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

By Jon Kelly
BBC Stories

  • Published
Lily Lewis pictured on day release

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 a 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.

Women in prison

  • Many female offenders experience chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems and homelessness, says the government's Female Offender Strategy (2018), noting that these are often the product of a life of abuse and trauma
  • According to the Prison Reform Trust, 57% of woman prisoners report having been victims of domestic abuse and 53% report having experienced emotional, sexual or physical abuse
  • The rate of self-harm is nearly five times higher in women's prisons than in men's prisons
  • Almost half of female prisoners say they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else
  • About three-quarters of women given custodial sentences get six months or less, and between a quarter and a third of female offenders have dependent children
  • Prison reform campaigners were dismayed when the government dropped plans last year to build "community prisons" for women - it said it would trial five residential drug rehab centres but news of these is still awaited

The more women Lilly spoke to in prison, the more she realised that most of them had something in common - like her, they were victims of domestic violence, but hadn't felt able to seek help. "Women are petrified to come forward because they know that social services are going to be involved and your kids are going to be swiped from under your feet," she says.

Abuse had been part of Lilly's relationships since she was a teenager. For most of her adult life, she had been smartly dressed, confident and gregarious. She'd run her own businesses and held down professional jobs. And as a result, everyone had believed her when she said her bruises came from falling over. No-one had realised she was anaesthetising her pain every night with alcohol and drugs.

There was Michael (not his real name). One morning, while she was heavily pregnant, he grabbed her by the throat and threw her down the stairs, she says. Hours later, she gave birth. The regular beatings began six weeks after that, she says. Once, he beat her so badly that neighbours called the police. When they arrived, Lilly's daughter Issy, who was at primary school at the time, told them: "Please help, my mum's dead."

As well as hitting and punching Lilly, Michael would regularly rape her, she says. "If he wanted sex, he was having it," she says. After each attack, he'd say he was sorry and Lilly would forgive him: "I didn't feel a victim in any way at all. I thought this was my life."

After he was jailed for attacking her, she found a new boyfriend, a gangland enforcer. "Because he didn't physically beat me, it didn't feel like abuse," she recalls. But he would point his gun at her and threaten to shoot. The only time she cried was when the barrel got caught in her new hairdo, messing it up. He left her soon after their son was born.

Then came the man who later became her co-accused. She'd been drinking to blot out the pain for as long as she could remember, and after he became her lover, he plied her with alcohol, waking her up in the morning with a glass of wine. He disappeared for long periods without notice, not telling Lilly where he was, and each time she'd descend into a depression until he returned.

She worked from home, although now she was often too drunk in the daytime to function. Her partner had access to her laptop and all her emails. "What I didn't realise he was doing was forwarding all my data to friends of his," she says. They'd ring customers of the company she worked for and scam them. Lilly agreed to open a bank account and a limited company in her name. She had an idea of what was going on by this stage, but it was all too easy to turn a blind eye - nobody was getting shot or killed, so it didn't feel like a crime.

Lilly loved him, but the final straw came when he offered marijuana to Issy, who was now 14. The relationship was over. Lilly says she called the police at this point and told them about the fraud. He was arrested, and she knew that sooner or later they would come for her, too. Eventually, they did - she was charged and bailed, and she knew she was facing a lengthy prison sentence.

Then the police raided the home of her previous ex - the one who worked as an enforcer for gangsters, the father of her son. Two days after that, officers took away her children.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson comments:

"Evidence clearly shows that putting women in prison can do more harm than good for society, failing to cut the cycle of reoffending and exacerbating often already difficult family circumstances. That is why we have shifted our emphasis from custody to the community and are investing in women's centres which offer a wide range of support including services around substance misuse and mental health problems. Overall we have invested £5m in community provision for female offenders to ensure women are given the support they need to address their offending and turn away from a life of crime."

From this point, Lilly's life spiralled further downwards. "I just drank," she says. "I was being arrested every week and locked up every week." She attempted suicide five times and was sectioned twice under the Mental Health Act. After the final time she tried to kill herself, she thought about how much pain it would have caused her children if she'd succeeded. It was a turning point for Lilly. "From that day I just thought: 'I've got a bit of a challenge ahead of me. So let's do it.'"

Lilly had been placed in a women's refuge where she'd tried to engage with substance misuse workers, but each time she'd relapsed. Now she was determined to stay clean. "I thought: 'God, I'm tougher than this. I can do it,'" she says. "I got my act together."

For the first time in her adult life, she managed to stay completely free of drink and drugs. Her trial was six months away. It wasn't until the day she was sentenced, when she learned how long she would spend locked away, that she finally felt she'd got her life back.

It was a bright day in June and sunlight flooded into the prison van as it pulled over. From her seat inside, Lilly could see inmates tending flower beds. She had been re-categorised as an open prisoner, and this was to be her new jail.

Quickly, she realised the 20 months she'd spent in closed conditions had institutionalised her. She'd been looking forward to walking around freely and going to the coffee shop, but now it unnerved her. Once she'd vowed never to call the officers "sir" or "miss", but now it felt strange to her when other inmates addressed them by their first names. And it suddenly seemed that no-one needed her. In the closed prison, she'd had a role. Helping prisoners worse off than herself had given her a sense of purpose, but what was there for her to do now?

Ever since the trial, Lilly had thought about her victims every day. Their testimony in court, as they told how they had been robbed of trust as well as their savings, was the only part of the trial that had seemed real to her, painfully so. "Obviously I'm sorry because they lost the money, but it's deeper than that - I think more of what they lost of themselves," she says. "I'm sad because of what I've done to them personally."

Christmas decorations glittered in each shop window as Lilly inched her way through York city centre. It was raining but she walked slowly, taking in every sight and sound. This was her first resettlement day, part of the programme to re-integrate her into the community. It was as though she was looking at the streets with an entirely new set of eyes. She felt light-headed with excitement. Everything seemed to be sparkling.

Lilly navigated the pavement tentatively. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said to everyone who came past her. But her awkwardness was overwhelmed by a deep feeling of joy.

She bought a pink umbrella from one shop, a bunch of grapes from another. She stopped a shop assistant so she could ask him something, but she didn't know how to start the conversation. She'd forgotten about "Excuse me".

Later, Lilly sat in a coffee shop drinking a hot chocolate with marshmallows. She couldn't believe it cost £3.80. She'd never had to think about money before. A drunk man stumbled into the cafe and told Lilly that she was beautiful. The other customers glared, but Lilly thanked him. She was glad someone had recognised her presence.

Before returning to the prison that evening, she repeated a mantra in her head:

"I love life. I love life. I love life."

After that, she was allowed to go outside for work placements. She cried when staff at one workplace invited her to their Christmas party. She took on another role at a project mentoring children and young people who had been drawn into crime. Lilly hoped she could help them make better choices than she had.

She and Issy had become closer than ever. "If a woman's in a violent relationship and they're getting violently beat up, it is sometimes hard for them to think about their children as well, because they're just thinking about surviving," says Issy, now 18. It had been difficult for her when her mum had been sent to prison. Now the two had the space to bond as mother and daughter. Some nights Lilly was allowed to stay overnight at Issy's flat, and they'd sit all evening on the sofa, savouring each other's presence.

Lilly had also begun getting help, attending counselling for domestic abuse. The therapist talked to her about controlling behaviour and how to recognise it. They also spoke about the role that her family background had played - the sense of abandonment she'd felt ever since she learned about her adoption. She was put in touch with a family worker who would help her trace her birth parents.

Finally, the questions she had asked since childhood were about to be answered.

Lilly was told that her birth mother had died some years previously. But her father was still alive. He'd recently been widowed and the funeral directors gave Lilly his address. She wrote to him to say she had no bad feelings towards him, that she wouldn't get in touch again if he didn't want her to, that all she wanted to do was reach out.

Three months later, he phoned her. He spoke with a gentle Jamaican lilt. It turned out he had spent his working life 10 minutes away from Lilly's old school, in a factory next door to the one where her adoptive mother had been employed.

He told Lilly that her birth mum had been in an abusive marriage, too. He had met her while her husband was in prison and they had had a brief affair - but she was white, and when she discovered she was pregnant, there was no question of her keeping a mixed-race child. "She suffered from depression, so a very similar character to me," Lilly says. "Her biggest concern was keeping her husband happy - and I got that, because I've done that all my life." As she listened, Lilly wished she could have been there to protect her birth mum.

The first time Lilly met her birth dad in person, she sat in his car and asked if she could hold his hand. She told him everything - the fraud, the addiction, the abusive men she'd stayed with because she'd learned to see their coercion and violence as perverse expressions of love. He cried and told her he was sorry. When she rang him later, he told her she was amazing, that he felt a father's love for her.

They were the words she'd wanted to hear all her life.

One afternoon, Lilly sits with a coffee in front of her in the centre of a northern English city. She's on a break from her work placement, and none of the shoppers milling around her would imagine this smartly dressed, composed-looking woman will be returning that night to a prison cell.

Freedom is still a long way ahead of her. But her work with young offenders gives meaning to her days. Her relationship with Issy is flourishing.

Above all, she says, she had discovered something that had eluded her all her life, that she'd been searching for but that had always seemed beyond her grasp. Self-respect.

"I never used to like me," she says, and then smiles: "Now I really like me."

Follow Jon Kelly on Twitter: @mrjonkelly

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