Rebecca was only 13 when she met a much older man. They met at a time when Rebecca was largely avoiding school, getting into fights so she could ‘be excluded’. He introduced Rebecca to heroin at a party, eventually encouraging her to shoplift to fund their drug habits. She has been in a cycle of being arrested and imprisoned ever since.
Rebecca managed to leave this first abusive relationship, but soon entered another. Her next partner was also a drug user and, over a period of 16 years, subjected Rebecca to severe domestic violence. He was arrested a couple of times, but Rebecca never talked about it to the police. Early in the relationship, aged 15, Rebecca fell pregnant. By the time she had a baby girl, her partner was in prison and seemingly out of her life. With support from her nan, she was able to ‘get clean’, ‘get a flat’, and ‘be happy’.
But soon after his release, he entered Rebecca’s life once again. In her words, ‘I knew that he was using [heroin] in the flat and I put up with it for a little and then it just made me start craving again so I got back on the heroin’. Her life became ‘chaotic again’. Rebecca’s daughter was frequently left in the care of Rebecca’s nan, until she had a stroke and couldn’t look after her any longer. Social services stepped in and Rebecca’s daughter was taken in to care and subsequently adopted.
These circumstances led Rebecca to have a breakdown, and she was sectioned for four weeks. As a coping mechanism, she smoked crack cocaine. When her baby boy was born, in the maternity wing of prison, he was addicted from birth. He was adopted by Rebecca’s sister, and she can only see him at her sister’s discretion.
Rebecca continued to experience horrific domestic violence. It culminated one night. Still troubled by the extent of the violence perpetuated, Rebecca said “what I witnessed that night and what I suffered … I can’t explain it, it was bad”. But she managed to briefly describe some of the events that night: ‘he beat me …and the person who lived with us.’ After that night, and the horrific injuries she sustained, Rebecca took steps to ‘get away from him’, ensuring he was found guilty of grievous bodily harm with intent and sentenced to prison.
Rebecca suffers from poor physical and mental health, a consequence of years of drug use and abuse. She has suffered pneumonia twice, had nine blood clots, leg ulcers, anxiety, paranoia, and depression. Rebecca found it hard to get help, especially for her mental health. To do an assessment, she had to be clean and struggled to be. Failing to get support, especially for the pain she was in, resulted in more drug use: “I was just in so much pain … that I was using more thinking it was helping the pain go away but I was making it worse”.
Rebecca’s latest sentence – of more than 12 months – is the longest she has served. Shorter prison sentences, Rebecca claims, did not provide her with the adequate opportunities for the training and education that might have prevented her from reoffending. “When you’re in here for a short amount of time nothing really gets done … You’ve got to wait. You’ve got to do five days ‘lay down’ it’s called” – an ‘induction’ into prison life – before you are considered for support or training.” For someone like Rebecca, who has multiple experiences of prison life, this is effectively wasted time. Rebecca argued that avoiding lengthy inductions for those in and out of prison would help prisoners access support quicker, encouraging rehabilitation.
This longer sentence, however, was different for Rebecca. She was able to get a job in the kitchen, providing useful skills for after her release. A course on anger management and cognitive behavioural therapy has been extremely helpful, Rebecca told us. An acting part as a dancer in a play, performed to paying attendees, has transformed her confidence.
Looking back over her life, Rebecca identified her childhood as a critical juncture. Better education on drugs would have helped and made a difference to her life, Rebecca argued, because she ‘had no real knowledge’ of the dangers. Rebecca also felt let down by social services, saying that she had lost trust in them. Explaining she said: “You ask them something and it’s ‘oh yeah, I’ll do it’ but it doesn’t get done.”
Rebecca was released from prison just before Christmas 2018. After 17 years of sofa surfing, staying with drug users in crack houses, and living on the streets, Rebecca will be living in her own accommodation. With her sister and auntie contributing to the rent, Rebecca believes this offers the best chance of a stable life. Her hopes for the future are simple: “Be drug free, sort my mental health out, keep my accommodation … see my children. Make my family proud. Get a job. Have money. Just be happy.”