The day I went to prison, I got my life back' By Jon Kelly


For many people, receiving a jail sentence would be the worst thing that ever happened to them. But when you've been experiencing domestic abuse - as most female prisoners have - you may see things slightly differently. As she sat in the dock, waiting for the judge to send her to prison, Lilly Lewis found to her surprise that she couldn't stop laughing. She didn't understand why. It wasn't nerves, exactly, and there wasn't anything remotely funny about her situation. Lilly's lawyer had warned she was looking at an eight-year sentence. But somehow the entire court case had seemed unreal to her, like a huge, elaborate joke. Each time the prosecuting barrister stood in front of her, clutching his lapels for emphasis, she'd think how absurdly theatrical the whole thing was. Next to Lilly, one of her co-defendants was crying. "I'm scared," she told Lilly between sobs. Lilly tried to pacify her, but didn't see what there was to be frightened of. Outside, Lilly had been used to being shouted at, bullied and assaulted. She'd been a victim of domestic violence - like 57% of woman prisoners, according to the Prison Reform Trust. She'd overcome addiction and attempted suicide numerous times. In prison, she'd be safe from the man who'd beaten and raped her, the boyfriend who'd held her at gunpoint, the partner she says preyed on her addictions and ended up as another co-accused. Her children had already been taken from her, and the pain of the separation gnawed at her relentlessly. So what else was there to lose? Just get me to jail now, she thought. I'm ready, take me now. And then it was time for Lilly to stand up and hear her sentence. She wore black trousers, an orange jumper from Matalan and a fake hair bun - her real hair was thin from where she'd pulled at it over and over again. She'd spent the weekend in a prison cell for the first time, after the guilty verdicts had been handed down. Lilly had sat there in her grey prison clothes and thought how easy it would be to fall into a routine here. It would be just like school, she decided. "Seven years," the judge told her. The charge was conspiracy to defraud. She'd been given a reduction for changing her plea to guilty during the trial. The smile didn't leave Lilly's face. "At least it wasn't eight," she thought. Half of seven was three-and-a-half years, so she might get out then if she behaved herself. She could do that, she told herself. It was manageable. Then she was in the van, on her way to begin her sentence. The other prisoners called the prison guard "miss" - How far, miss? I need the toilet, miss. Lilly silently vowed never to speak in such a servile way. She thought about her four children, and how they would cope for so much longer without their mum. What would happen next, she wondered? When would she get her uniform? What job would she do in prison? Lilly started laughing again, and she didn't understand why this time, either. From inside the van, Lilly looked up to God with a feeling of gratitude. "You've given me all this time," she thought. "What am I going to do with it?" Lilly was born in 1971 and grew up on the Wirral in Merseyside. She was the youngest of three sisters by seven years, the baby of the family. Her dad was Ghanaian and her mum was white, and she was the only mixed-race girl at her primary school. All through her childhood she felt keenly aware that she was different. At school she didn't have many friends. One morning, when she was seven years old, Lilly ran into the school playground. A group of girls stood in a semi-circle, singing: Where's your mama gone? Where's your mama gone? Far, far away… The girls looked at Lilly and laughed. They knew something that she didn't. That afternoon, when her mum picked her up from school, Lilly asked her mum what the girls had meant. For the first time, Lilly says, her mum told her she was adopted. She said it was as though she and her husband had chosen Lilly off the shelf like she was a little doll. When they'd taken her home, Lilly's mum said, she'd smelt so terrible they'd had to throw her clothes away. When Lilly pushed for more information about her birth mother, she only remembers her mum saying: "She didn't want you." The birth mother had been given the opportunity to say goodbye and hadn't taken it. There was no mention of her birth father. Lilly tried to absorb this. She couldn't understand why her birth parents hadn't wanted her. She wondered what had caused her to smell. Lilly would try to make herself look like a doll, because, she reasoned, if you were the prettiest doll on the shelf, then you'd be picked. Above all else, she feared being abandoned again. Later, looking back on her life, Lilly realised she'd never really developed emotionally after that point. Her terror of being rejected or left alone never went away. From the age of 15, she was introduced to alcohol, and when she drank she wouldn't stop. She had a chain of boyfriends. "I became quite promiscuous, really, and just felt that was love - when somebody was showing me that affection, it felt like I was being loved and wanted." When her boyfriends beat her, she rationalised it as an act of love, too. The wardens walked Lilly to the induction wing of the women's prison. They led her along a narrow corridor, underground. The ceiling was low and the walls were yellow. Every few yards she heard the doors slam behind her: BANG. BANG. BANG. It looks like Death Row, she thought. Then she was in her cell. She looked at the bars on the window, the metal toilet in the corner. Even compared to the police station cells she'd been inside, or the prison in which she'd been held the weekend before being sentenced, this was austere. She really was in jail now, she thought. A week later, Lilly was moved to a different wing. She had a cellmate now, a woman who self-harmed. Lilly looked out the window. It was March and bitterly cold outside. She could see a group of inmates walking in the snow. Their hair was cut boyishly short above their red uniforms. They reminded Lilly of prisoners of war. She might as well have been in Siberia. Lilly was given a job on reception. She'd welcome new prisoners as they arrived. Many of them were heroin addicts. Often, they had soiled themselves or vomited on the journey and had to be taken straight to the shower. Anxiously, they'd tell her: "We need our meds" - meaning their methadone, the heroin substitute. They'd cry and shake as they waited for it. Other inmates were clearly mentally ill. One tugged and twirled at her hair so much that it looked as though it was in dreadlocks, interspersed with bald patches. Another sucked on her pillowcase and spoke in a baby language. Lilly couldn't believe that, in 2018, these women were being held in a prison - they should be somewhere they could get help, she thought. Very quickly, she settled into a routine. She went from reception to a job as a wing cleaner. It kept her busy. She'd forget which day it was, which month it was sometimes. The only date that mattered was the date she would leave prison, and that was still years away. She never once cried about her sentence. Before it began, Lilly had known that she'd be doing it alone. There wouldn't be any visitors. Her children had been taken from her and she'd had limited contact with them ever since, which made her desperately sad. But otherwise, she thrived. She wasn't drinking or taking drugs. She'd been overweight when she arrived in prison, but now she was visiting the gym every day and eating a diet of porridge, eggs and fish. She read self-help books and wrote lists of things she felt grateful for. She studied for qualifications and passed the exams. Putting her life straight felt achievable. Six months into her sentence, Lilly sat down and wrote a letter to the judge who had jailed her, thanking him for what she called "the gift of time". She went on: "In my experience prison does not work for most, however it has worked for me." To Lilly, it was clear that the system was doing little to rehabilitate most of the women she encountered. It seemed nobody was encouraged to take showers, and plenty of the inmates didn't. There was lot of focus on studying for maths and English qualifications, she noticed, but where was anyone teaching these women how to take care of themselves? Drugs seemed more prevalent inside prison than out. On some wings they'd be locked up for 19 hours a day. One woman she knew had come in with a drink problem, and because she couldn't get access to alcohol, had become addicted to the opioid Subutex instead. Another prisoner told her she was on her 32nd sentence, and many of the inmates Lilly encountered seemed to be on one short sentence after another. "There's no rehabilitation for those prisoners whatsoever - there's no point doing anything because they're not there long enough," Lilly says. (The Ministry of Justice is considering ending jail terms of six months and below.) Lilly reasoned that as she was coping, she should use her time to help those who weren't, in whichever modest ways she could. There was a pregnant woman who barely ate, and Lilly would cajole her to have some food. She volunteered as a Samaritans listener, on call 24 hours a day to provide emotional support for other prisoners. She helped teach inmates to read. She was also given two youth offenders to mentor. Her goal was to get to an open prison as soon as possible. There she could walk around and fetch herself a cup of coffee, maybe even get a day-release job on the outside. But for now she was still behind locked doors, surrounded by women deep in the throes of addiction. On New Year's Eve she heard an ambulance approaching the prison at 8:30pm to deal with the first suicide attempt of the evening. Throughout the rest of the night, Lilly listened as the sirens blared again and again.

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