Not because I am vulnerable

For those of you who don’t know me, or haven’t been following the blog or story for long, I’ll begin with a brief introduction to contextualise this reflective piece.

“Hi, I’m Michaela, 1st class criminology graduate, mum, work in user involvement across the prison estate, activist, resister, lived experience researcher and a former prisoner”.

I didn’t need to end that short introductory paragraph by dropping in I’m a former prisoner, but I chose to, and the reason should become clear as your read on. Now, before you read on, I want to just take you back to that word ‘chose’ because, choosing, when, where and how I share my lived experience, is and always will be, entirely at my own discretion. However, that doesn’t mean that other people won’t take my experiences and appropriate them, alter them, diminish them or dramatize them for reasons often outside of my control.

As an undergrad studying Criminology and as a former prisoner with years of lived experience, both personal from my own imprisonment and experiences of being a child deprived of her own mother due to state sanction, my position as a student was somewhat different to my peers. This reflection isn’t to throw stones, it isn’t to push individual blame onto anybody and it isn’t any criticism of my experience as a student, anyone who knows me knows that the last three years of my life in higher ed, has been the making me. However, seldom do we hear the stories of working class experience in university life, and rarer still do we hear and unpick the experiences of criminalised women studying, what came to be three years of their own oppression, disadvantage and the harms inflicted on them through structural and systemic violence.

We don’t hear these stories for many reasons, for me personally I held a strong fear of discriminatory treatment whenever a situation arose which caused any upset. Just to be clear here, I am not saying that I actually faced discrimination. I am saying that at times, the fear of discriminatory treatment did impact on my actions and words. I knew I had academic ability from early on in the degree, I knew I had the motivation and dedication to succeed, what I didn’t have, and never have had, in trust in a system to treat me fairly. I had to be better, I had to work harder, I had to read more, stay up later and start earlier. I had every essay draft read, I had every tutorial I could, I asked for reading lists and more resources, I used every grading grid and always aimed for a first. I was never happy with anything less than being the best, and that is something to do with the internal consequences of oppression, social exclusion and criminalisation. My good friends who are women with similar life experiences to mine, call this the ‘bigger, better, stronger, faster’ by-product of lives. We have internalised, often to our detriment that our practice, our thinking, our voices, our work, has to be bigger, better, stronger, faster….because history tells us, we’re replaceable, we’re added value but we aren’t valuable. We’re called vulnerable and we see people sympathise over us with their capes on, categorising us under their ‘widening participation’ umbrella, already indicative of the disadvantage we try so fiercely to overcome, resist and eradicate.

Moving on, I have the utmost respect for my tutors who have helped me over the three years and my days of writing without purpose just to slag something off are gone, so I am going to try to capture a reflection of some experiences with respect. And, I must also note that while I am going to critique some of these experiences and peoples actions toward me, they were not actions through malice. That said, actions not through malice but due to a lapse in thinking, a lack of knowledge and not foreseeing the consequences, often end up with people like me going to prison, so that’s one to think about isn’t it. (just a side note here if any of my lectures read this from third year, none of these happened in my final year and all the staff involved are elsewhere).

Through various aspects of my degree, we had external visitors come in who worked in different criminal justice fields, magistrates, solicitors, prison officers and the like. In fact, we have a semester dedicated to external visitors on a weekly basis to talk to us about applying theory to practice and what working lives looked like in the criminal justice sector. I has attended roughly 4 sessions during this specific module and listened to and engaged with 4 external speakers. On week 5 I entered the seminar room at around 9.15am with my coffee and sat down at a table with my friends. There were roughly 30 students in the room. After I sat down, the lecturer said “Oh Michaela can I just have a word with you outside before this begins”. I thought that was weird as I have no idea why they would want to talk to me. Anyway I said of course, and followed them outside the classroom. They proceeded to inform me that “Today we have a prison officer coming in, and I know your personal views and experiences mean a lot to you but don’t take it out them”……

I was absolutely astounded…. ‘Don’t take it out on them’. Let’s just be very clear here, I never gave any indication that I would ever take anything out on anyone, I had never engaged in anything other than academic discussion and debate, appropriate to the topic, and I have never given any indication that I had any damaging or harmful views or thoughts on individual prison officers, especially ones I would be happy or willing to air in front of a whole class. In addition, I had never personally told this person anything about my personal views or lived experience. Ever. So, what happened here? There was no conversation or concern and private chat around “this guest will talk about prisons and life working with prisoners etc so if you feel uncomfortable let’s have a chat or feel free to leave” etc. It was simply a well worded warning to not challenge the guest on anything. Exactly what I went, and paid to go to University to do.

No one else was warned into silence. Only me. I wasn’t warned into silence because of my vulnerability was I? So, the ones who are happy to depict as us vulnerable, as damaged, who talk of our lack of education, our oppression, and lack of opportunity. In that instance, recognised I wasn’t vulnerable, excluded me from debate and took away my right and opportunity to have a voice. Not because I was vulnerable, but because at that point in time, I was probably the most powerful student in the room to engage in discussion. I was shut down, because that person knew I had been prison. And that was the only reason. So, a place at uni under their widening participation agenda, does not mean equality of treatment or equality of opportunity and only goes to highlight that no matter where we are, we continue to face the societal consequences of criminalisation. Even from people who understand and teach the desistance literature. As I have said before, there is massive difference in understanding oppression, and feeling oppression.

Anyway, to put the cherry on the cake, the external guest to put it nicely, could have done with one or two challenges, when they reeled off a 20 minute speech on women in prison, and had only ever worked in male prisons! LOL.

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