The power of a second chance

“There was never a day that I was in prison that I didn’t think I should be there.”

My prison story is complicated, because prison was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and also the best. My crime was accidental—a moment of recklessness that had catastrophic and tragic consequences—but there was never a day that I was in prison that I didn’t think I should be there. It changed my life in terrible ways, and also good ways, and opened my mind in ways that I never would have experienced in any other situation.

I can’t remember a lot from the first few months in there because of the grief and shock, but I remember being completely overwhelmed by the sorrow and pain all around me. It was like I was seeing this whole secret part of society that the rest doesn’t know about. Prisoners are invisible, because that’s how prison was designed. All of a sudden I could see all these people, and by far most of them had made bad mistakes, but I started to hear the stories behind every one, and it was heartbreaking.

Sometimes people who look bad on paper have good character. One thing I was overwhelmed by when I got to prison was how non-judgmental the other girls were, and how they immediately took me under their wings and took care of me, explaining how things worked, how to take care of my property, how to put money on the phone, and sometimes just forcing me eat half a cup of Rice Bubbles. People were kind to me. I connected with people in prison in ways that other people in my social circle will never understand. I love my friends and family, but they weren’t there, and they don’t understand the attachments and bonds you form with people when you’re sharing the experience of the lowest point in your life.

Most people in prison didn’t want to do the things they did. I asked people what it was like to do their crimes, like armed robbery, and not once did anyone tell me they liked it. Most people owned their crime and didn’t try to excuse it, but they also said they hated it, or they didn’t mean for it to turn out like it did. One girl broke out in hives all over her chest and neck when she talked about her crime, because it distressed her so much. I’ve also seen people who were shocked that they did their crime—they woke up out of a drug or psychotic haze to find themselves in custody, still covered with the bruises their boyfriend gave them, wondering how they ended up there. Of course, there are people who make excuses for their crimes, career criminals who will never leave the lifestyle, and sociopaths who don’t feel any remorse for what they did—but you can’t make generalisations about everyone in prison, because every case and every person is different.

“I connected with people in prison in ways that other people in my social circle will never understand.”

There are reasons people end up where they do. Most people in prison come from badly disadvantaged communities, where they were living in poverty, living their whole lives being abused and discriminated against, with nobody to help, nobody ever saying a kind word to them. There are reasons why kids get addicted to drugs and become suspicious of the police. There are reasons why prison doesn’t work, and why most people who are there go back again. How can somebody make socio-positive changes to their lives if they’ve never even seen what that looks like? How can you work for something of which you have no concept?

Getting out is hard. I’m well educated, and I have an amazing network of family and friends who stood by me the whole time I was in prison, who poured out their resources and love even though I didn’t deserve it. But it’s still been hard for me, even with all these resources. I applied for so many jobs and didn’t get them—I’ll never know if it was because I didn’t have enough experience, or because they Googled me. I also looked at dozens of properties to rent before I finally secured one, and was repeatedly rejected because I had no rental history and couldn’t provide a previous address that wasn’t prison. Can you imagine how hard it is for someone without the resources I have? It’s no wonder it’s unsustainable for so many people.

When you come out, it’s always in the back of your mind. There’s a psychological phenomenon called Imposter Syndrome, where you’re always looking over your shoulder, waiting for someone to figure out who you are and know that you shouldn’t be there. I still can’t change my name without permission, or protect myself in any way. Your status as a convicted criminal follows you around. Like most people in prison, I already knew what it was like to be ashamed, judged, humiliated, and to feel like a failure before I went there, so it’s a new level of feeling like shit some days when you’re walking around in society waiting to be exposed. It was kind of ironic that I already had persecution complex, and ended up in prison.

But one thing I’ve been surprised by, and grateful for, is the number of people who have been accepting of me when I’ve told them what happened. I’ve also realised that if you’re honest and you directly ask for help, lots of people will try to help you. I’ve had to tell a few random people, like my doctor and a lady at Queensland Transport, and they were shocked for a second, but they were good to me and helped me. There’s a bit of curiosity there sometimes, as they want to know what this invisible society is like. But mostly I think honesty is disarming, for both people, and it allows them to make a little connection you don’t get in ‘normal’ society. I think that’s one reason getting out is hard—I was in prison for three years, and people knew me, and knew my backstory, and were good to me, so I was afraid to go back out into a place where there’s a lot of judgement, a lot of smoke and mirrors, and a lot of pretending to be something you’re not.

There are people I love still in there. There are lots of people in there who are loved by lots of people out here—there are nearly 600,000 convicted criminals walking around in Queensland (I’m estimating this based on the fact that the current numbering system starts with a letter and goes up to 99,999 for each one; it’s currently at F), and a lot of them would have been in prison. That’s a lot of people to completely write off, don’t you think? But if you want people to change the way they’re living, you have to help them by providing resources they need to do it. Nothing changes if nothing changes, and I would like to contribute to changing the way things are.

“There are nearly 600,000 convicted criminals walking around in Queensland… that’s a lot of people to completely write off, don’t you think?”

Prison changed me forever. People have been good to me, and I want to be good to other people. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, or if I’ll be able to achieve any of the things I want to do to help. But I can’t forget or leave behind what I’ve seen—I’m never going to be the same again. I’m glad about that. I wouldn’t want to go back to living in my old world where I can’t see people being hurt, because if you can see it, you can try to do something about it.

That’s why I’m so grateful to be given this chance to use the skills I have for a good purpose, and to be involved with other people who feel the way I do about being compassionate and helping marginalised people. I want to be one of those people who always puts in the effort and still hopes, even when they’ve failed or fallen short a hundred times. I want to look back on my life and be satisfied that I tried, or maybe even helped a couple of other people to get where they needed to go. I want to always look for ways to help, because I know what it’s like to make a terrible mistake you can’t take back, and I know how amazing it is to be loved and taken care of in spite of it. People were my safe place, even inside prison, so now I want to be that safe place for other people.