Changes: Lady Unchained
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:03] Hello. I am Annie Macmanus. Welcome to Changes, it's so lovely to have you here. You can hear the husk in my voice. It's still lingering post Glastonbury. It's Tuesday as I record this. Got back from Glastonbury on Sunday and I just wanted to mention what a pleasant experience I had walking around the festival site for two days and meeting so many Changes listeners. I had so many people come up to me and say, 'oh my God, I really love Changes, I love your podcast, I listen'. And it was such a buzz to meet people in person and just to hear that Changes actually feels like it's kind of travelling far and wide. Thanks so much. I was so chuffed to meet you all at Glastonbury if you're one of the people who came up to me and also if you're just a regular Changes listener, if you're a subscriber, if this is becoming your favourite podcast - thanks. I'm so, so happy to have you with us and we are working so hard to bring you some brilliant guests, like racking them up for the summer and for the autumn. Yeah, Changes its charging forwards and it feels good. This week on the podcast I bring you a conversation that is so deeply gripping and inspiring and moving. And it's with a woman called Brenda who goes by the name Lady Unchained. She's a poet, performer, an award winning broadcaster, and most relevantly for this podcast, an advocate for life after prison. Brenda is from South London. She spent 11 months inside and five months tagged. She went to prison when she was 20 years old, about to launch her own business and with no former convictions and never, ever thought she was the type of person that would ever end up in prison. She's now the founder and creative director of Unchained Poetry, an artistic platform for artists with lived experience of the criminal justice system. And she runs poetry workshops in prisons and in women's centres. She's also just written her first book, Behind Bars: On Punishment, Prison & Release. That's out this week and it's excellent. By changing the ex-offender label through the creative process, she has won numerous prestigious audio awards. So she's just done so, so well for herself after this really, really traumatising time that she had, not just the prison time but what happened within her prison sentences, systemic racism, everything she had to go through and fight through to kind of come back to herself. In this conversation we go right back to the start, before that fatal night when everything changed. But before we get to it, please be aware that there are references to suicide and some experiences you might find it upsetting so check the show notes for all the details. I'm so proud to have Lady Unchained on the podcast and to bring you this story, which I really hope will make you think and look at the world in a different way. That's what Changes is all about. Welcome to Changes, Lady Unchained. *Short musical interlude*. I wanted to start with a scene that you talk about in one of your poems where you're walking away from the dock having been convicted of a crime. You talk about having to free her from the journey you were about to take, her being a version of you. Can you tell me who 'she' is or who she was to you at that moment?
Lady Unchained [00:03:26] I think she was the happy Brenda. I was very proud of my name once upon a time, and I was very proud of my smile. And I felt like I had to leave that smile behind because where I was going was filled with darkness and I didn't want to carry a smile that would have made me feel or look weaker to anybody else. So I had to leave that part of me that I guess had faith, had hope, had some kind of motivation to do anything. I had to leave her behind because where I was going, she wouldn't belong there.
Annie [00:04:04] What were her dreams and aspirations?
Lady Unchained [00:04:08] Ahhh. For a long time I wanted to be an air hostess like I wanted to- I literally done travel and tourism I was like, I just want to get away, you know? I was on that journey and then along that way something changed. Like a lot of my friends were having children and I realised that a lot of my friends didn't have childcare,and so I decided that I would do a course at the council. Someone told me there's a free course to become a childminder and I was like... free, nothing is free *laughs*, let me do it. And I started to take that journey of becoming a childminder and she had those dreams of just building a career, building a business, being somebody that people can, you know, look up to but also someone that would just always make people smile, if that makes sense? I was always the, if you're around me, you're going to laugh regardless. And yeah, it's taken a long time to get back there. But yeah, that's who she was.
Annie [00:04:57] Yeah. Tell me about your family life, who was around?
Lady Unchained [00:05:00] So I've got three sisters, one older, two younger, and I've got an older brother. And obviously my mum, I grew up with my mum, single family household. And we was just that family. Like we looked after each other. There was like, you know, someone's in trouble, we're all there together. Why did you get to my sister? That's just how we grew up. Our mum brought us up to make sure, I guess, that we looked after each other like, you know. And I remember her always kind of saying, like, you're going to make friends and you're going to meet people, but never forget your family and make sure you always look out for each other. So that was installed in me from a very young age.
Annie [00:05:37] She sounds strong as, your mam. Bringing up five kids by herself, I mean that is incredibly admirable.
Lady Unchained [00:05:44] Honestly, she should probably be the one sitting here talking to you. Her story's amazing! *laughs*.
[00:05:46] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:05:57] Let's talk now about the actual big change that changed the course of your life. Can you walk us through what happened step by step, if you don't mind?
Lady Unchained [00:06:05] So I obviously used to, I guess when I was like 20, I never really go out when I was younger, like I never went clubbing until I was a lot older. And my older sister, she was the kind of going out person. And I remember I was very faithful. So I grew up in a church, I was in the church choir. At one point that was writing songs for Sunday school, teaching the Sunday school kids some songs. The faith became something that was something that carried me until about the age of 14. And I actually remember promising God that, you know, I would never go to church and then go clubbing. This is at like 13, 14 years old. I don't know why I made this promise to him, but I did.
Annie [00:06:44] And that's because you associated clubbing with something that was not like-
Lady Unchained [00:06:48] Faithful and spiritual and religious.
Annie [00:06:51] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lady Unchained [00:06:51] So, I promised him that. And, you know what, as I was getting older, you know, when I got to like 18, 19, I do recall being invited out. And I remember at one point they would say, oh, we're going to go to church, going to evening prayers, and then we're going to go club. And I'd be like, no, no, no, no, I'll meet you at a club. I can't, I can't go to church, I promised God.
Annie [00:07:10] Can't do both. Yeah, yeah. One or the other.
Lady Unchained [00:07:12] And they always used to laugh at me. They used to think like this is just- Brenda's actually- she's actually just a funny girl. But on this particular night, I don't know what happened. I was asked to go clubbing and church was on the menu too. And I don't know why I said, 'okay'. And it never hit me, this promise, that I forgot it completely. So we went to church evening prayers. We went out to this nightclub. And back then I weren't really a drinker so give me a glass of champagne I'm like wahooo. The bubbles have got me, I'm already like, happy. So, I remember my sister had a few issues with some girls that were- I guess they used to be her friends because I'd known- I'd seen them once before. And I remember her- kind of like, we're in the club and it was me, her and a family friend. And I remember her kind of saying, I'm going to go and say hi to- there was a lady that knows my mum, so she went and said hi to her. And I remember she had said that the girls that were after her, were in the club. And I just thought, okay, I'm wearing a white dress, like I'm just like happy. And I recall her walking away and I saw the girls, but they were like, they were on a different side from where she was and erm. I looked away, carried on talking to my friend, and I remember looking back and when I looked back the girls had drifted. So they had drifted closer to where my sister would have been standing and saying hello to somebody. And everything else after that kind of happened really fast because it was like I could see her trying to get through the crowd, but they had blocked her. It just looked like they were just pushing each other at first. And then it literally, they just started fighting and it was like, three girls. Well, I say three girls, I would have been 20 and they would have been about in their 30s. I just recall my sister just, I couldn't see her face anymore. And to be honest, my intentions when I went there were more to stop this fight from happening. But what happened when I got to the scene, it was like, I think it was more fight or flight. I was trying to pull people but to be honest, after that point Annie, like I can honestly say that I actually blacked out. I do remember like pouring a drink on them. I don't know why in my head I thought- you know when you're sleeping or you're drunk, people pour water on you like to say wake up, like wake up stop doing what you're doing? In my head, I felt like maybe that would have helped, but maybe that made things worse. And then after that, the last thing I remember is just kind of being dragged off of this person. I couldn't even- I didn't know what person I was being dragged off of. And people saying the police are coming. And at the time I couldn't see what I had done to the woman. I could see that I had been cut and I went to the toilet. Got tissue.
Annie [00:09:51] Where had you been cut?
Lady Unchained [00:09:52] On my hand.
Annie [00:09:53] Right, from a glass?
Lady Unchained [00:09:55] Erm, with a glass.
Annie [00:09:56] And was your sister okay?
Lady Unchained [00:09:57] My sister was okay, she just had some bruising and, you know, she obviously was more concerned about me. And I remember- it's weird because at that moment everybody was saying to me, you have to run because the police is going to come and they're going to lock you up. And I said well, only guilty people run away, I haven't done anything wrong. My sister was attacked. And people kind of looked at me really weird, but in my eyes I saw that as self-defence. So I stayed and people thought I was crazy for this but I had never been in trouble before. I'd never like, been arrested, like it wasn't a fear. I didn't know about the criminal justice system. All I knew is that you commit a crime, you do the time kind of thing. And I was very judgemental about people that commit crimes, to be honest. So in my eyes I didn't feel like I committed a crime and I did walk out of this club willingly into the arms of the officers, and started explaining, you know, this is what happened. And they said, did you hit her? I said, well, it does seem like I did hit her but you know, this is my reason. And she said, okay, I understand. What I do recall, and people always think I'm a bit crazy when I say this and sometimes I even start thinking I'm crazy, but I do recall being told like, if we had called the police first, then obviously they would have to come for the women. But because somebody else called the police and I basically look like I attacked her, they had to arrest me. And I remember her saying, I'm going to have to hold your arrest for GBH. And I think in that moment I realised, hold on, isn't that like a conviction, you know. And I did panic because everything at that moment felt like it was flashing before me. Everything I was- you know, I just completed the childminding thing. I had my last interview with Ofsted due and you know, when I registered I had no conviction. So now how do I go back to this organisation and say, I'm being charged of something, you know. So I really went into a shutdown mode. I completely started to forget everything I'd done before this moment. I forgot that I had planned this career, and I forgot that I had a smile and I was happy. All of that kind of just disappeared quickly.
Annie [00:12:10] So GBH stands for Grievous Bodily Harm. And there's a couple of different versions, isn't there? I know because someone I know got done for ABH. I can't remember what A stands for.
Lady Unchained [00:12:19] So, I got done for GBH Section 18 with intent. The word intent for me is like, you intended to cause grievous bodily harm and there was no intention in my life, in that moment, that I wanted to cause grievous bodily harm. I wanted to make sure my sister was okay, you know? And a lot of the times I reflect back and I do think, you know, what could I have done differently? And, you know, obviously with my book coming out I've had to reflect on certain things and I also have to think, what would I have done if my sister had been stabbed or been killed in that moment? How do I go home to my mother and tell her I was there, but I just stood there and watched as your daughter was killed, you know? So for me, it's that being taught protect your family, look after your own. And that's exactly what I did. And I remember even being more scared that I got arrested, to tell my mum. I didn't care about anything else, it's my mum. I was like oh my God my mum's going to kill me. But I remember when I got out the police station, my mum was here and she said to me, you're not going to get- this is- you defended your sister. Like even she saw it as like, surely it's fine. None of them were scared for me. None of them felt like it was going to end up with me being convicted and sent to prison. So it was- kind of as a family we started to lose respect for each other because I was like, they're trying to lock me up, and they were like, you need to have faith, but by this point the faith was finished. The faith was gone, you know?
Annie [00:13:53] Yeah. So before we get on to the next stage, can I just ask about the girl? What happened to her? Did she have any injuries?
Lady Unchained [00:13:59] Yeah, she had injuries on her face from what I understand, and I don't know about any other injuries but I know that I caused her injuries to her face.
[00:14:09] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:14:20] Your family think you're going to be okay, have faith. You're having doubts at this point. What was the kind of time frame between then and knowing exactly what your fate was going to be?
Lady Unchained [00:14:30] The fight happened in June. I was convicted and sentenced in February 2009. I was sent to prison for two and a half years.
Annie [00:14:38] And the time between that you were on bail?
Lady Unchained [00:14:41] Yes.
Annie [00:14:42] And you talk about bail in your poem, bail is saying, "being on bail feels like a slow death". What did it do to you this time?
Lady Unchained [00:14:49] It's weird because people kind of feel like you get arrested, you go to jail, duh duh duh, everything happens so quickly. But the slow response of like, never being in a situation of having to go to the police station, having to be fearful of other people, having to think about the fact that you could go to prison, it slowly takes away, you know, that little hope, that little glimmer of hope. I remember going to probation for the first time and I had never had to talk about my life or things that upset me because certain family households, you don't know about mental health, you don't know about depression, like how could you have depression as a young person? You've got no bills to pay, you know, so you don't talk about anything. And I remember going to probation and had this amazing guy called Dan and he just said, tell me about yourself, just tell me about yourself. And honestly, by the end of it I was in tears and I remember going, I'm so sorry I don't really know what's gone on there. And he said, you've never spoken about a lot of things that have happened to you. And for that reason, I feel like if you were going to commit crimes, Brenda, I'm not saying there's a right time to do it, but if you was going to it would have started a long time ago. But you've found ways, I don't know how, you've found ways to just be okay. And so I don't want you to get sent to jail. So he actually requested that I get community service. You know, anger management and some like therapy. Obviously, that didn't happen. So when you're going through all this stuff, declaring all your pain, kind of going, I'm so sorry, please forgive me, but yet you're being harassed by the so-called people that are, you know, now the victims, because now you're the criminal and they're the victims but you're being harassed by them, It becomes a war like in yourself. Because it got to a point where I thought, you know what? I'm the one that's wrong, everybody else is right, I'm the one that's wrong, I deserve this, I'm a problem. And that was it, I just believed that I didn't deserve anything good anymore.
Annie [00:16:41] So when it came to you actually being sentenced to two and a half years, how did that make you feel? The idea of just finally knowing what was going to happen.
Lady Unchained [00:16:50] What was going to happen.
Annie [00:16:51] Yeah.
Lady Unchained [00:16:52] The actual sentencing, I can recall just hearing it was like muffled words. Until the judge actually said two and a half years, it's like *clicks*, it snapped me back in to where I was. I can't say the feeling of how that felt, but it was like I've been convicted to death if that makes sense, because I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know how I was going to act there. I knew that a part of me was already damaged in the process of just waiting for this final hearing. On bail it feels like you're dying, it feels like you're slowly disappearing from the world. When you're sentenced it's like, that's it, you're basically in the ground now because where you're going, there's no love, you know? And I remember being in the cell and, you know when you cry and it's like the whole of inside is like it's shaking? Tears that I didn't know where they came from, they just kept coming. And part of me kept going, it's a mistake. They're going to come and they're going to tell you, this is a mistake. You're not going to prison. No, no, no, it's a mistake. Then my solicitor showed up and in that moment I thought, she's here. She's here to tell me that there's a mistake. And she had a piece of paper and that piece of paper had all phone numbers, addresses and I looked at it and I remember thinking, oh my God, I have to have addresses because I have to write letters. You know, I haven't wrote a letter since school, pen pals, you know, now I've got to write letters and get these phone numbers. And I remember her saying, we're going to try and do an appeal for you. Just, you know, I'm going to reach out to you by a letter and stuff is going to be okay. And I kind of remember looking at her like, how? They've sentenced me to death. And I know two and a half years, other people have done longer sentences, but I'd never been to jail. I didn't know how prison was. I didn't know what to expect. So to me, two and a half years out of my life at the age of 21 just felt like it was a joke. I felt like I might as well die.
[00:18:55] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:19:04] You went to three prisons in all, but you started in Holloway. What was your experiences of that?
Lady Unchained [00:19:09] When we got to Holloway, it was when I realised that for many years we had walked past this prison, going shopping, going out, going with my cousins, and never acknowledged the fact that that was a prison that housed women. Why would we? Why would we think about it? It's got nothing to do with us. We don't- we ain't criminals, we don't know anyone in jail, you know? So it never really hit us. And until the van turned, that's when I thought, oh my God, that's the house over there we used to stay in. Things started to kind of fall apart for me because I started to think, how? How could I be so close to someone who I call family's house, and I can't even, I can't even touch them, I can't even knock on their door, I can't even, you know, walk over there and say, 'hey, hello'. So going to Holloway, if I'm honest, what I did is that I tried not to cry. And I think it's easier said than done, because for me, I felt like tears were weakness. In jail, you know, this is prison. You know, everyone watched Bad Girls and Cell Block H and all this stuff like, you know, I grew up on these shows. So for me, you don't show weakness. So crying was a sign of weakness. And I remember trying really hard to talk to my sister on that one phone call that I got and saying, please call somebody. I can't stay. I can't stay here, like I can't. And she was like, we're gonna try. And I said, no, no, no, no, you need to do it now because I cannot stay here. But I was trying to talk in English and in my language, Luganda, so that people didn't understand how scared I was if I said it in English. In Holloway, so in each prison it's like, you have an induction wing, which is the, the journey that- the solo kind of drift into the real prison life. Um, and I had a woman that actually heard me speak my language whom happened to understand and she kind of, I guess, mothered me in a way. I think Holloway for me, the beginning journey was, okay, this is where we are, I'm scared of every single person here, even the ones- especially the ones that showed me kindness or a little bit of like, care, because I thought, if you help me, what do I have to do in return? What do I owe you for your favours or your friendliness or your kindness? So it took me a while. When I looked at the sentence end date and the date where we were at the time, I didn't see how I could last in that position. So I put it in an application and I said, please can you relook at the date because I think maybe the judge made a mistake *laughs*. And honestly, the response came back so quickly, which actually doesn't happen in prison. You're waiting like weeks before that. And I think that's the moment that I realised, okay, so I'm going to die and this is where I'm going to die. And the decision of taking my own life became a really good idea. It became a very easy option. And I remember people were kind of trying to say to me, like, it's going to be okay, but how could you tell me it's going to be okay when you don't know what I'm going through mentally? And I do recall saying goodbye to my sister and my best friend in a visit. Because in my eyes, there was no way I was going to make it through this. There was no way I was going to spend two and a half years somewhere like this. You know, having been so independent and I had my own flat, I was working towards my goals. So for me, everything I'd done prior to this sentence was irrelevant. So what was the point of my life? And what would my life be after this? Because I didn't- I've never heard of anyone going to jail and coming back and being amazing. I just- that's the end. That's it. Either you die there or you come back even more messed up than before. So, I had decided that that would be it and I wouldn't progress after Holloway.
Annie [00:23:00] So you were in Holloway for three months, around that, right?
Lady Unchained [00:23:03] About three months, yeah.
Annie [00:23:04] And that ended up just being the start of your kind of journey in prison, and this next phase, what happened next?
Lady Unchained [00:23:11] The next phase of my prison sentence made me miss Holloway. When you're sentenced, you go through immigration, you go through housing like, cleared. They saw me as British. Fine. All of a sudden, you know, as I'm talking to people in the prison, I'm realising that people keep getting sent to this prison called Morton Hall, and it's a foreign national prison. And so, a lot of people were saying to me, yeah you only go there if you don't have a passport or if you don't have papers. And then the knock came. You know, when you're getting transferred, they knock the night before, obviously when everyone's locked up so you can't make any phone calls just incase you want to do an escape. Knocked on the door and they told me, you know, pack your stuff, you're going to Morton Hall. And I remember saying, Miss, I think that there's a mistake here. I can't go to Morton Hall, it's a foreign national jail and I'm British. And she went, well, you've come up on the list, so you have to go. At this point, I've got friends that's already in this prison writing to me, telling me certain things are not okay here. They can't tell me in detail, but they said certain things are not okay here. So I remember just crying. I remember, you know, and something that people don't get to hear a lot, like women in prison are very caring for each other. You know, yeah you have the bickering, you have the arguments here and there. But I remember after that knock, everyone through their doors, through their windows, were shouting at me, Brenda it's going to be okay, don't worry, we've got you! Thing's there and that one's there and duh duh duh duh. I packed all my stuff, but I did ask them, if I don't go, what happens? And they said I'll go to the block. Now, as somebody that's never been to jail, this prison cell that I had, for me was the block like it was small enough to be a block.
Annie [00:24:43] And you were in there on your own, were you?
Lady Unchained [00:24:44] I was in there on my own so I thought there's no way this can happen. So I packed off my stuff, went downstairs and got in a van.
Annie [00:24:54] And this is three months after being in Holloway. So you'd kind of assimilated, you'd kind of-
Lady Unchained [00:25:00] Like I'd gone to education and I'd done all these things and I was starting to get in the routine. I had a job, and made some friends, and now I'm being shipped away. And Holloway's in North London. Morton Hall is in Lincolnshire. This journey was like dying all over again. But this time no one even knows where you're buried. Like no one knows. And I remember I couldn't see any black people or Asian people on the streets. I couldn't see that. And I started to get really concerned because I was like, where is this that they're taking me where no one looks like me? And I remember when we finally got to the jail after how many hours, there was a black man at the gate, and I thought, okay fine, this is fine. After they take you through, you go in and as soon as all the other women who had left saw me, they came, hugged me, and I remember them. One lady in particular just kind of hugging me and saying, don't sign anything. And then she just stepped away like, and I'm still like, what did you say? But she's acted like she didn't hug me and say that. So, they gave me my paperwork. Everything's correct in my eyes. My name is correct. My dates are correct. But all my other privileges, they're not there. So HDC which is tag, you know, home curfew, early release, all of these things are gone. I had them in Holloway. What's happened? 'Just sign it. If it's wrong, we'll fix it later'. And I said, no, it's wrong now, there's no later fixing. And so I remember I refused to sign and automatically I see I'm labelled as like a disobedient. Officers treat you like literally slaves, foreigners. 'Yous lot have no rights here'. I realised the only reason I was in that prison is because they believed that I had no paperwork, I was foreign, I was illegal. And I remember going to immigration in this prison and they cleared me. They said, you're British. So I didn't understand why one officer in particular decided that because of the fact that I wanted to be transferred back to London, where my family, you know, I could see them. He didn't like that and basically threatened me with deportation. And I think in that moment I didn't know what else to do. I realised that my words weren't helping me because maybe when I spoke I sound African and fresh or angry and black. That anger. Black is anger. I decided the only way I can fight this was to go on hunger strike. And I stopped eating.
Annie [00:27:31] Oh my God.
Lady Unchained [00:27:31] I just stopped eating. There was little comments in the prison, like the officers would say, 'ahh do you get three meals a day outside? Really? Really? You get three meals a day outside do you?'.
Annie [00:27:40] So they're questioning the fact that you were able to feed yourself outside of jail?
Lady Unchained [00:27:45] Outside of jail.
Annie [00:27:46] They're presuming that you are living a life of poverty.
Lady Unchained [00:27:49] Literally.
Annie [00:27:49] Got you.
Lady Unchained [00:27:50] So, hunger strike was easy. They put me on suicide watch until I left.
Annie [00:27:56] How long was that?
Lady Unchained [00:27:58] I think I got to a couple of months. It's weird because eventually, my mom had to basically come into the prison with my British passport. And she refused, she said I'm not giving this to anyone. You can see it in my hand because I don't trust you guys. You're telling me my daughter is illegal. You've made her question if she's even here legally. You've made her question so many things like, you can just look at it. At this point, I'm skinny but I haven't realised. I haven't seen how much weight I've lost. It's my mum who- honestly, even now they will tell you in that prison they all pretended to be okay. They will come and they will smile. But on the journey home they will just break down. My mum was crying constantly and she said, they're going to kill my daughter here, they're going to kill her, she's going to die here. Because I was invisible, I was so skinny.
Annie [00:28:49] I mean, you must have been so incredibly weak as well.
Lady Unchained [00:28:53] I had no energy in that jail. I had absolutely no energy. So, even raising my voice was erm, it was a strain. So it was like, I felt like if I didn't have energy, then I won't argue with them. And if I don't argue with them, they might not see me as the aggressive black woman, African, foreigner that they want to see me as. If I'm like, timid and small and quiet, maybe they'll see the vulnerable side of me. Maybe they'll start to understand that I am human and everything that they're saying and everything that they're doing to me, I feel it. And the only way I can do that- if I was strong and I was eating, I was healthy, I think the fight in me would have just made me get into more trouble or- because I remember him saying, you know, since you're so eager to get transferred, we can deport you back to Uganda, isn't that where you was born? I just remember thinking, wow, you know, every single part of my body told me this is racism, but every single thing that I've learnt was like, nooo... noo.. nahh you can't- nah, nah, nah this is not allowed, like, you know, this is not allowed. So after my mum showed the proof, immigration cleared me the second time and the third time, I finally got transferred and I remember the officer coming to me going, 'oh yeah. Seems like we saw your passport then'. And I just remember looking at him like... I hope you're satisfied now. But I didn't speak. I just looked at him with the most... why like, what are you getting out of this? Like, what is your personal vendetta with me personally? I don't, I don't understand. When I got finally the knock on the door saying you're getting transferred can you pack your stuff, you would think I was being transferred home because even the officer said, oh my God, I've never seen you smile. And I said, well there was nothing to smile about until now i'm leaving. You know, so when I was being trans- like leaving the jail, I thought I had proven myself as British. So when we got to the reception, they done the same questions. Who you are, name, prison number. What's your nationality? British. I'm going to ask you that question again. What's your nationality? British. I'm going to ask you this question one last time. What is your nationality? And I looked at officer that come to get me and I went, 'foreign national'. And he went, that wasn't hard, was it? And ticked me off and then said, you can take her. So all this stuff that I'd been through, just to get out, you had to get one last kick in. And to finally be on that van again, this time I'm like, oh God, it's going to be another how many hours? No, I'm British now, so I've got rights, okay. So the lady said, you do know we're not going in one night, you have to stop at another prison. I said, oh, to pick people up? And she went, no, you're staying there the night, and I went, oh, why is that then? She said, well it's a really long journey, we can't just take you there in one go. And I remember thinking, so what happened to the last time when I was coming here? Is it because I was foreign? Because you thought you was gonna deport me? You know, and I didn't say nothing because she has nothing to do with this. She's just doing her job like, the right way. And I remember thinking, wow, I must be normal again. I'm being transferred to another prison but you would think my whole life is being installed again, like it's been reinstalled. And sleeping one night in Peterborough, the next day, picked me up, went to HMP Downview and everything was back to normal. It was like I had my dates, I was allowed to if I was, you know, good and behaved, I can get tag, I can get weekend release and everything was just amazing. So I remember all the women in Downview going, why are you sucking up to these officers? I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You see, you don't understand where I just come from. Where I come from the officers don't talk to me like that. These lot sound like they're from South, they banter with me like, you know, I remember cracking a joke with one of the officers going, why is this little hole in the door like that? If a fire starts in my my cell, can you lot let me out? She went, well that's why the little hole's there Brenda, we just get the hose and hose you down *Annie laughs*. And I went, but what if I burnt to death?! And she went, well you better not burn yourself to death then! You know, that's banter, that's like my friends, you know. All of a sudden I'm back into this place and I know it wasn't home, but for me it was like, I started putting the weight on and it's only then I realised how skinny I was, because I went to get my clothes exchanged and none of the clothes fit me. I couldn't even fit a leg in. It was like I realised just how skinny I was in that moment. But in that moment before, I didn't see it as that, it was my fight. It was my fight to get out. It was my fight to show that I was actually British and my fight to prove that I can't be here. That little 13 year old that used to pray, that used to sing gospel music. She came back. It was really weird because the whole of that sentence, I wasn't praying. I did pray here and there, but I wasn't praying. So when that faith came back, when the appeal didn't go through I remember one lady gave me a Mary Mary CD, the album. And I remember playing that and getting down on my knees and crying my eyes out to God and apologising for everything that I had done, you know, apologising for who I have become, you know, apologising for the fact that I went to church, it all hit me. Everything started to come back full circle and I thought, it's me. I did this to me. I didn't blame these women that attacked my sisters. I didn't blame the judge. I didn't blame the justice system. I blamed myself. I made this mistake. I broke the promise, that one promise that I made. And when I started to reflect on that, everything started to just be more easy. You know, as humans we're adaptable. We adapt to our environments anyway but it became more easy because the faith in me was, it was like it carried me, you know, like. And all the writing started happening more, like I would write these little messages to myself and it was like something happened. I could slowly start to forgive myself. And when I forgave myself, everything started to make sense.
[00:34:57] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:35:06] So you were inside for 11 months in total, and then you were tagged for five. There's a line that you wrote that I'd love you to elaborate on, if that's all right. "I got tired of waiting for change, so I became the change. I choose to be unchained". Tell me about that please.
Lady Unchained [00:35:26] Yeah, it's funny. I was thinking about that line before we even started speaking. I got tired of waiting for change. And I say that because, in life when you're always waiting for someone to save you, you'll be waiting for a long time. We live in a scared society, we're all afraid of everything. We're afraid of everything. We're afraid of the unknown. We're afraid of colour. We're afraid of religion. Were afraid. So, in order for me to make changes or get help, I had to be the change. I had to become the woman that people told me I could never become because I'd been to jail. I had to become the artist that people said that I can never be because I'd been to jail. I also had to become that part of me that I'd lost, the loving part, that part that had faith, hope, purpose. I had to get that. And in order to get that, I had to become the change that I wanted to see. In my heart of hearts, being on tag there was a part of me that was so depressed. I remember being in jail going, ah, I don't care, when I get out I'm going to show my tag. I don't care. Summertime. I'm going to wear my little mini skirt. No... I was embarrassed. So I was wearing boots and everyone's like, are you hot? I'm like, yeah, yeah, what mind your business, shh. because I didn't want to show the tag, you know, I didn't want people to see that. But while I was on tag, I remember watching the news and seeing stats of ex-offenders re-offending. Stats. Another friend has gone to jail. Stats. Ex-offenders don't like change. All this stuff. And I remember sitting there going, who are these ex-offenders that you're talking to? Why are you not talking to me? Why are you not coming to me and listening to why I went to jail and how I want to change or create something for all of us? And I realised that in order for that to happen, in order for people to start to see ex-offenders that actually want to make positive change, I had to become that change. I had to become that person that people can say, actually, hold on a minute, you can't really say that because she ain't gone back. She actually has created a whole platform based on that fact that she don't want to go back, you know, and it became something that was my purpose. And all of a sudden was like actually, yous lot might not think we want to change, but I want to change and I'm going to make the change. And also I'm going to find people that represent that change. And then you can't really say nothing because actually, where are the rest of the people that's doing this? We are the other side to that story. So I'm going to prove that you can create life after prison. And it was hard to do it because for a long time I didn't believe it myself. But in order to do that, I had to become the visible person that showed people that it's possible.
Annie [00:38:07] So what did you have to fight against? Like what were the prejudices and the obstacles that came before you on leaving prison? Because I presume you think, oh, you're out of prison now. You know, you're fine. You know, you're out of the worst. But it wasn't that way, was it?
Lady Unchained [00:38:21] No. And it's actually sad because a lot of people, again, it's that, you get sentenced, you go to jail, you come out everything's fine. What happens while you're in jail is that you forget that outside you had this, you had that, you had that. And then you remember it as you're about to come out and realise actually, I ain't got no flat, I ain't got no job, I ain't got this, I ain't got that. Then you come out. If you didn't have a criminal conviction before, you're coming out with a whole new identity. You're coming out the person you used to be, the person you've been labelled, and that conviction that holds so much weight. Then you have to go into the community and declare this conviction because that's instilled in you again throughout your sentence. Do not forget to declare your conviction. So I had everything prepared, but what I didn't have prepared is the doors closing in your face. I wasn't prepared for that because before jail, I created opportunities and I would go for what I want and I would get it. There was no barrier. But now it's like, actually, I want to open doors for myself, but I can't. I remember going to the Jobcentre and being afraid to tell them I had a conviction. I started volunteering when I got out of jail so I needed to show people that I can be trusted because I didn't believe that I had that anymore. So volunteering was my way to show people that I can be trusted, but also a way into working with young people and understanding young people with complicated needs. So that was my way in. But unfortunately, even though I was doing so- six months later, I've got six months worth of youth work experience mentoring, it's not enough. Now there's a little bit more support, but at that time, they didn't know how to work with people with criminal convictions. They didn't have anything. I had more information for them than they can offer me. I got so used to hearing no, that for a long time I thought that no was the only thing that was- there was never going to be anything for me. After jail I think- you know, housing, you know, I fought for this flat but the issues that I've had in this building, you know, to be honest, even just two weeks ago we've had a murder in this block. They can't find out who the killer is because it's a blind spot, you know? And for me, coming out of the prison, you'd think that you would try to get people back into a different kind of system, you know, like something separate, remove them from areas or environments that kind of carry weight where it's easily accessible for them to re-offend. Having drug users bang on your door, bang on your window, guess what's going to happen? You're going to drink and you're going to take drugs. But if you're put in a situation where that is not around you, in an area where you can thrive, then you're going to thrive. There's things that can happen when you get out of jail that if the right support is given to you, you'll easily be able to return back to society. But because it's so difficult to just get your foot in the door or to be heard, to be seen, unfortunately it's so easy to be caught in that revolving door. And staying in that... 'well actually I'm a criminal, and yeah everyone thinks I'm a criminal, so whatever. Like they're not going to give me a job'.
[00:41:20] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:41:29] Tell me what Unchained Poetry is.
Lady Unchained [00:41:32] Unchained Poetry is a platform to help people with convictions tell their story in a way that they might have never even imagined that they can tell their story, but then also allows people from, you know, backgrounds that don't have criminal convictions to come and hear these stories. It's a way of kind of like, show and tell, like, I've got this, this is what's happened, this is my story, but then, 'I don't know that story', 'I thought I didn't even know anyone like you'. 'Actually, I've met you now and you're not the person that I see on the media that's like, you know, violent and holding weapons and going and killing people'. 'You're actually just the same as me and you're actually human', you know? So Unchained Poetry's just that platform that allows us to firstly tell our stories, be free, understand, you know, where we went wrong, how we can change and how we can help others get into that spotlight. One thing that for me, Unchained is, is- and I stole this saying but I'm going to use it. Joelle Taylor, don't blame me please, this is your saying *laughs*. She said erm, "the mic is not for me. It's for the person behind me". So for me it's like, this is a chance for you to tell your story and tell it in a way that you want it. Whether that's poetry, whether that's rap, whether that's song. You know, we haven't got dancers yet but hopefully soon. Tell your story through dance. So it's just an artistic platform to just be creative and also get the confidence. You know, people forget that being on a stage is not easy. It's that confidence boost that you need. You can take that anywhere. And it's so visible when I have like two of my main artists who are male artists that have been to jail. I remember the first event, I said, after you perform I just want you to step on stage for a little bit, just 2 minutes, just 2 minutes. I want to do a little quick Q&A. And they said Q&A? Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I wrote it in the bars, so they need to listen to the bars because I'm not standing on stage longer than I need to. I was like, okay. Now, one of them is a battle rap artist. He's in Manchester. He's here. He's doing this based off of these stages that I put them on. And the other one is a boxer. He goes into the ring and he's like- all of these things that they're doing are stages.
Annie [00:43:40] Yeah.
Lady Unchained [00:43:41] Do you understand?
Annie [00:43:42] Performative. Yeah, yeah.
Lady Unchained [00:43:43] It's a stage. Boxing is a stage. You know, battle rap is a stage. But before they came to Unchained nights, they weren't willing to stand on a stage longer than just their bars. I see the growth, I see the process, and I see how, you know, my platform has helped create doors and open doors for other people. But that's because for a long time, as somebody with lived experience, I didn't see how doors were being opened. So again, I had to create the platform in order for others to start coming forward.
Annie [00:44:10] You created the doors! You create the doors!
Lady Unchained [00:44:15] *Laughs* do you know what? I had to. Because again, who's going to? Otherwise I would still be here, you know, listening to radio and going, oh my God, ahh, that's an amazing story. Oh my God, ahh, that's great, isn't it? But I still ain't in the story, I ain't in the media, I ain't- and the funny thing is though, I never wanted to be in the media. I just wanted to do enough work that lets people know that they need to give us opportunity. I just wanted to be able to do enough work that we can create change for people that's come from my background. That's it. All of a sudden everyone's like, ohh Lady Unchained, I'm like oh *laughs*.
Annie [00:44:48] You want to get used to the spotlight *laughs*. You're very good at it.
Lady Unchained [00:44:52] It's scary. It's scary but it's great as well. It's great.
Annie [00:44:56] Tell me about the change you would still like to make moving forward, please.
Lady Unchained [00:45:00] The change, well... so many I don't even know where to start but honestly, I think one change that I've created is the fact that people can see ex-offenders in a different light. I do a lot of work within the prison system. Like I go back in and I lead creative writing workshops. One of my main one's is Unchained tribe leaders. Get them firstly to identify how they can be leaders in their own life, and a leader in their own friendship, in their group, in their family. If I'm honest, two and a half years I got sentenced. Had it not been for me having faith and being a fighter and believing in myself again slowly, I don't think I'd be doing the work I'm doing now. Prison didn't rehabilitate me. I rehabilitated myself. The women in prison helped me rehabilitate. And yes, officers, certain officers there did help me rehabilitate because they were supportive. Now we're putting kids in jail. Yes, people are going to say, well actually they killed somebody, they deserve to be there for life. That's fine. Why were they in the situation? How did they get there? When I go to jail I try to make young people identify how they got there because we're casting them away and that's it. Forget about them. But no one's trying to ask what happened? How did that young person get into a situation that they felt the need that they have to carry a knife, that they have to sell drugs, that they have to stand on a street corner and be there in order to feed their family. When did it become that children were the ones that were responsible for looking after the household? Who told them this? Something in society has happened where young people are understanding or believing that they are the only people that can help themselves. Just like how I've said no one's going to help you, they've come to the terms in such a young age when they shouldn't. We've got a care system that doesn't care for children. I'm meeting little boys from care, in prison. How did you get here? Where's your mum? Where's this- you know. For me, I want people to go into jails and talk to these young people. I want the media to read these stories really carefully and go and interview that young boy. Because what happens is, we're all hearing a conviction, a conviction, murder, murder, murder, and it's yeah, it's terrible. But we're also sentencing these children to death. And I get everyone's going to say, okay, but they shouldn't have done that. But what happened to them? 15 to 18 year old kids are in prison. Even with my journey, they're still a bit like, 'ahh what are you going to do then? Ahh, what you gonna do then? You're going to be different? Ahh'. You know, and it takes a process and then all of a sudden they're like, actually yeah, nah I've realised I can be more than my crime. Maybe I can do this and maybe I can do that. Also understanding that before they came to jail, there was things that were happening that shouldn't have happened. I don't know how we can say a 16 year old is convicted to 16 years, but no one questions why he had debts of 40 grand at the age of 13. So for me, the changes I want to see is firstly less killings. The only way we can do that is to protect the young people from now. The way we can do that also is by actually funding children, because now the cuts and everything that's happened is so massive that there's no youth centres, there's no place to pay. I remember being able to play outside in the park when I was young. You ain't playing outside in the park, you're about to fall on a needle, you know, like this is the world that we live in and then we're questioning why these young kids are going out and murdering each other. And it's not a problem to people that are not affected by it. Change only happens when you are affected by something and you feel it. You see it. It hurts. And you get so angry that you're like, no, this will not happen again. So for me, I want people to be angry. I want people to get angry enough to say, every child that we walk past is our child. Why are we now in a society where you can't say, 'oii, I'm going to call your mum'. *Annie laughs* What happened to all that stuff? Like ahh she's gonna call my mum. What happened to all that? We had community, but where we got so afraid we allowed children to think that they are the adults and this is the African in me. Children are not the adults, we are the adults. So we now need to act like the adults, treat them like children and care for them. That's all they need. Care. If one falls, don't we all fall? Or is it just because you're like, well, actually, I'm going to let go. If that person falls, I'm just gonna let go. Then I'll stay standing. That's what we're doing. We're standing on our own and we don't want to stand with anybody else. So, let's make the change. Let's actually go and help people and actually try to prevent people from going to jail because jail's not a good place. People make mistakes and if you make a mistake, wouldn't you want someone to fight for you?
Annie [00:49:37] Wow, I feel like I need to stand up and give you, like a standing ovation. Oh my God. I'm-
Lady Unchained [00:49:44] *Laughing* thank you so much.
Annie [00:49:44] Honestly, thank you so much. Thank you for your strength and your resilience and your absolute incredible eloquence in telling that story. Your story. Which as you say, is so fucking important for people to hear. It will stay with me always, honesty thank you so much. *Outro music*. Thank you so much to Lady Unchained. I said it all at the end there to her. What an inspiration. Her book, Behind Bars: On Punishment, Prison & Release will be released this Thursday, 7th of July. You can pre-order it now. We will, of course put a link in the show notes to that, as well as a link to her website so that you can go and check what she's up to. Do share this episode to everyone you know. I would just love it to travel as far and as wide as possible. Next week we bring you double Bafta winner and TV personality and your grime MCs favourite grime MC, Big Zuu. Absolutely delighted to have him on Changes. You're going to love that conversation. In the meantime, follow, subscribe, leave a rating where you can. It's so appreciated. Thanks so much for listening. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. See you next week!