‘Brave’ woman shares struggle with abusive partner and prison before starting life afresh

A domestic abuse survivor has spoken of her struggle through a controlling relationship, prison and how she’s breaking a vicious circle

Sanctuary: the Nelstn Trust Women's Centre in Gloucester offers a safe space for women to spend time with each other

Sanctuary: the Nelson Trust Women’s Centre in Gloucester offers a safe space for women to spend time with each other

All of my problems started when I met this guy,” said Linda*, of her partner whom she met when she was 25 years-old. “This is when it slowly it started.”

Linda, now 43, has large, brown eyes, and a broad smile which implore you to listen to her and search your face for a reaction. But as she casts her mind back in time her gaze drops and her smile wanes.

“Everything was down to his controlling behaviour. I couldn’t have friends, I couldn’t go to my mum’s. He just kept controlling me in everything in did. I couldn’t go out – only with him.
I couldn’t see my sister, nobody. He always said it wasn’t true, but it’s true. He hid, he lied.”

It was when she was alone and lonely that she turned to alcohol. “Then I started drinking. Not like this -” She raises her right hand above her head as if pouring a bottle down her mouth. “Just slowly.”

She smiles meekly. “Because I felt lonely. Because he went out and left me with kids, small kids. He would go out all the time to the casino, dog racing, pubs, with friends. I would stay home, so I started just worrying what he was doing and if he would cheat on me – because I loved him.”

It started with a few glasses of wine. Then she’d drink beer. Then she moved on to something else. Eventually she recognised she had a problem and went to the doctor “because it was just going up”.

“And I had kids,” she adds, raising her eyebrows and fixing her gaze on mine, impressing on me that she knew how bad the situation was. It was in part her young children that kept her with him for such a long time.

“I knew I was depressed. I knew I had a problem.” She still bears the marks of those problems on her forearms, which are lined with scars.

But as is all too common in abusive relationships, she found it difficult to leave her partner. “I lived with him but he never gave me an address, it was always his house. He never gave me money, but never let me go to work. If I wanted to go to work he’d be angry. If I didn’t go to work and I asked him for money for something, he said ‘go to work like other women. You tramp.’ Whatever. So I couldn’t go to work.”

Linda is talking inside the sanctuary of the Nelson Trust’s women’s centre in Gloucester. They offer holistic support for women in the criminal justice system, including counselling, parenting classes, cookery skills, qualifications and help with housing and benefits.

nelson trust women's centre gloucester

Safe haven: the garden at the Nelson Trust’s women’s centre, where women and staff provide vital support to each other. Photograph: Victoria Seabrook

But back when she had no money, Linda began stealing vodka from a shop. She was caught a few times but let off. “But I kept doing it. I was so desperate. Then my partner kicked me out again and I had nowhere to go.”

And then, four years ago, she ended up in prison for stealing. This is a common fate for vulnerable women like Linda, says Jackie Russell, director of Women’s Breakout, which represents centres like the Nelson Trust’s that work with women in the criminal justice system.

“While her story is unique to her, the circumstances are too familiar,” said Ms Russell.  “Women with vulnerabilities and complex needs often lead chaotic lifestyles causing them to be at risk of many damaging behaviours, including offending. They are a cohort with a wide range of needs and they face numerous issues in high volume.”

Linda behaved well inside and after two weeks was allowed out on licence – but with a curfew of 8pm. She went back to her partner and they argued and he kicked her out. “I had to be home by 8pm, and he knew that, so I was sent back to prison.”

Linda spent a further three months in prison, during which time she started an alcoholics anonymous course. When she was released she went back to her partner again. But this time when he kicked her out and she wasn’t drinking, so was able to get herself to her mother’s rather than in trouble.

Now she has just moved into her own flat, and when she talks about her plans for it her smile beams even wider. “The Nelson Centre are helping me so much with furniture and carpet and everything.” She visits the centre regularly. She feels motivated and safe when she is there.

Linda was assigned a domestic violence support worker and social services are helping her with getting custody of her children, who are now 15, 12 and 8 years-old.

Over half the women in prison say they have suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse, according to the Social Exclusion Unit.

Ms Russell said these vulnerabilities are often the cause of offending behaviour in women. “This will often include poor mental health, abuse, trauma and poor relationships. Statistics relating to women offenders demonstrate this.”

In 2010, women accounted for 47 per cent of all incidents of self-harm despite representing just 5 per cent of the total prison population, according to the Ministry of Justice’s safety in custody figures.

Linda found it to accept help from social services at first. “I was angry. Every woman would be angry, every woman who has ambition and a good man would be angry about having social services. At first I just didn’t even want to talk to them. I just oh, I hated it, I [didn’t want to speak to] no one.

“But now I’m older, and I understand now, and actually it has to be that way. Then I started to work them, and they’ve been so much helpful. They are just such nice people, I cannot believe it.”

Ms Russell said: “With the right support, women can find a way through these issues, just as Linda has done. The women’s organisations that work with such women to bring positive changes to their lives provide a holistic service that is capable of addressing the wide range of needs presented by the women.”

Linda has stopped drinking now, with the help of classes in prison and support from the Nelson Trust centre. She said: “I have good medication now, I get help from the centre. I remember when I used to drink,  how I would wake up, worrying that I had no money, feeling that I couldn’t live like this.”

Her smile beamed in full as she said: “But now I feel so free.”

*Linda spoke on the condition of anonymity and names have been changed.

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