REN: You’ve just come to User Voice right? What are you going to be doing?
ELLA: Yea just started. I’m going to be prison based, mostly female, closed & open. And I’m going to be working for a YOI, Cookham Wood. Don’t know if you know it?
REN: Yea, well I work at Aylesbury and they’re 18 – 21
ELLA: Oh ok. Yea, it’s going to be interesting. I was at Cookham Wood myself!
REN: Shut up! No! When was that?
ELLA: 15 years ago…
REN: Well I didn’t go Cookham Wood, but I was in Rochester, right next door aint it?
ELLA: Haha they made our food actually!
REN: Yea, I remember seeing some of them younguns come over. I tell you what, they were twice the size of me! They was eating those weights up. I can tell you that for free!
ELLA: Yea, younguns keeping you on your toes! How did you find Rochester? How old were you?
REN: Mate, I was well into my 20s.
ELLA: Haha. Got caught late then?!
REN: Haha yea. I had my young days, my freedom. I felt like I was getting away with murder. Then I had that harsh reality of now you’re actually going to go to jail.
I thought I was invincible.
One stepping stone leads to another … street mugging to bigger things to selling drugs. Working for someone, going however many miles from London and then coming home like nothing. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I was your age in Cookham Wood. I don’t know if I could hack it.
ELLA: You would do though; you know what I mean.
Looking back, if you’d have said to me when I was 12 that I was going to end up in a prison cell when was 17, I’d have been like are you crazy, no way!
But going. Obviously I’m not going to lie, I was on that sweat box and I cried, course I cried. Anyone who says they didn’t cry on the first night going jail, I don’t care. You’re lying.
I remember getting there, having a strip search.I was like 17, I know the police had done these things but there were loads of people there. It was intimidating and I could hear all the other girls. Then I spotted carpet and a shower in my cell and I rang home and I was like ‘cool, I’ll be fine’.
REN: Haha. Don’t think it matters what age you’re in jail. It takes time to adjust though.
ELLA: Yea, that first morning, waking up and it taking a few minutes to realise where I was. Thinking you’re in your bed and then it hits you like a brick.
You don’t know what the regime is. You don’t even know what a ‘regime’ is. Just sitting there waiting. Then you hear them keys coming.
REN: I hear you, even that noise. Even now, where I work with User Voice and I’m back in the prisons now. When I hear the sound of the keys jangle and the floors screeching and the smells. It takes you back.
ELLA: Yea it’s not a pleasant feeling, I had some really dark times in there. And as much as we were kids and we had to have that bravado about ourselves, it was a tough place to be. Even with the carpets even with the shower!
REN: It was tough. But that’s why we’re the best people to do this job. You’ve gone full circle on them!
ELLA: Exactly, it’s like, I’ve been where you’ve been, I’ve been a little s%^t, I didn’t do it their way and now I’m rocking up in the same prison I used to be in, with a set of keys.
REN: That’s it, we made that journey, we’re not goody two shoes. Nah, we’ve been in it. Thinking the same things and wanting someone to talk to, someone who understands the challenges.
ELLA: That’s why when you’re in prison, especially as a youth, little things become massive. You’ve got no avenue to offload. That’s the beautiful thing about user voice. We’re not coming to tick a box. We come in cos we know we’ve got some experiences to share and in turn hopefully get others to share their experience with us. To hopefully have a positive effect.
REN: That’s it man, that’s what we’re all about.