The one thing, despite what my many detractors say about me, they can’t ever say is that I lack experience when it comes to false allegations. 20 plus years at the coal face so to speak, makes me uniquely qualified to comment on the current crisis in the criminal justice system.
Whilst lawyers talk about the legal side, the police impart their own versions of how their mistakes are down to lack of funding etc etc. I come at this from the other side. I not only know the falsely accused and their cases, I was also in prison with the very of people who make false allegations. 8 months and one week of studying them. Living with them, watching them do it on a day to day basis.
People mistakenly believe that criminality stops once they are locked up. It doesn’t, it just transfers to a different environment. A closed environment, an environment in which you can actually study, over a significant period of time, the types of personalities that you know are unlikely to change. They are the few, however that few cause pandemonium. Their actions harmed everyone, not just an individual because of the environment we were in. Real harm too. Leading to suicide attempts by their victims.
I became hardened to the sob stories. Their behaviour towards other human beings displayed no empathy. They chose to harm others. And I don’t care how ‘abused’ they were as children, it does not excuse the havoc they then wreak. They needed to be locked away from society.
2001 HMP Drake Hall
’Petal’ was anything like the name Petal. She was a drug addicted sex worker who was in her early 30’s but looked about 50. Petal was my ‘cheer you up mate’. Those of you who have been to prison will recognise this mate. She was the person I gravitated to if things were getting me down. Why, because Petal was funny, she was a survivor, she reminded me how lucky I was. She was also bright, she would annihilate me at chess and gave as good as she got at scrabble. We were poles apart though, I was going home to a family, a loving environment, Petal, who was on her 12th round of prison, was going to be ejected back into a world that for her, was unpredictable, unsafe and without a permanent roof over her head.
Petal was fairly pragmatic about her situation, she explained to me how she herself had made a new mate inside and that this mate had a boyfriend on the out who had a flat and as long as she paid her way, she could stay there. The boyfriend was of course a euphemism for pimp, paying her way meant .. well it doesn’t take much imagination to work that out. Not really a mate.
Petal regaled me with stories of her childhood, most of which would have been shocking outside of prison, but somehow were the norm inside. You quickly become desensitised to the horror of their childhoods as it is just so commonplace. So, having become accustomed to the stories, I began to laugh at them, not at Petal, at the way she told them and her ingratiating lack of self pity. We would be roaring with laughter within minutes. Me and my ‘posh’ no Queens English and upbringing with its middle class ‘character building’ abuse in boarding school and her and her Lancashire accent, where the abuse was noticed but went unchallenged because where she came from it was the norm and social services were ‘run off the estate.’
I once asked her why she would never sit down and eat at a table with a knife and fork. This was the response.
Petal did not have a table to eat off growing up. One day Petal’s mum had found a table in a skip and had bought it home to put in the kitchen because they were going to ‘do things proper’ and sit and have family meals. A couple of days later some chairs appeared, at this point I was starting to laugh as she began commenting on the fact that you couldn’t have sat and eaten because the chairs were too low and your chin rested on the table. She wasn’t sure where they had come from but they looked very like the chairs at the community centre, which she explained had just had a ‘do’ and some of the chairs had been left outside. The table was wooden, the chairs plastic. Prior to the chairs arriving, Petal informed me they thought they were posh, because the table was a breakfast bar…..
There was a problem with cutlery too as all the knives and spoons had been used for other things, she relayed, winking at me, whilst asking me if I had ever tried eating cornflakes with a fork. By now I was falling about laughing. Anyway, she had to ‘go on the road’ for a bit (slang for getting money for drugs). After a couple of days she returned and the kitchen table was lopsided with one leg missing, propped up by one of the chairs. She asked her mother what had happened, who then referred her to her father who was down the pub. When her father came home, his limp was far more pronounced than usual she informs me starting to laugh at the recollection, so she asked him what had happened to the table leg, at which point he pulled up his trousers and there was the table leg strapped to his amputed leg with duct tape. Apparently he had lost his prosthetic leg in a game of dominoes. As she put it ‘fucking dominoes, Pen who bets their fucking prosthetic leg in a game of dominoes’ I was more interested in who would want the leg .. And so ended any attempt to get the family to ‘do things proper’.
Another Petal moment, one that demonstrated her acceptance of who and what she was without any bitterness. I asked Petal who had chosen her name, expecting her to say a parent, no, stupid me, of course it wasn’t a parent, it was her nickname, because she had teeth missing. I looked at her and said I don’t get it and she smiled a semi toothless grin and in her broad accent said ‘I’ve got ‘alf me teeth missin’ luv, it’s like that game yer play when yer little with a daisy, he loves me he loves me not’ At which point we both burst out laughing, me because of the incongruity and her because she had to explain it to me. She then added ruefully that my education couldn’t have been that good if I couldn’t work that one out.
I can recall every minute of our conversations because it was such an important learning curve for me. She changed how I viewed victims of child abuse and gave me some insight into lives that I had read about, but not had any real knowledge of. She told these stories of a deprived background without any attempt to engender sympathy. It was stand up comedy. She laughed at herself and her childhood. She allowed me to see that there are two sides to a coin I believed had only one.
Petal’s upbringing consisted of her mother and father and several siblings. Her mother was a drug addicted part time sex worker and her father an alcoholic.
Despite everything, it would appear her parents did love her in their own way. She would tell me stories of how protective they were if social workers came to take them and how there was always bread and milk in the house. Bread and milk, just bread and milk I asked .. at which point she became defensive and stated matter of factly that was more than some of her mates had. ‘I never starved’ she said.
Petal was addicted to crack cocaine and heroin, she fed her habit via sex work, shoplifting or handling stolen goods. When she needed a break, she ensured she would get caught committing several offences at once, that always meant a stint inside. A rest. Three meals a day, warmth, relative safety and company. HMP was another addiction and bizarrely visits, visits from her family, who she rarely saw when she was out of prison. ‘Family bonding time Pen, very important’ she would say, whilst I shook my head trying to work it all out. In the end I just accepted it. Who was I to say it was all screwed up.
My parents thought it was OK to send us to another country to be schooled by religious zealots who were extremely physically and psychologically abusive, some boarders were just 5 years old. Petal was equally horrified at the thought of that. I had never seen it from her perspective. Laughing as we traded our childhood stories gave us both insight. Commonality was we were where we were. Spilt milk … And humour.
Petal had first been paid for sex at the age of around 14 to get drugs, she tells me she was already sexually active when she did this, she had a boyfriend. She told me she had first tried heroin, no gateway drug outside of alcohol, aged about 12. Petal used her money to fund her habit and to buy food and clothes. I asked if her parents knew that she was involved in the sex industry and she didn’t think they did at the time, as they were always ‘off their faces’. The fact she was a minor was shocking to me, however when I said that, she told me that I was just comparing my life to hers and asked who was I to judge her. She had a point, at 14 I was getting my boarding school closed down but was also staying away from home at the weekends, my friends being adults at that time, I could so easily have been exploited looking back. The only difference between us was I had been educated and having travelled around the world as much as I had and having lived away from home for 4 years, I was able to better protect myself and thankfully my friends looked out for me. I tried to explain I was not judging her, I was judging society, she very vehemently told me that any discussion about that was off limits. Actually she told me to fuck off unless I was going to change the subject. ‘Poor me’ was not part of her personality.
She would tell me all these things without any self pity, just matter of factly and always adding that so and so down the road had it much tougher than she did. She really genuinely did not see herself as I saw her. A victim, or if she did, nobody else was going to see behind that invisible wall she and so many others had built around them. Vulnerability is not an option in that life I guess.
Petal’s view was ‘you do the crime you do the time’ Never once playing victim. ‘My choices Pen nobody’s got a gun to my head’ she used to say. I wanted to say there was a gun, you just can’t see it. But you learn very quickly not to try and be their social worker, they don’t want that. They just want to be treated normally. Their childhoods were not up for sale at any price. And no matter what the system says they should do, I respected their need for that privacy. Their lives belonged to them nobody else.
Neither she or most of the other inmates tolerated any victim playing from the minority of inmates who whinged their way through their sentences. Interestingly, not only did the whiners blame their pasts for their crimes, their crimes were significantly worse than the Petals of this world.
The blamers hurt people. They stole from the vulnerable. They burgled houses with pensioners in, they mugged, they dragged their own children into dealing as runners and when they were caught, spent the entire time lying about how those events had happened and when it was shown they had committed those offences, immediately turned on the waterworks and switched to ‘but I was abused as a kid’ as if this was an excuse for their abhorrent behaviour.
They never ever took responsibility. Always blaming their circumstances for their actions, because of course when you do that you can just carry on with that behaviour as none of it is ‘your’ fault it was always somebody else’s. I know. I saw it going on as I was always the one they wanted representing them in adjudications. I also witnessed pathological lies coming out of their mouths in those hearings. They said things that I knew weren’t true. Telling prison governors that they were victims of bullying etc, when I knew they were the bullies. I also watched as the faces of the adjudicators blanked. They did not fall for it for the most part. Sometimes it was a relief if the punishment was confinement to the cell. It meant we had a break from the constant drama these inmates would instigate.
Ask most prisoners or prison officers, HMP hones instincts because you need them inside. There was no mantra of ‘I believe’ in HMP. You HAD to prove yourself. Inmates conduct their own ‘interviews’ and if you don’t pass, or have lied, well .. you are in trouble.
The thing about HMP is that not only are most of the inmates from the same childhood stable, they bring with them a set of skills most people do not have to rely on, intuition being a huge part of their survival kit on the street. They can weed out a bullshitter in minutes. Same goes for most prison officers, who live with them on a daily basis, who very quickly become immune to any victim playing. They have seen it all before and it doesn’t wash with them either, supported with the files on those inmates, which contain, in some cases, a catalogue of offences that tell them the real story.
They just can’t get away with it inside and the liars are caught out very quickly, it’s extremely difficult to keep up a facade day in day out, sooner or later they show their true colours.
These others, the self pitying attention seeking prisoners, refused to take responsibility, if ever caught out, they would pull every available stunt to get out of the consequences, throwing themselves around, pretending to faint, crying, blaming others … pretty much anything they could think of to get out of being held to account. These were the ones that also feigned illnesses to get prescribed drugs. The GP’s who came into HMP were only too happy to supply them too. The mere mention of suicidal ideation ensured a legal high for the great pretenders.
Most women in prison are victims of abuse of some sort. Not all victims of abuse remain victims, most go onto to lead relatively normal lives, some, as evidenced in research papers about the effects of child abuse, become the predators. The abuse women suffered as children should never get in the way of ensuring the public are protected from them should they show themselves to be abusers. Certain crimes indicate what you are dealing with. Crimes that involve high levels of deception, or preying on the vulnerable are red flags.
The abuse excuse is just that, an excuse. It might explain why they are the way they are, it however cannot excuse their crimes. ‘I believe’ is a dangerous starting point.
Petal taught me to look beyond what had happened to her as a child and look at the adult without bias. It doesn’t mean I did not feel sorry for her or some of the others who suffered awful childhoods, it just meant the filter was switched off. Some victims of abuse need to be kept away from society because they have become predators.
If somebody has been a victim of child abuse, it does not mean they cannot also be a liar. Child abuse creates criminals, fact, all the research proves that. The CJS has lost sight of its job. Impartiality.
The mantra of ‘I believe’ has led to the police being mugged by the victim players who are laughing all the way to the bank … literally. There is no other crime in which the police would, through ‘blind belief’ actively assist the offenders in pulling it off.
Petal’s real name was Hannah and I have her to thank for shading my view of the world and giving me insight. Not everything is black or white.