Locked up at 21, I discovered I was creative and could express myself through words. Now I am a poet, a broadcaster, an author – things I’d never have believed possible.
It all started in 2008, when I got involved in a fight in a club while I was trying to protect my sister, who had been attacked by three women I thought were her friends. It was a fight-or-flight moment that would end with me in cuffs. I was 20 years old. I had never been in trouble with the police, but I was charged with grievous bodily harm with intent and spent about eight months on bail.
Being on bail feels like being in limbo. You start losing your identity, court hearing by court hearing, where people talk about you but you’re never allowed to speak, besides confirming your name and date of birth. I spent the whole eight months on bail fearing what would happen to me in prison and being threatened by the women who attacked my sister.
I was sentenced in February 2009 to two and a half years in prison, aged 21, and transferred to HMP Holloway in north London. I was wearing an instant weave, which is a wig you clip into your own hair. When I got to prison, a white female officer asked if the wig was mine and whether it was sewn or glued in. I was honest, and told her it was pinned in. I wish I had lied, because the wig was taken from my head and zipped away in a bag. What little identity I had left was stripped from me in an instant.
I quickly learned that anything you do or say in prison can get you into trouble. For example, I was told by officers that the prison wasn’t a hotel because I complained that a meal I asked for had run out. Then I was threatened with the “red pen”, which means a bad record in your file. So I started writing little notes to myself to help me deal with my emotions or future outbursts. It was a way of avoiding getting into any more trouble. Later, I showed the notes to friends, who told me I was writing poetry. I didn’t believe it. I told them it was just my thoughts, nothing serious.
Behind the wall, you realise the reality of prison. I met women who were inside for shoplifting. Some might have been stealing because they couldn’t afford to get their child something for Christmas. I met women who were addicted to drugs; a lot of women on methadone. I met women who were screaming all the time. The thing that surprised and shocked me most was the number of people going in and out of prison because of the difficulty of navigating their lives after being inside. I have spoken to women who said that when they were released they didn’t have an address or medical records, so they were more likely to go out and buy drugs. If they went back to prison, they at least had a roof over their heads. I also met women who I believed should not have been in prison: kind, caring women – mothers, grandmothers and sisters – who just ended up in a bad situation through no fault of their own.
I spent 11 months in prison and then five months tagged. Inside, I faced racism and had to adapt to survive. Despite being a British passport holder, I was transferred from Holloway to a prison for foreign nationals that had no black or brown officers, besides the gate officer who had no contact with us. Here my Ugandan heritage was weaponised against me. I was threatened with deportation after guards claimed they could not verify my nationality – even though I had been cleared by immigration. The only way I felt I could fight this was with a hunger strike.
After my release, I spent years trying to find my way back into society. I searched for people like me, willing to speak out about the justice system, to help me prove that prison is no holiday camp, and that there can be life after being released. That was when I found out about National Prison Radio and got in touch. They were the first people to say yes to me – after years of being used to hearing no, it came as a shock. It was the first time I was seen for more than my crime and it began my journey into broadcasting.
Prison opened my eyes to a new community of people I thought I could never relate to. I have gone from being the girl next door to an inmate, then a poet, award-winning broadcaster and now an author. These are all things I would never have believed I’d be able to do.
In 2021, when I was nominated for best host at the Audio Production awards, I was sitting in the green room with my best friend, being treated like a VIP, drinking free booze. I remember asking the organisers if I needed to go back into the auditorium and everyone telling me to take my time, just relax. Then suddenly I heard someone running towards the green room. It sounded like the officers who came running down the wing in prison when there was trouble. Only this time there was no trouble, just a very out-of-breath man who had to sprint to come and find me to tell me I had won.
Lady Unchained hosts a platform for artists with experience of the criminal justice system.