Issue 192, Spring 2010
Her majesty’s prison at Low Newton, outside Durham in northeast England, is a women’s facility—maximum security for young offenders convicted in the courts of the Scottish Borders, North Yorkshire, and North Cumbria. Although it has a famous inmate these days, the serial murderer Rosemary West, Low Newton is not an especially notorious house of correction. It’s an ordinary prison, and what drew the photographer Adrian Clarke to the women who had served time in Low Newton was a quality they shared with the place—they normally go unnoticed. A year ago, with the support of a National Health Service grant, Clarke began visiting former inmates at their homes, mostly in Middlesbrough and Stockton, to photograph and interview them—about their physical and mental health, their histories of trauma and drug abuse, their criminal pasts, and their experience in custody. Clarke’s portraits are stark, candid; his subjects’ testimonies only more so. In their conversations with him, the former inmates were explicit, searching, forthcoming, and forthright. As the photographer notes, “all the women have wanted to be identified by their own names.”
I was picked on at school. The other children called me dumb and ugly and they hit me and pulled my hair. When I was eleven I threw one of the teachers down the stairs.
At home I saw my mum being beaten up by my dad. Those are my earliest memories, my dad punching my mum and my mum having black eyes.
I started using drugs when I was sixteen but it was only when I was twenty-six that I used heroin. For two years I worked as a prostitute to pay for the heroin. When I was twenty-eight I persuaded an old man to let me into his house so that I could use his toilet but once I was inside I demanded money off him. When he refused to give me what I wanted—looking back I don’t think he had any money—I stabbed him in the eye with a pair of scissors. I was given a six-year sentence for robbery. It wouldn’t really describe how I feel to say I’m ashamed of what I did.
In those days there was no methadone in Low Newton. So I was rattling from not having the heroin, I knew that I was going to be separated from my three children for four years, and I had to come to terms with stabbing a man in the eye who must have been at least eighty years old. That was too much for me. I was offered what is called a listener to talk to. It helped me a lot and I became a listener myself later in my sentence.
I was as frightened of leaving prison as I was of going in. You get used to prison and the world outside becomes more and more distant and scary.
I have nothing to complain about and no one to blame. I was well looked after when I was a child but for some reason I can’t understand I used to get depressed and angry and when I was fourteen I hit a teacher with a chair and so I was excluded from school. I never got my life back on the rails after that and when I was sixteen I started using heroin.
I’m twenty-nine now. I have two girls who are six and two—they’ve been living at my mum’s—and I’m twenty-one weeks pregnant. My two-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy. My six-year-old has had a difficult time and because of that she didn’t want to go to school. The local authority prosecuted me for not sending her and I was remanded in custody because the court didn’t believe I would turn up to my hearing. I was in Low Newton for seven days and I came out three weeks ago. At the hearing I was fined fifty pounds. I thought I was well cared for while I was in there. They kept me on seventy mil of methadone and I was given my medication for depression, which meant I was able to cope. I was in a cell on my own, which I preferred.
My problem is no longer heroin. I haven’t used any heroin for quite a long time now. I’m addicted to methadone. I know I should reduce the amount I’m on but I’m not sure I can. I’d have to find the key to myself if I were to live without that support.
My mother never wanted me to live with her so she sent me away as soon as I was born. I’m thankful to her because I know I had a better childhood because of it. I lived with my nana until she died, which was when I was four, and then I lived with my great-aunt. I was well looked after by both of them. My sister stayed with my mum and I pity her.
I’m thirty-six now and I’ve used heroin for the last thirteen years. I can’t say I understand much about how my life has gone. For instance, when I was small I used to shoplift even when I had money in my pocket to pay. I’m not sure what it was that led me into it except that I remember it used to make me feel better. As for heroin, I was with someone who gave it to me for free so I took it.
I served a short sentence in Low Newton last year. The idea of prison was more frightening than the reality. When I got in there I found there were loads of people I knew and in some ways it was a good laugh. I felt that it was my three children who were being punished, especially my twelve-year-old daughter. I’m not saying prison should be any more harsh. It’s just that it seemed to be completely pointless, a bit like going back to school. It didn’t make me pause to think—I used heroin within an hour of coming out.