With OITNB Returning To Netflix We Spoke To Real Women Who Went Through The British Prison System

What's it really like to adjust to life after prison?

Grazia - New On Netflix July 2018

by Sophie Wilkinson |

Netflix’s most popular TV series, Orange is the New Black, is coming to an end.

The prison dramedy, which uses Piper Kerman (Taylor Schilling) as our skinny white blonde relatable ‘in’ to the world of prision, has spent the last six series educating us about the realities of women in the judicial system, wrapping a heavy message in a sugary shell.

The storyline of the final OITNB sees Piper leave prison and to attempt to nestle back into her comfortable middle class life: clue - it won’t be that easy, Grazia spoke to two women who have been through the prison system in the UK to find out what prison was like for them, and how well it prepared them for life on the outside world.

Cookie, 43, maintains that she is not an offender but she has spent 14 years in custody after a court convicted her of smothering her 12-week-old baby to death. She has always insisted on her innocence, and is preparing to appeal her conviction.

After release from prison 18 months ago, Cookie has found it hard to readjust to the real world, telling Grazia Daily: ’I’m out of prison and supposedly free, but everyone is shutting their doors on me.’

Understandably after such a conviction, ‘I didn’t want to go back to my previous area’, so moved to a new city: ’My probation officer in my old town agreed I should move, but the new city wouldn’t take me on due to a misunderstanding between departments.’

‘The only way they could take me on was if I found my own accommodation. I didn’t have support in that, so I ended up in a basement bedsit full of mould. My floor kept breaking though, my bathroom sink fell off the wall. My toilet drainage was leaking to my kitchen sink, it was horrendous.’

Once she got an address, though, the city she’d moved to finally linked her up with a local probation officer. She now says, though: ‘I was lucky a friend was able to pay my first month’s rent and deposit for me. Most people don’t have that option.’

Housing is often an issue for women ex-prisoners, including Mya, who is 29 and has been to prison for several offences, for lengths of time ranging from five weeks to a year.

‘I’m quite a resilient person so three out of the five times in prison, most times I was able to deal with coming out of prison and living a somewhat normal life,’ she explains. However, ‘In February, just before I went to Bronzefield prison, I experienced something really traumatic and coming out again was difficult because I didn’t have a fixed abode.’

‘The address I’d come from wasn’t suitable for me to go to. And because of my short sentence, I wasn’t entitled to a lot of help. You only become a priority when you’ve got a 12 month sentence.’

On another occasion, Mya felt unsupported by probation services. Just two weeks after walking free from one conviction, she was back in custody, on remand for another crime she’d been charged with.

She understands why some other women can get in this situation, saying: ‘A lot of people who do get short sentences are prolific offenders, they go in and out without a care because they’ve got somewhere to stay. As much as they would love their freedom, she says, they think ’I don’t have to worry about much while i’m in here’”.

Because there’s a lot of admin on the outside world to deal with, on top of all the trauma that comes with being imprison, and the circumstances that led women to being convicted in the first place.

‘Fourteen years on and I’m not only dealing with the wrongful conviction and the impact that has - I mean, I’ve got other children,’ says Cookie, ‘but it’s the pain too, and having to deal with the trauma of being in prison,'

‘I have had peer support roles in prison and some of the things women are dealing with are just barbaric, there’s a huge level of self harm there, I still need help processing that,’ she adds.

Meanwhile, probation itself isn’t always as holistic as it needs to be to make women ex-prisoners feel understood. Mya says ‘Without the right support, probation can be seen as another punishment because it’s based around their crime rather than who they are as individuals with feelings and opinions.’

‘We can’t get rid of women’s prisons entirely some people need to be in a secure environment for their welfare and the welfare of the general public,’ says Cookie, who works voluntarily with the legal charity APPEAL to advocate on behalf of women wrongfully convicted and given unfair sentences. She insists that environment must actually be secure, though: there’s a lot of sexual abuse in the prison system. And if you are assaulted by a member of staff, you have the option of reporting that…’

But the result is that you ‘get moved, away from your family, away from your kids, away from whatever job and studies you’ve got set up. And you’ve done nothing wrong. There is nowhere safe to report it to.’

She adds that ‘a lot of these women have suffered this kind of experience before in the main population there’s a severe lack of support for those kind of issues.’

However, there is hope, in places. In 2011, Mya came into contact with a women’s centre, what the Howard League for Penal Reform calls ‘one-stop-shops’ for women involved in or at risk of involvement in the criminal justice system’. At these centres, women are worked with ‘as individuals to help them live happy, safe, successful lives.’ They’ve been found by the Ministry of Justice to successfully put off reoffending.

After a shaky start, she’s returned to one in the past two years and now says:’They are so helpful and supportive in a different way to authority figures. You’re not required to see them and when you are they work with you rather than against you. They really do support you with all you need, emotionally, mentally, anything.’

Cookie hasn’t ever come into contact with a women’s centre, but she believes access to one could have helped her make an easier transition from prison to the outside world: ‘I know they’re not medically qualified there but they could help me get my mental health sorted out and with that it would improve my physical health.’

‘More women’s centres would massively improve things, not just for the financials but for the women and their families, the women in the next generation’

With the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson yet to confirm his new prisons minister, the responsibility for making prisons better places for their inmates in the UK is yet to be seen. However, encouragingly, the new justice minister, Robert Buckland, has spoken sympathetically this week of the plight of women in prison.

The charity Women in Prison has campaigned for, amongst other things, the money from the sale of Holloway Prison to go towards women’s services for women including survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse and better access to women’s centres,

The charity’s spokesperson tells Grazia: “The Government’s 'Female Offender Strategy' focuses on reducing the number of women in prison - the vast majority of whom are there for weeks or months for non violent crimes, often theft - and commits to invest in community-based women's centres.’

‘The new Prime Minister must deliver on these commitments and ensure the investment in community support and alternatives to custody that is needed.’

This change could, they say, ‘set an international example in how to reduce the human and financial cost of imprisonment and create healthier, safer communities.

As for Orange is the New Black? Once again, we’ll follow Piper, whose story is loosely based on real life ex-convict, author and prison reform campaigner Piper Kerman - this time as she leaves prison. And along the way, we’re going to get a taste, as ever, of the harshest realities of life for some of the most vulnerable women going, the prejudice they face and the lack of support available to them.

Women in Prison is eagerly anticipating it: ‘One of the best things about Orange is the New Black is learning the backstories of how the diverse characters end up in prison - often linking back to tragedy, trauma, abuse, poverty, addiction and mental ill health.’

‘The real stories of those in prison, as dramatised in OITNB, often reveal how broken our current social and criminal justice system really is.'

Even though women are less than 5% of the prison population, they account for over 19% of self harm incidents per year

Over half of women in the UK prison system have experienced abuse or domestic violence

An estimated 17,240 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year.

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