An official shares her remarkable and harrowing life story, and explains how she now uses her experiences to help improve government policy
If I was 16 and you asked me "will you ever work in the civil service?", what I would have said is "I wouldn't work anywhere. Anyone working and paying taxes is an idiot."
I had a traumatic background, even though my family were quite wealthy. My dad beat my mum and I ended up being taken away, sent abroad where I had some relatives, and I was abused from the age of five to 11.
Back in this country, I ended up in care when I was 13. I started to realise very quickly in the care system that I could do what I wanted, and the more of a problem child I became, the more I got what I wanted.
And then I ran away and met this guy. And he was horrendous. I was still 13 and he was 23 and he took me through a journey of constantly beating me, getting me addicted to drugs and trafficking me.
I got pregnant at 15, went back into the care system, but they took my child away at the age of six months. I tried to kill myself because I just didn't want to live. Thank God it didn't work, because my life has turned out so differently.
But by the time I was 18, I was hooked on drugs and I got into stealing to get money. I managed to get free of the guy and escape, but I came back to London after a few months and reverted to type.
It was the 1980s and crack houses had sprung up all over the place. And it was like: "Oh my god, I can get my own drugs and get as high as I want and use my own money the way I want." So I did.
I didn't live anywhere; I was feral, almost. I earned money doing things which I hated. Then, because using drugs had made me so thin, I realised I could get through windows and burgle people's homes. All I saw was small objects that could translate to money.
I was in and out of prison. Shoplifting, criminal damage, stealing cars. ABH. Lots of different things. The sentences started out really short but they got bigger. I needed to be in prison, I really did. I couldn’t control myself.
One time when I was out I was in a house where somebody got murdered. I remember thinking "I’m in Hell, I’m actually in Hell." Eventually, the police made me give evidence. The result was I had a contract taken out on me. After that, my thought process was: "I need to mix with the worst of the worst to be protected." The police offered me witness protection, but the pull of drugs was too strong.
Back in prison, I was offered a restorative justice programme. I only did it to get out of the cell and because I was promised extra tobacco. But what happened really changed me. The programme involved coming face to face with a woman who I had burgled, and what she said made me think. When I got out, I went to do other burglaries but even once I’d broken in, I found I couldn’t go through with it. I just looked at their family pictures on the mantelpiece and I had to leave without taking anything.
I was still addicted, so I reverted to other crime, like shoplifting, because I saw it as victimless. After two more fairly lengthy sentences, I started a journey of recovery. It was difficult.
"Lived-experience thinking is not as common as it should be within the civil service. We need more people that have rehabilitated to help to change the system"
I ended up going into a mental-health unit. Then I started getting support from the local authority and there were all these community services wrapped around me, and I started volunteering for the local drug service.
A bit later I did an access-to-social-work course, did a degree and went to work in charity services, for criminal justice in one guise or another, or mental health for women who’ve been in the sex industry.
Right before the civil service, I was working in the charity sector.
Somebody sent me details of a role in the civil service and I thought: "That's a bit of me. I can do that." I got the job, but I was so lacking in knowledge about the civil service, it was funny. After a week, I was like: "Wait a minute... we work for the government!"
Now I’m a band 8 policy lead. It’s focused on better outcomes, employment and prison industries; going in and working with people in prison.
I’m part of an internal expert voice panel which has a number of individuals with varying degrees of lived experience. I’m 20 years out of prison; some are just two years. We sit once a month and various people can bring agenda items.
We do about 25 pieces of work a year to feed into policy. For example, the sanctions programme might come back and say "Can you have a look at this?" or "What do you think about that?" And I’ll say: "That’s good!" or: "Maybe you could change the language on that, or at least take out those unnecessary cartoons…"
There are assumptions made about people in prison. Most of the data shows that people have a reading age of about nine. They do. But we still don’t want to be condescending in our language and how we approach them, because they’re adults.
One of the reasons my views are really valued by the team is because I can bring that different perspective.
I once went to a focus group in a prison, run by a couple of quite senior people. They introduced themselves but didn’t ask the prisoners to introduce themselves. Do something like that and you've immediately undermined the whole purpose of the exercise.
I can speak to people in prison. I’ll say: "I've been where you are, right." And they’ll say: "I’ve got 63 criminal convictions." And I’ll say: "I’ve been in prison 16 times." They’ll say: "Really?" And that’s it, the diachronic lock opens.
"There are assumptions made about people in prison. Most of the data shows that people have a reading age of about nine. But we still don’t want to be condescending, because they’re adults"
There are definitely things that need improvement in the civil service. But one of the things I am grateful for is that I'm surrounded by really bright, intelligent people who actually care about people that are in the system now.
They want to create a way forward for them, and they understand the complex issues faced by people that are in that system.
I did a half-day volunteering event recently with another organisation that helps people to educate themselves by taking degrees while they're in prison.
We talked about how prison officers that are on the front line are working with the worst of society when they are the worst of themselves. That's hard to do. It's traumatising.
What I’ve noticed with prison officers is that I’m able to use my experiences and explain to them the importance of that smile they gave someone through the wicket when they rang their emergency bell. Or when they gave them the paper they needed to write on when their mental health was spilling out and they needed to put it onto something.
In an environment that doesn’t have many resources or tolerance, prisoners will remember that. The people that were kind to me in prison, they sowed seeds. That woman who told me to do the restorative justice programme – that transformed me.
Lived-experience thinking is not as common as it should be within the civil service. We need more people that have rehabilitated and changed to come in and help to change the system.