A Story of Transformation
Chapter 1 - "Where's Your Mama Gone?"
My name is Lilly and I've just finished my 26th month in prison. I've got 13 months left to serve on a 7-year sentence for my part in conspiracy to defraud.
Sitting in my cell I have had lots of thinking time and I am hoping to explain to you how I ended up behind bars. I didn't necessarily have the best start in life. I remember when I was about 7 years old walking into the school playground and hearing a group of girls singing and laughing.
"Where's your mama gone?
Where's your mama gone?
Far, far away!"
I remember feeling anxious, sick and uneasy. I was the only mixed-race girl in my school and most kids were very wary of me. I didn't really have friends, I wasn't accepted. That night when I asked my mum why the other children had sung that to me, she told me that I was adopted. She told me she had picked me off a shelf just like a little doll. When I pushed her for more information she told me that my mother hadn't wanted me. She told me that when she had picked me up I smelled awful and she bathed me and threw my clothes away.
All I could think was who doesn't want their own baby? Why didn't she want me? Why did I smell?
From that day I really struggled. My mind kept circling and I kept thinking that if my own mum didn't want me, then no one would. I later found out that she had abandoned me because she was a white woman with a white husband and family and my father had been black. I wouldn't have been accepted by her family. She couldn't take me home.
I don't think I ever developed emotionally. I fell in love with anybody who showed me any attention, good or bad. I began misusing alcohol at 15 years old. Controlling partners made me feel loved and wanted. When I was beaten, I believed these were actions of love.
Chapter 2 – “Married to a World Champion Kick Boxer, I became his punch bag”
Between the ages 15 to 30 my life was extremely chaotic, but I was just about keeping my head above water. However, I was very impulsive and became both promiscuous and alcohol dependent.
Two divorces and two little girls later, I found myself living back with parents. My eldest went to live with her dad, and I had my five-year-old with me. I owned my own hair and beauty salon, had a lovely red VW beetle and was generally ok.
A friend of mine suggested I go on a blind date with a friend of her boyfriend’s. He had ocean blue eyes, "perfect". He took me out to a fantastic restaurant and we drank champagne! I was excited! Three months after we got together, I was pregnant again with baby girl number 3 and I was so happy.
Just two weeks before my baby girl was due, I was sitting on the bed, nearly nine months pregnant, putting make up on. My partner came in to the bedroom. His face looked different. His eyes looked evil.
"Don't fuckin’ think you’re going out when this baby is born."
He put his hands around my throat and threw me down the stairs. I begged him to help me.
"There's fuck all wrong with you."
He went back to bed. I drove myself to the hospital and I was 2 cm dilated. That is how my third baby girl was born.
The regular beatings started six weeks after that. I could barely open my eyes when I took my baby for her six-week check. My partner told the nurse that I had been drinking and fell down the stairs. The nurse passed me a card with her number on; she knew what he had done, and she tried to help. I went to a women’s refuge for one night but left and went back to him. People might wonder why I went back, but the women’s refuge was awfully dirty, and I had no belongings. I just wanted to be back at home. My partner begged me for forgiveness and I wanted to keep my family together. I wanted things to change so much.
He beat me every couple of weeks. He raped me. He emotionally and financially abused me in every way possible. It was left to my young daughter to try and protect me. She would try and pull him off me, try to distract him, even hit him sometimes. But of course, this was too much for a little girl to handle.
To be honest, I never fully realised the negative effect this was having on my children, as I was just trying to survive. They became my protectors. One night, he beat me so badly that my little girl told the police, “Please help, my mum’s dead” when she called them.
The abuse was out of control. I drank to cope, I was losing my hair due to the stress I think, I became numb to the beatings, and I drank to survive. Every single beating, I fought for my life. My little girl stopped wanting to go to school because she wanted to stay home and protect me. I was also struggling to be a mum to new baby who cried constantly. I couldn't go to my parents as I always had black eyes and I didn’t want to upset them.
My partner started selling cocaine and taking it. He ended up owing 50k to someone and was beaten up outside our house and told he would have his legs chopped off. That night, we went on the run to Spain but even though we were far away from home, the beatings got worse. One day, he was finally arrested. He was sent to prison and sentenced to four years in prison.
Chapter 3 – “Loved, protected, abandoned”
I met my son’s father whilst I was living in Spain. He told me he worked for his granddad and that he was a plumber, but I knew that he had a fake passport. He was also wanted by police for a shooting incident in a night club, but I liked him, because he was frightened of nothing and nobody. He did bad things – he was in to knives, machetes and guns - but he was a good guy. He was a victim too. He had been groomed into a gang when he was 14.
My son’s father tried so hard to love me, but he just didn’t know how.
He took me to a bar in Marbella for our first date in January 2010. I was pregnant by February and it became a hostile relationship. He wasn’t used to people answering him back and I would stand up to him. His way of dealing with this was to put a gun to my head. I thought I knew he wouldn’t shoot me, at least not on purpose and became so used to it that I told myself it didn’t bother me. One day when I came back from the hair salon he put the gun to my head and it got caught in my hair. I started crying. He said, "sorry about the gun". "It wasn’t the gun", I replied. "You messed up my hair" - and I meant it.
I flew back to England in September 2010 to give birth to my son. His father was smuggled back by car. Eventually he handed himself in to the police, but all charges had been dropped against him. He left me the same day the charges were dropped, 2 weeks before my son was born. We remained friends of a sort, but he made my life hard. He would order me to have my son ready for him to take out within five minutes or threaten me. He would call by the house or ring the telephone all hours of the night. The next year he became so threatening I decided to take my young family back to Spain.
I moved into his house again in October 2013 as I was struggling with alcohol and poor mental health again. I would drink so I didn’t think. Drinking gave my mind a holiday from my thoughts.
As my son turned three, his father macheted a rival gang member that night. He was arrested and two days later the police team raided his house. The day after that my children were removed from my care as it was deemed I was unable to protect them, and that I did not understand how my children were being affected by what they were surrounded by. The kids didn’t want to attend school because they wanted to protect me. Looking back, I was never sober at this time and was abusing sleeping tablets. I felt like I didn’t want to wake up EVER.
After taking a huge overdose and waking in a mental health secure unit I remember thinking “I can’t even kill myself”.
Chapter 4 – “From Timeshares to Time Served”
I met my ex-partner, who ended up being my literal partner in crime and co-defendant, in July 2011. I was working for an old friend who I had met in Spain years ago. He worked in the Spanish property market and introduced me to the timeshare industry. Alarm bells should have rung from the beginning. My boss asked me to meet him in Birmingham every Friday, so he could pay me, as he didn't like to transfer money into my bank!
I should have known it was dodgy, but my alcohol and substance misuse were at their highest and I enjoyed the weekends away from the children. My ex would sell me cocaine and eventually gave it me for free. Before long I had formed strong attachments to both him and the cocaine he supplied me with.
When I moved my family back to Spain, my ex came with us. He would constantly ply me with alcohol to the point that I could no longer work in the timeshare industry as I was too drunk. He took over my life. He had access to my emails and all my personal data, and I didn’t know he was forwarding this to his friends and using it to scam timeshare owners.
I didn’t stay oblivious to the scam. But when I did realize the truth, I turned a blind eye. I simply didn't care. At this time, I didn’t care about anything other than alcohol, cocaine and spending money buying nice things. Shopping was a coping mechanism: my life was crap but at least I had nice things. I didn't know the extent of the fraud. I agreed to open a bank account and a limited company in my name, and he agreed to buy me whatever I wanted, put the children in private school and got a live-in nanny. It didn't feel like crime as nobody was getting shot, nobody was selling drugs.
At the time, my ex was emotionally abusing me and would regularly abandon me, just leaving me with no notice and taking all the money with him. I have serious attachment and abandonment issues due to being adopted and I would sink into depression. I even tried to take my own life again. I had five serious overdose attempts - two resulted in me being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The last time I tried, I took a lot of diazepam. I planned my death. I left a swimsuit on the bed as I didn’t want anybody to find me dead and naked in the bath. I never made it to the bath. I collapsed before I got there.
Despite this I still loved my ex.
But one day, he gave my 14-year-old daughter weed. Enough was enough.
I called the police and I told them about the fraud. He was arrested in 2013 and I knew it was only a matter of time before the police came for me. I was arrested in 2014 and was placed into a Women’s Refuge, but it took two years for me to be sentenced.
Every single day I think about my victims, and they include my children and my own parents. Sometimes I think that being around criminals and gang culture, it was almost inevitable that I would become involved in crime. Mental health is an invisible and silent illness - we cannot see it, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t as real as a physical illness. Prisons are a terrible place for people with poor mental health, but that was what I was facing.
In 2016 I was sentenced to 7 years for my part in the conspiracy to commit fraud. That day I began to get my life back.
Chapter 5 – “The Gift of Time”
The day I was sentenced, the scanning machine at the Crown Court was broken so I was unable to take any personal items with me. In the prison van, I started to laugh. I don’t know why I laughed. It wasn’t nerves. I looked up to God and I said, “you’ve given me all this time, what will I do with it?”
One of my co-defendants was in the van with me. I asked her why she was crying. “I’m scared”, she said. I thought, “scared of what?” Looking back, nothing frightened me anymore. I wasn’t even frightened of loss. My biggest fear was fear itself.
From that day, I decided I was supporting people.
The other girl in the van with us was a girl who was on a murder charge and I spent a lot of my first few days inside supporting her and being someone she could talk to. She subsequently received a 27-year prison sentence, and we are still in touch.
I arrived at Her Majesty’s Prison at around 5.30pm. I was given a grey tracksuit, was processed through reception, given a bed pack and after a couple of hours, was taken to my cell to meet my pad mate. I went into survival mode, but I could not stop thinking about my children. What would they do without Mum for the next few years? They needed me. My 16-year-old had just been arrested for a knife point robbery and she needed her mum.
Very quickly I fell into the routine of prison life. Each and every day felt the same. I forgot what day it was, even the month sometimes. In the early days of prison, the only important thing is the year – the year of release.
I knew I would be doing my sentence alone. I knew I would have no visitors or anyone to support me as my parents had said that they washed their hands of me. My kids were removed from my care the night my ex was arrested, and I have limited contact with them all. They find visiting prison very emotionally difficult. I’m almost glad the children don’t want to come as it’s incredibly hard for them. They have had to experience foster care and social service involvement and have suffered a lot having lost their mum.
I worked as wing cleaner. I became a Samaritans listener, providing emotional support to other prisoners. I became a reading mentor for the Shannon Trust, a charity who provides books and training to prisoners, so they can teach other prisoners how to read. I threw myself into education and have gained eight Level 2 qualifications. I was overweight when I arrived at prison, so I got into the gym eating a diet of eggs, tuna and PORRIDGE! I loved how my body was looking. I felt strong mentally and was reading any positive attitude books I could find. I wrote gratitude lists every day. I still do that.
My mini goal was to get to an open condition prison the earliest I could. Open prisons are considered ‘training prisons’ for low risk prisoners. Sometimes we are able to take up employment and leave the prison during the day, while serving our sentences. Women's prisons only have open or closed categorisations, whereas men's prisons have an A-D range of security. I had heard amazing things about HMP Askham Grange and I needed to get out of a cell with locked doors.
I didn’t keep in contact with my ex-partner at first but now we have become friends, and he has demonstrated to me that he has some remorse. At a recent court hearing he told the truth about how he had controlled things and how I was drunk for a lot of our relationship and the fraud offences. I loved my ex so much, but I know that the things he did were not right. However, I am working to forgive him and understand that everybody has good in them. I know that with perpetrators of any type of abuse, the problem lies within them and not with me. People abuse their partners due to fear and insecurity - fear they will lose them, fear they are not good enough and they may have witnessed abuse from an early age or even been a victim themselves.
Every day in prison I strive to be the best version of myself that I can be. I never grumble, and I am grateful for all the support and assistance I have. I think the greatest gift I have ever received was time!
Chapter 6 – “The Real Lilly”
In June 2017 I was advised I had been re-categorised to ‘D Cat’, to an open prisoner. I completed all relevant paperwork and was transferred to HMP Askham Grange.
As I pulled up outside a beautiful house with residents (prisoners) tending to the flower beds with the sun was streaming into the prison van, I knew there was a God. The reception staff greeted me with huge smiles asking how my journey had been and were kind and welcoming. I was introduced to a mentor and was shown to my room. I knew I would fit in well.
I had a meeting with my offender supervisor, and she asked, "Why haven't you seen your children?" I replied, "They don’t want to come into prison." With that, she helped me complete some Release on Temporary License (ROTL) paperwork, hooked me up with the Family Worker and arranged for me to go to Manchester to see my children. I hadn't seen them for so long. Even though social services were present, and not much thought had gone into the contact room (it was more like an interview room, with unfriendly desks and chairs) I was just so happy to see the kids.
I arrived early at the contact centre. I was so excited. When the children I arrived, they ran to me and shouted, “Hi mummy!” and threw their arms around me. It wasn’t overly emotional. I think this was as we had all gotten used to the separation, and I had gotten used to seeing them at a contact centre. They seemed extremely wary of me and that hurt me a lot. I could see how much I had hurt them. I know I have so much making up to do. But I know they will learn to trust me as I will not let them down again.
The time together went by so quickly and when I got back to prison, I sat on my bed and sobbed. I felt real sadness. This was my punishment.
After that, I started going to out into town for ‘resettlement days’; going to the library, purchasing my own toiletries and integrating back into the community. I was very nervous being out in the community. I felt like I had a new set of eyes! It was October and Christmas things were in the shops and everything seemed to sparkle. I was giddy with excitement! I found myself walking really slowly even though it was raining and bumping into people. I apologised for every step I took. “I’m sorry”, I found myself saying, as if I was sorry for being free to mix with everyday people.
I couldn’t afford lunch but went to Costa for a hot chocolate with fresh cream and marsh mellows. It. Was. AMAZING! A homeless guy stumbled in drunk and told me I was very pretty - I think I just oozed joy. “Thank you”, I said, whilst all the other customers glared at him. “I love life”, I kept repeating in my head, almost like a mantra.
“I love life. I love life. I love life.”
Life is amazing. It took for me to come to prison to realise that.
I started a work placement at a Garden Centre supporting adults with learning difficulties. They invited me to their Christmas party and I felt privileged to have worked with these people. I especially remember a beautiful lady with Downs Syndrome who I worked with. I cried at the party as it humbled me to be included and they all seemed so happy.
My offender supervisor also arranged for me to attend counselling for Domestic Abuse. I had been crying out for this at all the other prisons I had attended, but as I presented as a confident woman it was deemed that I did not need this. I am now able to recognize controlling behaviour in my peers, which is so crucial given my past relationships. I do feel empowered. I didn't like me, but I love me now!
This year, I was asked by the Employment Hub if I would like to be interviewed for a placement with In2Change, a children's Alternative Provision school in Sheffield that aims to prevent young people and ex-offenders becoming or remaining involved in criminal activities. Having had experience with my own children and living with men who were involved in crime and gangs, I knew this would be a brilliant opportunity. I now have a Student Support role.
In2Change is a ‘not for profit’ charitable organisation and do targeted interventions designed and delivered by ex-offenders and serving prisoners. We hope to empower and encourage young people to make the right choices, form positive relationships and rebuild their confidence. We provide essential support and training to restore their attitudes towards authority, education, employment and the community. I have now been taken on and receive a salary (although I do not receive all of this as I support the Victim Scheme and pay a levy from my wages).
I am also completing my Level 2 Beauty Therapy Qualification and work on Saturdays at a beauty salon as work experience. I was given an award by the Hardman Trust for being an exceptional prisoner, which I intend to use to purchase a make -up kit and have make up lessons. I am enrolling on a Level 3 Diploma in Massage and an evening class to attain another qualification, so I can become an assessor.
For some people prison is the worst thing that could ever have happened to them. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me. After serving six months in custody I wrote to my sentencing judge and thanked him for my “gift of time”. I told him “in my experience prison does not work for most, however it worked for me.”
I genuinely believe it saved my life, as I am not drinking or abusing drugs, I have learnt to be a great mum and have gained so many skills I would never have attained before. If I met me now back then, I wouldn't recognize myself.
It is amazing to introduce you to the authentic Lilly Lewis!
Chapter 7 – “Not Your Typical Girl”
I don’t want you to read this and think that mine is the experience of every woman locked up in prison. Unfortunately, for most, their experience is not even close to how I found mine. I feel lucky to have been able to turn my life around and want to use this opportunity to speak about the women not as lucky as me.
I have spent many hours as a Samaritans listener, supporting women who are on the verge of suicide. The rates of self-harm in the women's estate is heart breaking. I’ve seen young ladies just turned 18, being pushed into taking drugs or handing over their medication. A high percentage of young offenders are looked after children and their route is direct from care homes and foster care to prison. There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss of hope in the closed establishments, with prisons being under-staffed and an army of new officers entering aged around 25, with little life experience.
I spent a month on a lifer wing at a closed prison and most of the women had severe mental health needs. One lady walked around sucking on a pillow case, another twisting her hair so much that she had bald patches. I witnessed one woman who had wet herself and was clearly high and the attending officer just laughed and asked, "What have you been on?" I felt like I was a support worker at a hospital for poor mental health.
I met a pregnant girl who barely ate. I tried to encourage her, saying even if she wasn’t hungry baby would be. She was due to be released but was being released homeless and was just 19.
I found that the majority of women I spoke to had been victims of domestic abuse outside. Some of them had formed same sex relations while in prison but were also experiencing abuse from their female partners in custody. There seemed to be no deterrent for this behaviour and it was barely addressed by staff.
There is a lot of focus on English and Maths Level 1 and 2 qualifications but no support around self-help, self-esteem or mindfulness, or general life skills such as personal care, and washing. Some prisoners have very little, if any, life skills at all. Some barely wash or change their clothes and are not encouraged to do so.
I strongly believe that locking these women up with no support or rehabilitation is utterly pointless. Out of roughly 4000 women in prison today, only 200 of us have the privilege of open conditions. I believe we need to house women in smaller secure units and provide them with more work and support and guidance while in prison.
The women I met and know need counselling and help to build their self-esteem. They need stronger therapeutic support around domestic abuse. They need compassionate and professional mental health support. They need effective drug and alcohol addiction programs. They need contact and connection with their children and loved ones. Above all they need hope that life can and will be better.
And a lot of women commit crime due to pressure from their male partners or due to their addictions. That is what happened to me and I know that a survey of prisoners found that nearly half of all women (48%), compared to just over one-fifth of men (22%), reported having committed offences to support someone else’s drug use.
And it’s almost worst when women are sent to prison on very short sentences. 70% of women entering prison in 2016 were serving six months or less. A lot of women lose their homes and children when on small sentences, but they have no time to do any rehabilitation or get any support to look at why the offense occurred in the first place.
We women need much more help in the community. We need more women's centres and better facilities at woman's refuges. Social services need to be more focused on getting Mums the support they need and less focused on taking children away and splitting up siblings.
Chapter 8 - “The Other Side of the Gate”
Looking back, I would change so much. I would have sought help from an early age. Perhaps if someone at school had looked out for girls like me, girls who are different, with low self-esteem and personality problems, things would have turned out differently. I believe that if I hadn’t used substances to mask my sadness I would have made better choices. I like to think I would never have accepted the beatings, the rapes and the abuse. I like to think I would never have turned a blind eye to crime and criminal behaviour.
But I also understand that because I did a bad thing it doesn’t make me a bad person. I struggled with some serious problems, and I’m learning to forgive myself for having made poor choices. Instead of blame, I am trying to focus on becoming a woman I can be proud of.
I’m helping people every single day. I have amazing letter contact and telephone calls with my youngest two children. And I have the best mum and daughter relationship with my eldest I could have hoped for. I try to give her great advice and I encourage her to make positive choices. She is amazing. She makes me proud every day and she is an absolute credit to me, so I must be doing something right!
On the other side of the prison gates, I see myself motivating and supporting people professionally. I will keep telling my story and I hope it changes the perception of women in prison. I want to be an ambassador for “safe family homes”. We all deserve to go to bed at night and feel safe in our own homes, and especially safe from the people we live with. I want to do whatever I can to encourage women and children affected by domestic abuse to keep safe and to know that if you leave, there is an amazing life out there.
After all, change is not easy, but it is WORTH IT.
All photographs are by Emma Lynch at the BBC, and are reproduced with permission.
The Gift of Time was written with support from Naima Sakande, Women’s Justice Advocate at the Centre for Criminal Appeals.