In prison I found my calling as a mentor and support worker

Published:

Tracy, member of Nacro’s Justice ExChange

I was in HMP Styal, Cheshire and then Drake Hall in Staffordshire for a total of 18 months. I’d worked all my life so once I was over the initial shock of being in prison I said ‘get me a job’, anything. I just wanted to have something to do with my time. It was strange going from being busy everyday working to having nothing but my thoughts.

When I got to prison it was a very stressful experience. I had never had any dealings with the criminal justice system. I’d just worked, run pubs, raised my family. It was a horrible mistake, just that one moment and that was it, I was given a three-year sentence.

I was in shock when I first went to prison. The first six weeks were the hardest. They had me on a wing as they were worried I might harm myself, so they wanted to keep an eye on me. It was so overwhelming. I’d never been in an environment like that before. It was so noisy. But I was lucky I had a good room mate. She helped me through that time.

I got on ok with people in prison. I was a bit older and I think they saw me as a mum figure. They would look out for me. They would tell me their stories. It was so sad. A lot of them were in there because of some bloke. It just felt so pointless.

Quite quickly I started working. I got a job as a mentor in the education department, like a teachers aid. There were so many girls in there that couldn’t read or write, that just never got even a basic education. I’d help them.

I remember one of the girls who I had helped came up to me on the wing and was so proud that she’d managed to write a letter to her son. It must have taken her hours. She was so happy about it. That was a good motivator for me. To have helped her.

The problem with the education job was it was only for a few hours a day. I enjoyed it and liked helping people but wasn’t enough hours to get your teeth into anything, then you were back in your cell. I needed something to occupy myself. I did any training course I could.

The best job I had in prison was with DHL. It was packing and logistics for the prison’s canteen. It was like a proper job. You started early in the morning, had lunch, then did the afternoon. You felt like you’d do a real day at work. You were tired when you went back to your cell. The time flew by the six months I had that job. It made to feel like you could see yourself back outside and what your life might be like.

Having those experiences helped build back my confidence. When you are in prison, you lose a lot of yourself, you feel like you don’t have anything to offer. Volunteering or working helps you build that back up.

When I was released I found it really hard. I didn’t have anywhere to live, I had to stay with my daughter which was a struggle as there wasn’t really enough room. I got really anxious and depressed. It was like I’d held it all together when I was in prison and then when I was out I fell apart. I barely left the house.

What turned things around for me was my daughter gave me a puppy. It sounds silly but he gave me a reason to get up in the morning. I had to get up and feed him, get out the house to walk him. He gave me a reason to live, because I’m not sure I would have made it without him.

Once I started getting my life back together I knew I wanted to do something to help people in prison, especially helping people when they come out. The amount of women who I spoke to who were dreading coming out.  They would go quiet a few weeks before they were due to come out. It was because they didn’t have anywhere to go to. They didn’t have a job, house, their kids weren’t there. They faced this massive uphill struggle. I wanted to do something to help them.

When I’d got out I had received some support from Nacro, helping me through its Health and Wellbeing programme they do through Probation, so I started volunteering for them and helping other people who had come out of prison. It helped that I had been through the same process and I would understand what they were going through.

That volunteering has led to me being offered a staff role at Nacro, doing some of the same kinds of things, supporting people on probation, those who’ve just come out of prison.

It feels good to be helping people. I got a taste for that in prison and its given me a new direction. I didn’t really think about it before I went to prison, about how difficult some people’s lives could be. It was real eye-opener to the problems that people have. It really has made me want to help those people. I look back at the time I was in prison and it feels like a dream. I say, did that really happen. But it did and the only think I can do is to try to make the best of things now.