing me, I’d rather die young than grow up like them. These adults jist did-nae have a clue what all this was doing to my mind. I felt deserted by all – the ‘bad’ girl. I actually thought the Judge would see what a silly crime this was and let me go, with a fine to pay for the broken glass, but being hungry and 15 did-nae register in any o their minds.
My brain was swirling with confusion. How am I gonna cope wi the never-ending rules and regulations and constant threats? In the cell it truly hit hame this was it: my lot. After a short time, all I could think about was killing myself – there was no way out of this container. I had never thought of suicide before but right then that’s all I could think of. I hit my head on the wall, took the nylon stocking off my leg an tried to strangle myself. I thought of hanging myself, thought of every way to die, questioning my sanity: Am I going mad? Will I be taken to a hospital? I just wanted to be with my family an my friends, not in this dark doomed place.
When I saw people self-harm, I could-nae believe my eyes. Some of the girls ate dress-making pins or stabbed themselves in the legs. I saw wrist slashing and cigarette burns. I saw girls threatening to set alight to themselves, jumping from the landings, hanging, being dragged along the floor in a straight jacket to the padded cell, the list goes on. Some of the girls or women would be taken to hospital, depending on their injuries, but others would be treated in the jail. The girl who ate needles and dress-making pins had to go to the nurse and eat bread sandwiches filled with cotton wool to help get them out through her excrement. Prisons were built mainly for men and let’s face it, women are different and have different needs to men.
All I could see were women with mental health problems, some more severe than others; they shouldn’t be in jail, they should be in hospital or clinics or be supported on the outside. The majority of us were in there for petty crimes. It was so sad to watch; what struck me hard was the fact that families were torn apart – children put into care, the family home repossessed by the council and all their belongings gone. These poor wee children left without a mother, would they be our future offenders? Why put whole families through this trauma when something could have been done in the community to prevent it? They could have given women community sentences where they could work voluntarily – they could have had special women’s centres, so women could go and get emotional and practical help and advice on getting an education or learning new skills.
There was and is still not enough in place on release from prison; the majority of women are sent to hostels with a small amount of money that only lasts for a week. Where does that leave us? We’re back on the dole and waiting for weeks for payments to arrive; all the time at risk of re-offending to survive. When I left prison there were no organisations for women and girls like there are today.
When I got out I met a guy, an ex-prisoner. Incarceration had made me feel worthless – not ‘good enough’. The psychological and mental damage took a grip on me, I had nae confidence or self-worth. Why was I attracted to a man who had a really bad reputation? He was so charming and nice to me but that all came to a crashing end when I married him; that very day he battered me senseless – bruises and black eyes – and that was just the start of it. He raped me and battered me. From then on it wis like a rollercoaster of violence which led me to self-harm – cutting my wrists – just so he would get an ambulance, anything to get me away from him. He would warn me not to tell anyone and if I did he said: “I will kill you”. I was terrified of him and I believed him as I knew he was capable of that. He ended up getting a seven year sentence for attempted murder on another man. When he was sent to jail all hell broke loose for me – I had bouts of drinking and of taking pharmaceutical pills – my mental health was deteriorating all over the place. I wanted to get away from him but then when he was gone, I didn know how to deal with him leaving. I didn’t want anyone to know my wrists were all slashed. I felt like nothing; worthless.
When people found out I had been in a mental hospital they called me a nutter – this was so hurtful, the stigma, the labels. I ended up in jail again and lost my wee lassie, she was taken into care. It broke my heart to be away from her and it broke even more wondering what she was thinking: “Where is my Mum? I want my Mummy”. When she came to visit me she said: “Mummy why can’t I stay here with you? I promised her that I would get her back.
Moving from Scotland to England was the best thing I did – a different environment, being anonymous, a new beginning, freedom for my mind to recover and to learn how to cope with the damage that had been done. Art, writing, poetry were a great escape and taught me structure; a beginning, a middle and an end – I was so happy to get to the end of a piece. Bringing up my children taught me to love myself again; I had forgotten about loving me when I was incarcerated.
I eventually wrote a book, which helped me to get rid of a lot of the negative energy that built up when I was inside. I looked for places to go that could help educate me and build my self-confidence and esteem: Clean break, CAST, Women in Prison. I went to Birkbeck College to do an Introduction to Counselling and on to the City Lit where I gained a City and Guilds level two, to support and help vulnerable people. Then I went back to all the organisations that supported me – this time as a tutor – teaching creative writing, poetry and art to others who had exerienced similar things to me. I am also a public speaker for women and girls; I have stood up and spoken at The House of Commons. This is my passion – I hope that one day we as a society can find a different way forward for women and girls, other than incarceration. Every time we lock women and girls up for petty crimes, we fail as a society. We don’t need these prisons. If we take out all the people who have mental health problems and have committed petty crimes, there would only be a need for small high security prisons.
Most of the women I come across in my work have suffered the effects of incarceration. They’ve experienced self-harm, domestic violence, substance misuse; all of them feeling worthless with no self-confidence or self-esteem, all looking for a safe place to go where they can mix with other women who can identify with them – somewhere to thaw out from their traumatic experiences. Let’s help them find that place.