Safeguarding in practice?

Today I had a three-hour lecture on safeguarding children. It was hard, emotional and thought provoking. A three-hour lecture hardly makes me an expert, I know. Nevertheless, it has enabled me to broaden my thinking, my questioning and my understanding of safeguarding, what it means in practice and times in my life that it has failed. We hear of child protection scandals, when cases like Baby P are publicised widely in the media, and rightly so. What we don’t hear about is how so many agencies miss so many issues and for what reasons and how as a society we have so many systems that should have child safeguarding at the forefront of their work, but don’t. From personal experience, this is my take on it….
We touched on interventions from local authorities for children in need. When I was born, I was a child in need. My parents were heavily drug dependant. I left the hospital, with them, with no intervention. I can’t remember a lot about my early years however it doesn’t take a genius to realise that with parents addicted to heroin, I wasn’t going to be adequately cared for without the possibility of significant harm. I assume I came into contact as a baby with various healthcare professionals, my parents encountered the criminal justice system and other agencies were involved around the drug issues. No protection, safeguarding or child welfare concerns from any of these people so far? None of these professionals considered that the children living in this environment were at risk of harm?
Let’s move on to Michaela, age 4. At this point in my life I started primary school. Often being the last child to be collected at the end of the day, often not doing homework, not bringing in the right books or P.E kit, not fitting in with the other kids, being tired, withdrawn, protective of my sisters. Bruised, late, problematic at times, phases of bedwetting and little to no parent interaction with the school. I don’t recall a single parent’s evening that my parents attended at primary school. None of these professionals who saw me on a daily basis at school thought that I was a child at risk of significate harm? They thought I had dyslexia, yes. I didn’t. They thought I slept heavy because I had phases of bed wetting, ok. But none of them raised any concerns over my welfare, my development or my safety? Through 5 or 6 years of this kind of behaviour in primary school, not one teacher considered the possibility that I was a child being abused, neglected or harmed?
Age 11-12 I started high school, often late, truanting, not doing homework, disruptive, tired. I don’t recall a single teacher throughout any time in my school days, asking me what was going on at home? I of course wouldn’t just tell them of my own back, because as far as I was concerned, my life was normal. At the age of 11,12,13 and so on, we don’t consider how our environment or circumstance will affect us in life. I was merely trying to survive. I remember going to the doctors and having a thyroid check around age 14, to see if that explained why I was always tired, my thyroids were fine they said, offering no other communication, asking no other questions or no other explanation as to why I was always tired. I was probably tired of life. Probably because I was a child experiencing significant harm to my development, wellbeing and safety, that every single teacher and doctor couldn’t see? Every professional that I came into contact with, missed?
I was often skiving school because I was so tired, I remember once leaving school to go to the common where I fell asleep for a few hours. I can remember now, waking up and thinking oh my god, have I really just fell asleep on the common? I had numerous detentions for skiving, nobody asked me why I was doing it, why was I so tired, what was going on?
In my later school years, I was going out clubbing, underage, often bumping in to teachers, I could probably name 5 straight of the top of my head. None of them raised any concerns as to why a 14-15yr old girl was out on a school night, drunk in a night club at 1-2am? I had my first tattoo, age 14. I remember showing it off around school, even to teachers. None of them raised any concerns as to why a 14yr old girl had come into school with a tattoo? By no means am I blaming anybody for my behaviour however if I look back at so many people seeing me on a daily basis and none of them even attempted any intervention of any kind, it’s sad. Sad for me on a personal level but utterly disgraceful in terms of child safeguarding policy. I was a vulnerable CHILD. A young girl living in hell, not only at risk of but actually experiencing harm, abuse and neglect EVERY SINGLE FUCKING DAY and guess what, not one of these professionals raised any concern that I was a child at risk of harm?
When I was 16 I was constantly ringing, turning up to the office of my mum’s drug worker, expressing concerns over mental health issues, providing evidence, explaining risk concerns. No one listened, no concern still, over my own wellbeing or safety. I was 16 and a child, being ignored when expressing serious, heart breaking concern of my mother.
Is in not the case, that all of the professionals knew I was at risk, knew I was experiencing these things, knew I was in need but chose to ignore it? Labelling me as a teenage rebel, a naughty girl, the black sheep was easier that recognising I was a CHILD, easier than flagging up a situation of a child at risk of harm and easier than dealing with a very troubled and traumatised young child.
As I look back on my life as a 27 year old woman, it’s becoming easier for me to recognise and understand how my experience, my life choices, my mistakes and my successes have built me into the person I am. I am happy, I am driven, I am pursuing education and opening up new paths for my future all of the time and I hate to look back on my life and think, What If? So, I won’t.
Maybe I am hoping, through this brief story of safeguarding, a professional may consider viewing these ‘rebels’ these ‘black sheep’ these ‘troubled teens’ as CHILDREN. Vulnerable, traumatised, exploited, neglected CHILDREN. Who don’t cry out for help, who don’t open up, who don’t seek support because they are merely trying to survive and are not considering how their experiences as children will shape their lives.
A lot of people could have, should have, and I am sure did, realise I was a child at risk of harm. None of them did anything, at all to intervene, to support or help me.
When I was sentenced to a prison term with no pre-sentence report, as the sole carer of my daughter, the judge had no consideration for the safeguarding, welfare or potential risk of harm to my child. When will this cycle stop?


My Contribution to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.

I could come here and tell you story after story, from my own personal experience of being under the supervision of a probation officer, who time after time did everything she could to ensure through out my prison sentence I endured set back after set back, more trauma, more frustration and ultimately, no support, encouragement or rehabilitation what so ever, from the so called systems that took me in, owed a duty of care to me and for the two years I was in prison, the only thing they did for me was house me, feed me, have me take part in thinking skills programmes, that I didn’t need to do and ultimately, release me with £46 and my licence conditions in hand. On this, were 6 general conditions. I am going to read you the 6th.

“You must be well behaved. You must not commit any further offences or do anything that would ruin your chances of rebuilding your life and cause you to be sent back to prison”.

With all of the well known and well documented failing of the probation service maybe we all need to realise, that probation for the most part, is where a sentence is beginning to come to an end. In my case, after a custodial sentence. By the time a person is leaving prison, they should have been equipped with the resources they need, to enable them to adhere to the 6th condition on their licence. I don’t need to stand here and tell you that almost every prisoner being released from the absolute chaos of our prisons today, has not been rehabilitated, they have not been supported to change, the resources are simply not there for people, in the worst times of their life, to access.

I would be brave enough today, and stand here in front of you and say, before people even come into contact with the probation services, they have already been massively failed by many other services and systems that claim to have been put into place to protect, care and support people with serious vulnerability in society. This simply is not happening. With the probation service being under massive scrutiny I think we really need to consider and act on the failings that happen prior to a person coming into contact with The Probation Service. We need to ask ourselves, why are the courts sending women to prison, with no pre-sentence report, knowing she is the sole carer of a child. Why has the use of community sentences for women dropped by almost 50% in the past ten years? In 2016, 8447 women were sent to prison. 70% of these women were serving a sentence of 6 months or less. That is only enough time to lose a family home, to lose their caring responsibility of their children and cause more harm that what ever good prison could possibly offer which in a sentence of 6 months or less is no good what so ever. If we consider why so many women are committing petty crime like theft, we need to understand their life in poverty, with drug addictions and the majority with mental health problems. And then, judges need to realise that prisons are not places that can treat addiction or mental health problems, so this would completely disregard the supposed ‘rehabilitation’ aspect of a prison sentence, it would also completely disregard the supposed ‘public protection’ aspect of prison.

So, what are we using prison for? If a woman goes to prison for theft, for less than 6 months, there is no concern over public protection and there is no chance of rehabilitation, so why are so many women in prison now?

I see and hear, every day of budget cuts and no funding for services to help and support the rehabilitation of offenders. I also see and hear of government plans to build new super prisons and spend so much money on recruiting prison staff. The prison and probation service are collapsing right in front of us. People who work in the prison and probation sector go home at the end of their working day. They have a choice as to where they live, where they eat, when they eat, and what they do for a job. The men and women who are being ‘cared’ for and ‘rehabilitated’ in those failing systems, have no choice as to what happened to them. We are putting the lives of real people, with real problems, in the hands of prison and probation staff who have more concern over ticking boxes on various risk assessment forms, concern over personal safety in prison due to the massive staff shortage and volatile environment and more concern over managing high risk offenders at 139% capacity with 15 minutes, per week per offender, including paperwork. The concern for rehabilitation, for housing, for health care, for personal well being and development and for the end of what in many cases is a revolving door, in my opinion is non existent in our current justice system.

When people are being released from prison in a much worse state than how they entered, we have to ask ourself, what is our prison system doing? Instead of giving people the chances, opportunities and resources needed to be able to live in the community without reoffending, we are enabling the constant and overuse of prison, we are taking away service after service which supports rehabilitation and we are exploiting vulnerable, broken and unstable lives.

If courts are abusing their power, if the prison system is neglecting its duty of care and replacing rehabilitation with ignorance, punishment and an ineffective regime , it is no wonder the probation service simply cannot cope with the amount of chaotic lives they have to attempt to manage in the community.

We are incarcerating too many people, who don’t need to be in prison. We aren’t releasing people from prison, who could be, should be but won’t be released any time soon. We have over 3000 IPP prisoners, still in our prisons today, with no end in sight. Despite IPP sentences being abolished in 2012, we still have over 500 prisoners, who were given a tariff of less than two years, still in prison today, with over 250 of them having served 8 years over their original tariff. We have the highest rate in Europe, for prisoners serving Indeterminate sentences, and recently the media brought to attention the case of James Ward, who was given a 10 month IPP tariff far arson, with mental health problems, self harming and really struggling to cope in prison, why on earth was this young man in still in prison still 2017. Through interaction with men serving IPP sentences, we hear of reports put to a parole board stating things such as, concerns over managing the person in the community. Truth be told, the probation service today are struggling to manage every single offender in the community. If we have sentenced people to a prison term with no release date, they rightly so adapt to a life in prison, with the assumption that following and obeying the rules of the system with speed up the process of them retuning home, to the people who love them and will support them in the community. For a system for force a man to accept life in prison with a no date to ever return home, and then state in a report that they can’t be managed in the community is utterly ridiculous. We have given these men no hope, they do what they need to do on a daily basis to survive in a prison, which is their home and this really needs to be addressed.

The majority of services we have in this country for anybody involved in the justice system are not fit for purpose and are failing massively with drastic consequences. We need to stop using prisoners for profit. We need to invest in community sentences, houses, health care, education training and employment for people leaving prison. We need to support new initiatives from people with lived experience of the system failing and we need to stop blaming the probation service who are the last point of call for offenders who have probably been failed their whole life by services not working.

The Former prisoners, who have been released and rehabilitated through their own sheer determination not to be broken by a system so forcefully and vigorously hindering our progress, the former prisoners who are able to and want to offer support, encourage change and enable these things to happen, should be offered the opportunity to work alongside the prison and probation service, in paid mentor roles, to ease the current stain and pressure that the services are under. I see every day, former prisoners, with so much talent, potential and motivation to change the system for the better, for everyone. I don’t see, the prison or probation service, reaching out for any help or support from us, unless unpaid. We aren’t here, advocating for change, critiquing the system and addressing failings we have witnessed, just to pass the time. We want change, we need change and I am sure I say this on behalf of many former prisons who are on the same journey as me, we won’t stop until we achieve this change. For our own rehabilitation, for our communities and for the greater good of everybody who is somehow involved in the any part of the criminal justice system.





Perspective on Life at 10yrs old.

I havn’t blogged for a while…I have pondered over the last few days whether or not to expose certain flaws I am seeing on a daily basis. With mishaps that people are brushing off as ‘these things happen’. I have decided to wait with this one and see what happens… not because I want to but because the outcome of waiting will have more of an impact than me being impatient, as usual!
What happened to me today was something that I couldn’t leave, without writing it down. It was a moment that brought tears to my eyes, tears of pain and tears of joy and I don’t know in what order.
I was driving home today after collecting Crystal (my daughter) from school. We were having a general conversation about her day, I ask her did she eat all of her lunch? she says she can’t remember, I ask her what did she learn at school today? she says she can’t remember! She asks, mummy when we get home can I have a packet of crisps? I ask her, will you eat an apple?…. Same shit, different day! (I didn’t say that to her).
It was after that, she said “Mummy, I feel upset”. With her little voice sounding so vulnerable and her eyes filling up with tears. I asked her what was wrong with her and after a long pause she proceeded to talk about her perspective on life at ten years old, she said “I am just thinking about life, like why I am here? Will I just live and then die and just go to school in-between because I don’t want to just live to die and that makes me sad that I don’t know why I am here”.
This little girl caught me so off guard with such a complex issue and conversation, I told her that we are all here for a reason, and at the age of ten the reason is to enjoy being a child, enjoy being looked after by a parent that loves her and enjoy being with her friends and learning at school….she then said “Well, if that is true how come some children don’t have parents who look after them and some kids at school don’t like school!?”.
Why can’t I have a ten year old who wants to get home and play with lego or who’s only concern is what excuse she can use to get out of doing her homework but then I realised, on a daily basis she hears and sees me unpick every bit of information I have, she listens to me explain things, understand things and question things and today I have realised that at ten years old, she is doing the same and that makes me so proud of her.
I told her that sometimes parents are unable to look after, see or speak to their children due to circumstances that can not be helped. The ins and outs of what ever the circumstance doesn’t need to be spoken to Crystal right now. She went on to say “well, my aunty works in a bank and is a dogs mummy, and you are my mummy and you spend time helping me and helping everybody and my daddy makes parts for aeroplanes but I just go to school and I don’t think I have a reason to be here so today I spent my play time helping the dinner lady with the little kids at school”.
I told Crystal that I am very proud that she spent her time helping out with the little kids at school and its funny because I can remember being her age and at lunch time I used to go onto the little kids playground and help the dinner lady look after the little kids. I reminded Crystal that she is super talented in art, story telling, cartoon drawing and being annoying, and as long as we nurture her talents, during the progress of her life, she will find her purpose and the reason why she is here. She laughed and said “Ok mummy, as long as me being annoying and annoying you is a reason for me being here, that’s ok. What flavour crisps have we got at home!!??”.
I can’t stop thinking about why my child is wondering why she is here, but for my own peace of mind and so one day, Crystal can read this or listen to me read this to her, I am going to give my ten year old a perspective from her mother as to why she is here….

Crystal, if ever you need a reason to be here, for my own selfish reasons I am going to say you are here to keep me sane. Every morning I wake up and see you, I have a reason to battle on with another day. When I am tired, drained and upset, you sometimes say “Mummy, I will tuck you into bed tonight because I know you are so tired because you work for me and you always tuck me in”. If I sometimes shout at you for something little, because I am already annoyed about something else, when I apologise to you, you say “no worries mumma, I know you love me really, if you didn’t you would have sold me on ebay by now, can you actually sell kids on ebay?”.
You’re existence brings laughter, love and life into every person you meet. You are clever, cute, funny and a pleasure to live with, despite the fact that you somehow always need a poo when I am in the bath, I am sure you do that on purpose!
During your life, you will find your own reason for being here, until then, just know, the reason you are here now, is to keep your mother here, to keep her fighting, to keep her smiling and you are showing her the most important thing in life is laughing, at home, in our pjs, to stupid videos on youtube of kids guessing the ages of adults!
On your journey through life, in self discovery, in the realisations of this harsh world and all of the amazing places, people and experiences you will endure on the way, I will be right by your side or watching you from a distance (like I do when you play outside and I curtain twitch, and you get annoyed!).
Tomorrow, I hope you just want to go to school, come home, clean your room and watch a film to save me the stress of wondering why you are wondering about life! Save that for me, in case you haven’t realised it yet, mumma is working on a master plan.

Crystal, Love you Girl!

What do you have left, when it’s all gone?

They say, you don’t know what you have until its gone, maybe that is true but maybe what you have isn’t good for you, maybe its not enough for you, maybe its not pushing you, driving you or enabling you to grow… maybe what you lost was a job or a home, a family or a partner. Maybe you lost love or a friend. What if you lost it all?


I want to take myself back to a dark place, a cold late November evening in 2011. I was only 21. I arrived at HMP Eastwood Park with nothing but the white shirt, black trousers and heels I stood in. Blood shot eyes, tear soaked hair tied up on my head and a heart beating so hard it caused me physical pain. I was being processed into prison for a crime committed over two years before this date. Prison was going to be my home for the next two years. The memory of this evening isn’t clear, I recall a resounding thought in my head that kept repeating, years…..years……..years. I kept taking deep breaths and telling myself I didn’t get weeks, I didn’t get months, I got years. Still to this day, I struggle to come to terms with that. Even though I have completed my sentence, my license and moved on considerably with my life.
I lost my daughter, I lost my home, I lost my sisters. I lost my friends, I lost my job and in turn I lost myself.
What do you have left when it’s all gone?
‘Born alone, Die alone’ is a phrase often heard in the inside of a prison. It’s a tattoo you often seen on many a girl’s body. A message or reminder that we came into this world alone and we leave this world alone. These words probably ring in my head at least once a day, every day. When I am driving in my car and nobody knows where I am, when I am walking to uni with my headphones in, mentally planning my week, when I look at my phone at 8pm and realise nobody has text me today to see how I am, when I wake up alone at 6am for the tenth month of the year. This alone thing is real to me.
That is what prison gave me, when it took everything else. Time to be alone, to understand myself, to learn to be ok with feeling lonely, because like every good feeling in my life quickly passes, so do the bad ones. Being alone so long meant I overcame the feeling of loneliness and instead being alone turned into being safe, being powerful and in control of my thoughts, actions and intentions.
For two years I lived with no wifi, no internet access at all. No mobile phone, no sky TV or Netflix, no Spotify, no laptop, no ipod, no tablet. I lived with no family, no cuddles, no affection, no love. I lived without my nickname id been called since birth, I lived without hearing the words ‘mummy’ every day. I lived without happiness, without support, without encouragement. I lived without possessions, without money and for a period of time I even lived without hope.
What did I live with? I lived with sleepless nights, cold nights, noisy nights. I got to sleep to the sound of women crying, I got woken up by women screaming and I lived with women broken. My ears and heart got used to hearing stories of trauma, neglect and systematic failure.
It wasn’t for a few days I heard this, it wasn’t for just a few months I heard this. It was for years. It has been my whole life. Take away my freedom, take away my possessions, my family, my money, my home, my job, my name, my clothes…….take it all away, what did I have left when it was all gone? When I lost myself, when I was already damaged, broken and vulnerable and then I lost everything in the world that I owned and everyone in the world that I loved, what did I have left?
I had a fire in my soul. Losing myself and then having so much time alone, helped me to define, shape and develop and new me. New beliefs, new dreams, new ambition and a whole set of new life guidelines, developed in a prison cell that are still a major factor in my day to day life 4 years later.
Who am I with no money, no car, no home, no job, no family, no possessions? I am a bright, happy, feisty, 27 year old woman, who cares about people. I have morals, empathy for people who struggle with life, passion for change in a system I have witnessed failed and a great deal of gratitude for the small things in life. The people who smile at me when I pass, even if I don’t smile back. The people who start a conversation with me, because I often don’t start talking to people I don’t know. The people who stop their car in rush hour, to let me pass, even though they are probably late.
When prison took all I had, it taught me to be happy with nothing. I wasn’t going to be miserable for two years. Now I am able to find happiness in humanity, rather than with possessions. I find happiness in my home, with my child, lay in bed colouring in, rather than spending money taking her out. I find happiness in being able to not fit in, to not want to spend loads of money on shit that I really can’t afford to impress people who probably wouldn’t even give me the time of day anyway. I find happiness in my ability to embrace being alone, rather than feeling lonely, or needy, or that I want something more.
I have life, I have freedom and I have a daughter who tells me every day that she loves me and that she is proud of me. Maybe one day I will have more than what I have now, maybe one day I’ll have less than what I have now but my life and happiness will never again be defined by possessions, material things or anything that could be taken away from me.
What do you have left when it’s all gone?


Imagine That Was You

A life of destruction, deceit and dishonesty. My rose tinted spectacles were smashed on my trip home from hospital after my birth. This is real life, happening now. Imagine that was you, your mother or even worse, your daughter.  

Imagine being the baby born to a mother so indulged in self destruction and over taken by the disease of addiction, that when you entered the world the first thing on her mind was her next fix. When other new mums were so concerned with the health and welfare of their new born baby and this new mum is looking for the fastest exit route to be able to strap up and slowly kill her self with everyone who loves her spectating. Imagine being the baby whose father wasn’t at your birth because he was out scoring smack as you took you first breath.
Imagine the only memories in your early years are of a house full of associates, drinking, injecting, smoking, crying, screaming and battling through life. Where the only sense of happiness ever witnessed was giro day.
Imagine 3.20pm and it’s the end of the school day. In the playground are the mums and dads coming to collect their children from school, then you see the police, chasing a man over the roof of the school. Imagine that was your mums new drug dealing, drug addicted, boyfriend.
Imagine your dad thinking he hit the jackpot when he brought a shit load of counterfeit currency. Imagine you, at 6 years old being the bait to spend the notes on packs of sweets on different streets, to get the change. Or, knowing where the money is kept, on the day the house gets raided, and even though you know it’s wrong, you say to the police you are going out to play but really you go and get the money and hide it because no matter what is going on, you don’t want your family to get into trouble.
Imagine going out to see your friends on a Saturday as a 13yr old girl, in the days where no-one had mobile phones. Arriving back around 6pm after being out all day and nobody knowing where you have been. The house is empty, the door is locked and its winter, it’s getting dark and cold. You wait for a while to see if anyone comes home and inspect the windows to see if you can climb in any of them. All locked and a hour has passed. You are freezing, tired, cold and hungry. The only thing offering some kind of protection for you is an old car rotting in your garden, full of syringes, rubbish and mould. Ok, you get in and fall asleep. Hours pass and you wake up even more freezing, even more tired and now quite scared. You really don’t want to kick the glass in the front door but the house is still locked up, nobody is home and you don’t know where they are and if or when they will be home. Imagine having to kick the door in, smash the glass panel and then climb in through the hole. Imagine being the 13yr old girl, home alone, sleeping with a kicked in front door.
Imagine throughout your childhood, getting used to being awoken by the sound of the garden gate slamming shut. Shouting out for your mum or dad and not getting a response, just diving deeper into your pillow and praying you fall back to sleep quickly and when you wake up again someone is home.
Imagine being less than ten years old and visiting your mum’s best friends drug dealing, drug addicted boyfriend in prison. This friend and the prisoner have two daughters aged 4 – 6 years old, they are also accompanying you on the visit. It is noticed by the prison officers that the younger of the girls has no knickers on under her dress so they inform the mother that the younger girl cannot enter the visits hall unless she has some underwear in the car that she can put on. The mother insists that in the car is a pair of kickers for the younger girl, so off they went to the car. Imagine the story about knickers being in the car wasn’t true, imagine if when you get to the car you are told to take of your own knickers from underneath your dress and give them to the younger girl. Imagine then being coached on how to enter the prison visits hall, as a child, with no knickers on to make sure ‘we’ don’t get caught.
Imagine that was you…




Still I Rise

Tomorrow marks my third week into my university journey. I have been meaning to blog for a while but life just took over. For a woman who rarely feels any immense sense of pride, achievement and love, these past few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster. Highs and lows. Memories and future visualisations. I have never had an easy life and learning to roll with the punches has always been a strength of mine, adjusting to my new identity as a student isn’t as easy as I had believed it would be. That’s not to say I am not enjoying every bloody micro second of it though, because I am.
I have been pondering how I can explain its difficulties…. The first and main issue I personally have, is the social aspect of uni life. As stated in previous blogs, prior to my two years spent in prison, I would have described myself as a sociable girl. That side of me completely vanished for a long period of time for many reasons. For many years I didn’t want to go out partying, I had lost a lot of ‘friends’ and my lifestyle had made me so aware of the importance of choosing my friends with caution.
I don’t find it hard to make ‘friends’…. I am a happy-go-lucky spirit, I can make small talk like the best of them, I have a sense of humour (I think) and I don’t take life too seriously at all, if I did, god knows where I would be right now. With that being said, I do struggle with social interaction, maybe not visible to the eye but definitely in my head it’s a battle I have with myself every day.
As a child I had ‘friends’ at school. I played with kids, I sometimes went over to play at other kids houses but no kids could ever come to my house, if at that point we even had a house. From a young age I found an ability that I needed to survive life. Do not get close to anything or anyone because everything we have in this life is temporary. People up and leave with no explanation, people who should have protected me exploited me, abused me, beat me and let me fend for myself from the age of less than 10. In my home, what ever or where ever that may have been, the kids cooked their food, if we had any. If not, we would walk alone to another family members house to eat. We made our life work by any means. We never had another life or another situation to compare ours too, for me this self-dependency as a child was normal. Normal in a sense that, we had to do what we needed to, to live, but we always knew that other kids didn’t live life we did.
Fast forward to now and I am again a student, with a not so ‘normal’ life. What really made me have a particularly hard week, was when I considered my social struggle and wondered if the very people that gave me life, built me into such a person that I now accept struggling will always be a massive part of my life, or that I have built up so many walls, that enjoying life and new experiences isn’t an option and not viable. Letting my guard down, showing a damaged, vulnerable girl has never and will never be an option for me. I don’t know if that is the right way or the wrong way to live, but so far on my journey it has been the only way. For me, survival always priorities over living.
When I thought about and applied for uni, I knew why I was going. I had witnessed a failing criminal justice system, I had been exposed to a failing criminal justice system and I will forever live with the effects of such an unjust system. Any and every social care failed me as a child, it failed my parents, it failed my sisters. Then I had a two year insight into how it fails so many other vulnerable families, men and women and it hurt me. It hurt me to the point that I found my voice, I found my drive and I found my purpose. Many will not agree with some of my life choices, many will not agree with my opinions, many have not lived my life. Many have not been scarred by witnessing horrific trauma in everyday life.
The past few weeks I have been searching for reason and understanding. Reasons as to why I am pursuing a degree and an understanding of my past life and potential future. Yes, I have potential and yes, I have a future. For all the people who wrote me off because my parents had addiction problems and my childhood wasn’t ‘normal’, for all the people who wrote me off because I was a teen mum and I made a mistake that enabled me to see the inside of a prison cell, I thank you. I am far from perfect but I am no quitter. For as long as my legs will hold me, I will stand up for what I believe is right, just and fair and for as long as my voice will talk, I will use it to tell tales for the voiceless. I will talk with tears in my eyes and trembles in my voice to ensure I am heard. They say, it is your moments of decision that shape your destiny, today I decide I am worthy, I am proud and still I Rise….

Dirty Laundry in HMP

Following an eventful few days in the run up to beginning my degree, I feel more motivated than ever. Firstly I am humbled by the outstanding achievements I have witnessed and heard off at the Prisoner Learning Alliance conference. I have said before and I’ll say it again, I truly believe that the key to any kind of reform and rehabilitation is in the hand and power of former prisoners and I had the pleasure of hearing first hand stories of some great men and women leading the way, with the help and support of some fantastic organisations and individuals.
Reflecting and considering all that I have seen and heard over the past few days has got me thinking about slow progress, but progression nonetheless. I understand that for anybody to progress, it’s never quick and it’s never easy. This is the same for the middle class, privileged and educated people. That’s not what I am here to talk about, as I am none of the above. I am the child of addicts, the girl who left school at 16 to work to Woolworths, the teenage mum and a former prisoner, with bigger dreams than the life I was born into 27 years ago.
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting up with my Longford Trust mentor on Wednesday evening and during conversation she asked me “How do you think you are able to keep doing what you do?” The simple answer is, I have no choice, but I didn’t want to say that and after some deep thought, I understand that I do have a choice, but for me to choose to not do what I do, I wouldn’t be living my truth.
As far as my childhood goes, this part of my life was not a choice. Survival was day to day. I described my transition to the best of my ability, from life as a citizen to a prisoner overnight. I’ve never really previously considered how my childhood shaped me, my mind or my abilities but could it be that from my experiences from a child that I had no choice but to experience, meant that my ability to adapt to prison life was easy….and if that is true. That is tremendously sad. When I say transition to prison life being easy, I don’t mean separation, life as a prisoner or living in prison, I mean in terms of being able to quickly change my way of thinking, to survival mode. Being able to accept that reality was now in prison, my life was in prison and that was that for the next two years. I knew that after my two years, I would never be back, I knew that for me, prison life was far from normal and that prison life was not for me, but I was here….and wasn’t going anywhere.

Within a few weeks of arriving to HMP I remember drawing/writing a mind map!! I binned it after it served a purpose to my way of thinking but I remember clearly what it was for…..on this mind map I considered my options, 1) f*ck the system, f*ck my sentence plan, I’ll sleep for two years and doss, then get released. 2) Yes girl, I could become a yes sir no sir three bags full girl, smile and say all the right things to tick these boxes and get me out easier, being an ass kisser. (Hell NO) 3) I could be compliant with rules, do what was required of me and question and query the reasons and expected outcomes of these things. Being a yes girl was a laughable but viable option but I’m far too proud and stubborn to ever be a yes girl. That left me with option 1, f*ck the system or option 2, be compliant but questionable. I would say that option one was also viable and bloody hell I need two years of sleep right now, but for my families sake despite my own feelings and beliefs of the system that held me, they wanted me home so I was forced into choosing option 3 (haha).
Being compliant but inquisitive about the prison system and regime was a hard job let me tell you. I think many a times the officers would have preferred a yes girl or a f*ck the system type. Lets face it, that would make their job a lot easier. Here I was, asking and agreeing to do things and then following the agreement with, how is this beneficial? What is this for? How does this work? My questions where more often than not, considered a hindrance to the regime rather than an opportunity to inform me of why I was doing what I was doing and conversing about it.
Let me here give an example of a yes girl, take for instance a prison inspection from the IMB. I recall in my two years having two inspections, it may have been more but I can’t remember. So, daily regime on my wing was unlock at 8am, off the girls go to their jobs for the morning, we should, according to timetables, be issued with our keys and return back to our cells at 11.45am. On a normal day, the cleaning girls went to sign into work and hand in their room keys. No-one ever handed in their keys. If so, very very rarely. Most went to do their jobs and went back to their rooms as soon as they had rapidly finished. Obviously, some just signed in and went straight back to bed! This from day to day was normal. Prison officers knew and it was ‘allowed’. I remember early on, working in healthcare off the wing. I had a good job, away from the wings with the healthcare team, printing and distributing the appointment slips as well as sitting with a few of the nurses and having a bit of a laugh and joke with them. I never gave them my key, I went and did what I had to do then went back to my cell, for months. Now, inspection day. I did my usual routine, went back to my room and after 20 mins I heard my name being called over the tannoy by a member of the health care team, asking me to report to their office. Off I went, to have my key taken and to sit in a room until 11.45am. I was later informed that the cleaning girls had all gone to the cleaning office to sign in that morning and had all had their keys taken. Yes, I agree that it should be daily practice, after all they say that these are the rules. FYI you made the rules so why do you not stick to them every day, only when there is an inspection so you give the impression that on a daily basis this is the working life of a prisoner. This false impression was hilarious, a few women were placed by staff in certain places around the prison, the officers showing around the inspectors, followed a certain route to insure, they crossed paths with the ‘yes girls’ they had distributed across the estate, for a brief conversation about our daily working life. I am pretty sure I was kept in that room over in health care so I wouldn’t be able to converse with the inspectors about how we never pass over our keys at work in the morning and for many, the working regime is to sign into work and go back to bed AND the officers know this and turn a blind eye.

Later on in my sentence while I was out of the prison at work every day, the washing machine on our wing had broken and wasn’t being fixed for a period of time. The wing was full of girls who were working outside of prison and going on home leaves. We had no facilities to wash our clothes as this certain wing was independent and the laundry was done on our wing by ourselves. A house meeting was called, which I was absent from but I was later informed that a deputy governor had given the girls on outwork permission to use a washing machine on a different wing to ensure we had clean work clothes. I had been out at work from 6am until 10pm for three days, on my day off I needed to insure I had three clean shirts for the next three days at work because when I arrive back at 10pm it’s too late to be doing washing, and we had no machine. On my day off I went over to a different wing to find the machine in use, I noted that it was due to finish in twenty mins so I went back and after the girl had emptied it , I put my clothes in and left it washing my work uniform, knickers, socks etc.

Well, all hell broke loose when I returned to get my clothes! I was greeted my an officer with a very stern face and attitude, questioning why I was on the wing using the washing machine. My response, reasonable I think… I have work tomorrow, today is my only day off, the washing machine on my wing is broken and we have been told we can use this one to ensure we have CLEAN KNICKERS! The officer proceeds to tell me, she doesn’t know anything about us being able to use this washing machine despite me informing her of the house meeting and naming the deputy governor who gave us permission. Ok, I see the next stage being, either tell me off again or say you will check up on my information. Its not my job to be informing the prison staff of the governors permission, I am simply doing as I have been told and ensuring I have clean clothes for work. Fast forward to 6pm and I hear my name being called over the tannoy to the block, by said officer. The woman gave me a IEP warning for using the washing machine. I asked her had she managed to gain any clarification from the governor, she said no she hadn’t and it would be for me to appeal the warning and resolve it myself. WHAT!!!!????

This was a good year and a half into my sentence and the warning would have had no effect on me what so ever BUT that is not the point. I then wasted a whole night writing a bloody appeal for an IEP warning for washing my clothes. Needless to say, the governor removed this warning because it was absolutely ridiculous. A uniformed, power mad, dehumanising prison officer, with the unwillingness to clarify if I was bullshitting her or not! I wasn’t. I could have been a ‘yes girl’ and took the warning and many did, because to challenge the wrongs and incompetence of some staff is a huge, time costly effort. I could have spent the night writing a letter to my daughter or mother, instead I was having to appeal an IEP warning for washing my clothes.

When we talk about positive relationships, successes, progression, reform and the impact of an officer smiling and encouraging prisoners, we need to talk about, address and deal with the officers who can’t be bothered to engage, who can’t be bothered to source information and the ones who smile in your face while giving you an IEP warning for their laziness. It’s all well and good sharing positive stories of officers and prisoners alike but let’s not forget the daily struggles serving prisoners are facing on a daily basis, in the care of HMP, for the most petty reasons.



A Prisoner Identity A2081CJ

After writing about the mentality of a prisoner, describing the barriers and boundaries that I now have from my experience as a serving prisoner, this allowed me to reflect and question how and why I now feel the way I do. Detailing a forced and necessary mentality to survive a prison sentence that remains with me, has now enabled me to consider identity. How my identity was prior to prison, how and why it changed in prison and now my identity four years post release.
Many characteristics form an individual identity, from social circles, class, religion, demographics, family, education, beliefs, morals, sex, image and so on. In today’s world, I embrace being a black sheep rather than keeping up with the Kardashians. I don’t believe in normal and I prefer to hear stories of struggle and triumph over silver spooned success.
Self-identity, while so many people struggle with it, is so important. To learn through life what you believe in, what you don’t, how your feel about yourself and how you portray and present yourself to the world. While I don’t mean to emphasis self-identity as appearance, this too also plays a vital role in today’s world. Especially as a woman. While there are so many stereo types and so many boxes to tick which enable you to be grouped into a social identity, a strong ability to identify with one’s self is a vital and hard to reach ability, especially when it comes to being a prisoner and in more recent times, a former prisoner. The characteristics of a self-identity are what sets individuals apart from the other billions of people in the world.
While we all need to somehow socially identify with a group, a strong self-identity I feel is key to success. This is where prison, the staff, the regime, the structure….are able to take away every identity you ever associated with, minus your self-identity, and they will still try and take that if you aren’t strong willed enough to maintain control over your own thinking processes (which many prisoners aren’t). Being a prisoner means you are stripped of your liberty, your freedom and your life how you knew it before. Prison takes away your name, it takes away clothes, your style, what ever once made you unique, prison takes it, it gives you a prison number with a mug shot and for your time in prison, you now Identify as a prison number. A208 1CJ. Yes, I understand that being in prison means that you now have a set of rules and regulations that you  need to follow, but why are prisoners issued tracksuits, in sizes that don’t fit, with a HMP stamp on? Why can prison decide for you, that you don’t smoke, that you can’t wear a hoody or have ripped jeans, and for the two years you are hear you can only have 2 pairs of shoes. Prison should be preparing inmates for the real world and I can assure you, nobody out here is telling me what I can and can’t wear and how many cigarettes ill smoke today.
The prison regime, is punishment focused and by no means rehabilitative. In my experience, in a women’s prison, we were controlled by a system enforcing a general identity of prisoner upon us. All of us were daughters, the majority were mothers, sisters, aunts. Many had talents, dreams, ambition but we were just a number. The skills, knowledge, attributes and compassion that prisoners had for one another and shared with each other were completely overlooked by a system adamant on enforcing power over personal identity.
What saddens me is the realness of prisoners who becomes weakened by this system. Prisoners who may struggle with self-identity so just to fit in somewhere, they take what prison if forcing upon them and embrace their life as a prisoner. Not that they enjoy this or want this, they just aren’t strong enough to or able to build any kind of self-identity foundation outside of the prison walls, geographically or mentally. Having very little choice in prison in terms of training, education, socialising and maintaining family contact, you are integrated into a failing system. A system that wants and needs prisoners. Many fall victim to identifying with this role, so much so, they end up caught in a cycle of re-offending because they have become systematically dependant and are rarely shown, offered or taught the qualities, characteristics, and attributes they need to identify with, to live a life outside of prison.
I understand that social and self-identity and what consists within these, may of course be part of the reason many people end up in prison, however, stripping a person of their social identity for a period of time and not enabling or allowing the process of learning new identities will not help anyone. It fails the person, the public and the justice system as a whole.
The rules and regulations of the prison I was in were shocking at times, I recall an older prisoner being freezing in winter and we had no heating, when asking for an extra blanket she was told no, one each is the rule. Ok, but here we have an old lady who is freezing cold, there are blankets within this estate that aren’t being used and could be spared, so why on earth could this old woman not have it!? Because, she wasn’t a freezing old lady, she was a prisoner, we were in prison and they were the rules that we had no other choice but to follow.
Another incident I recall, after being out of the prison from 6am and returning with two other woman at 10pm after working all day, we were being processed back into the prison and I heard an officer call my number, not my name, into a small holding room in reception. Two female officers were in the room, they closed the door and pulled down the blind, I knew exactly what was coming, seeing as I was being processed back into to prison with a well known drug user. Yes, a drug user who had been released for the day. Here I was, 23 years old being strip searched for drugs! I laughed and made a light hearted conversation with these officers, who clearly felt that this was wrong, I said do you really think that you are going to find drugs on me, they both said no but they had orders to follow. I was naked, handing over my knickers for an officer to feel and look through for drugs, not because they suspected I was supplying HMP with drugs but because they had let out a drug user and because I was being processed back in at the same time, I had to go through the same process. That feeling, is the ultimate of having your self-identity as a woman, stolen. No history of drug use, no drug offences, no positive piss tests yet I had an officer watch me strip naked then go through my knickers because they suspected someone else, who I was returning with, may have been bringing stuff back. Great! But hey ho, I was a prisoner and these are their rules.

Thankfully, a system that doesn’t encourage self-development, self-improvement, self-belief or self-identity didn’t quite manage to take away my own mind. I may have smiled and went along with some shit for the sake of release but I knew all along that they don’t want people to change because they need prisoners. Prisoners are making millions for some people and if the system worked and people were released with a better self and social identity, then they wouldn’t be bringing in the money. Prison really will strip you of everything you have, everything you have ever known and everything you wish to be, if you aren’t strong enough to stop it.


The prisoner mentality….

A lasting state….

As my previous blogs have detailed various experiences of prison, probation and post release discrimination, I have decided to leap into a current and lasting state of affairs…. Or, a lasting state. This being, a feeling that was learnt in prison, that has never left me. Since finding my 2013 prison diary, a quote in there that I wrote, that stays with me ‘’My tears dry on their own’’. This has a lot more meaning than I sometimes like to admit. Sometimes I think its ironic that I have been so productive in campaigning against ex offender discrimination, when prison enabled me to build so many protective barriers in regard to work, family and a social life. All of which I didn’t have prior to prison.

Prison is lonely. An environment that only the mentally strong can survive. No-body goes into prison, mentally strong. Not as strong as you need to be. I went to prison a popular young girl, with many a nights partying still ahead of me. I came out of prison, with the number of friends I had, countable on one hand, with no desire at all to go partying or celebrating a release. The days, weeks and months I spent training my brain to survive alone, to let my tears dry on their own, to find the answers to my own questions, and to decide what I wanted from family, friendship and love. While I sat in prison, considering a heap of questions of which I wanted to ask certain people, in my own solitude, without speaking a word, I found the answers. I found a peace in silence, I wouldn’t describe myself as reserved now but in prison, I didn’t fit in to any crowd, I didn’t seek friends or associates and countless times, I walked alone, ate alone and learnt alone. These lessons to me are priceless. As much as I protect myself, my lessons of resilience, of longevity and being ok with standing alone, mean everything to me. My playlist of Destiny’s child got on everyone’s nerves, but to me, these words rang true and I knew that for me to survive what was happening to me, I had to be independent and a survivor.

My family supported me throughout prison but they had each other. I had no-one. Knowing that I have survived what I have been through, not just prison, but prior to that also, alone. I came out of prison a completely different person in mind, body and spirit. The things that usually annoyed me as a teenager, didn’t phase me. The need to fit it, to go out, to make friends. I didn’t want to do it. It really didn’t bother me at all, now upon reflection of my life prior to prison and my life now, I am starting to see so many barriers I have built myself, that are not easy to let go of. The things that I taught myself, in order to protect my sanity, my mental health and my heart from anything the prison experience could do to me, are all still here with me 4 years later. I am still unable to pinpoint whether I feel this is a good or bad thing, but hopefully through addressing them I will be able to gain some clarity.

My friends prior to prison were all pretty decent. I wasn’t with any of them on the night of my offence. Whilst incarcerated, in the early days while not only being devastated with being parted from my family and child, I couldn’t help wondering what I was missing, my sisters were still living life and so were my friends, while I can’t hold this against them at all, being in prison it’s a bitter pill to swallow. I had two years to sit there and keep contact with them, listen to their stories and keep up-to-date with the trials and tribulations of all my teenage mates….. or for my own reasons I could cut all contact with them and get on with me, my life in prison. That is what I did. In the early days I still received letters and the odd visit but no too long into my sentence, I realised that none of these people could at all comprehend the reality of the life I was living now. It was all well and good laughing on visits and replying to letters slagging off their current boyfriend, but this was tedious, stupid and too much effort for me. I could have communicated better the way I felt, how I was now living and my life as a prisoner but for me, that was letting people too much into my life behind prison walls. If I was going to break down, I was going to do that quietly, motionlessly and alone. Nothing was going to change and in reality, my friends at the time probably couldn’t of cared less.
I left prison with three friends, women who I had met in prison and to this day, those are my real friends. The people who like you on your darkest day, with nothing to offer them but a joke, a shoulder to cry on or a bloody stamp!

Being a prisoner destroyed a happy-go-lucky, sociable and polite soul. I am still polite and sociable, but I don’t engage in conversation unless I have to, I don’t go out unless I have to and at work I switch into a completely different person. I guess, prison taught me an adaptability that will never leave me. Its frustrating to realise just how quickly I can switch persona to fit an environment, and I always wonder, did prison take the real me and now I am just getting through life switching from work mode to having to make friends mode and then when I am in the house I feel like my persona goes back to a prisoner where I feel like I have to keep my guard up and the prison walls around me to regain my own protection. True resilience is losing everything you have, from possessions, to relationships and getting it all back but starting from scratch. Knowing this happened to me and I got it all back on my own, scares me sometimes. It makes me realise a power I struggle to notice sometimes, a power that I have inside of me.
Living so much of my life, fending for myself, witnessing addiction and mental health problems on a daily basis, living in prison for two years, it really has changed me. To say I feel like I don’t need anyone would be a lie, but I have a vision for my life, a path that I want and need to follow that was born from solitude, It keeps me from engaging in anything that I feel may have a detrimental effect on my own journey.
I guess life is a funny thing, no one call tell you how to live your life. We all have experiences and it is in our moments of decision that shape our destiny. I felt trapped in prison so I trained my brain to not let it get to me and I decided to cut everyone I possibly could, out of my life…. I came out and by anyone’s standards I am doing well but the inability to share my emotions and feelings that I forced upon myself during my time of incarceration for the sake of myself and my family, I am struggling to let go of. Maybe its fear of appearing weak, when I had to toughen up or maybe I reflect on prison and think, well if that didn’t break me then nothing can so I won’t address my feelings. Who knows, I am still on this journey called life!



Michaela Booth #relationshipstatus

Following the conference in Wales on Monday 21st August I have felt compelled to write a realistic version of how the night panned out, after reading some very shoddy journalism with complete misquotes and misinterpretation of my speech.
The article in question opened with “Michaela Booth, a single mother”. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but me being a single mother has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of debate. I was not attending the conference on super prisons for media to publicise my current relationship status! Maybe they should have added “and ready to mingle” at the end of it….
The article goes on to say that I spent two years on bail, in actual fact I spent two years and ten months on bail. Another misquote is “We need to not build any prisons until prisons work”. This one is minor but I feel I should amend this and state my words, as I said them. The correct quote would and should have been… “I am not here to oppose a super prison being built in Wales, I am here to oppose any new prison being built, until prisons work”.
The next statement from the article reads “ Prison doesn’t work for most prisoners, who are likely to be drug addicts and people suffering from mental health issues”. Now, this is partly true however not what I said. What I was really trying to get across in my speech was that prison, as prison is today, is dehumanising, exploiting and making money from the most vulnerable people in society. Many of whom have addiction and mental health problems, and building a new super prison that can not and will not provide adequate care for these individuals is completely wrong and will allow more and more people to fall victim of being caught in a system that is set up to fail the most vulnerable people that live with in our communities. As for “prison doesn’t work for most prisoners” I would argue that prison doesn’t work for any prisoner, in the current state of the prison system today. Prison doesn’t work for the prisoner, it doesn’t work for the staff, it doesn’t work for the families of prisoners and it doesn’t work for the greater good of society, aside from the fact of offering public protection for a time of incarceration for high risk offenders.
The article goes on to quote me as saying “A lot of things I had to go through to prove I was ready to leave prison were unnecessary. They put me through tests which asked if I was likely to act indecently around children” Well, yes the writer of this article got the gist of what I said, but not quite…. What I actually explained and in great details was not the ‘test’ but rather the ‘treatment programme’ I was forced to participate in by probation before they would agree to my homeleaves. Despite the fact that I had already requested to take part in this and was told that I didn’t need to do it as I didn’t meant the criteria for the ‘treatment’. This treatment for asked me various questions but two I remember distinctively…..1) have you ever considered having sex with a child                  2)have you ever considered or engaged in a sexual act with an animal. This treatment programme has scarred me for life, lets have it right, if you are going to write about my contribution, write it how it is. The prison system and probation services deemed it appropriate for a young women, serving her first custodial sentence, for a fight in a club on a Friday night to attend a treatment programme that supposedly focused on Thinking Skills, before they would consider me for temporary release, to enable me to spend time with my child. Now, I wouldn’t say these were unnecessary tests. I would say, this was a waste of money, a waste of time, an exercise to tick an irrelevant box and damn right ridiculous to have even seated me on a chair in that room where the course took place, in the first place.

Another misquote….”Had it not been for prison, I would have been left homeless and unemployed after it”. Actually, Had I have left my housing and employment needs to the prison service, of course I would have been released homeless and unemployed. I found my job and I found my accommodation with absolutely no guidance or support from prison staff. Had it have been down to the prison service…. I would have been released from prison homeless and unemployed. The point that I felt I made well but reading this article I am having second thoughts….. LOL…..
Having been employed and in suitable accommodation on the day the judge sent me to prison, the prison service then have a duty of care and a duty, as they say, of rehabilitation. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know, rehabilitation means, the prison system release me back into the community in a better state or at least no worse, than the state I arrived. I arrived from a working background and leaving behind a stable home. This means, to rehabilitate me I should leave with at least the same as what I had when I arrived. The prison system, in the simplest possible terms, failed in any attempt to offer me rehabilitation, it also fails every single other prison within its ‘care’.
Now, the final quote from me is hilarious…. “If prison had its way, I’d be in the system forever.”
NO WAY on earth would I ever have said that. Never in my life has that thought even crossed my mind. My offence, was a mistake and a complete one off. What I said was, prison does not and can not support its many inmates who have addiction needs, mental health needs or housing needs, these are the people who are vulnerable, with far more needs than prison can accommodate for who are completely stuck in the system, what I said was “if you were released homeless, with £46, a drug addiction and no home, how long would it take you to commit a crime to survive…?” Because these are the people who are stuck in the system forever.
I understand the media and how they like to portray prison, that is why I do not entertain it. What I can not tolerate is an airbrushed account of the trauma, suffering and the longevity of systematic failing that are affecting prisoners today.
I went to Wales to oppose the building of any new prison. I described how if a car had been manufactured and then the maker of said car found failings within it that could cause potential harm, these cars would be recalled and would be advised not to be driven. We have a prison system, that doesn’t work, that causes more harm than good and with the crisis as it is today, the idea of any new build should be postponed until we see a safe, rehabilitative, supportive and effective prison system.

Oh, before I go….. Michaela Booth….. Single Mother! (bar maid, prison leaver mentor, blogger, criminology student) #girlofmanytalents