First Class Honours Graduate

former sex worker, prisoner and drug user

Marie-Claire’s story

I had a pretty normal childhood: a 2.4 children household – that kind of thing. We weren’t wealthy, but we had a comfortable life in suburban Birmingham. My mum and dad worked hard to provide for us, and we went on holiday every year.

There were no dramas at all until I was 15 years old. That was a pivotal age for me. Not only did my parents get divorced, but I was the victim of a knife attack. The perpetrator was a friend of mine at school. He got expelled and my injuries weren’t too severe, but it was a pretty traumatic thing to go through.

Shortly after that, I went to live with my dad. That’s when I started experimenting with drugs. First it was weed and alcohol – nothing too crazy. But things changed when my dad got diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I became a young carer. That wasn’t even a term back then, and there was certainly no support around it. My father eventually passed away with me at home when I was just 21. The grief and trauma from looking into his eyes as he died was soul-destroying. At that point I went from being a successful young person an overachiever, you could safely say working as a branch valuer for a well known estate agent, to being severely depressed.

things changed when my dad got diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I became a young carer

My drug use that had been recreational at best, masking depression at worst, went up by about five levels. I was soon doing anything I could to get my hands on substances. It wasn’t the Class A bad-boys, so I could kid myself that it wasn’t an issue. But it definitely was in terms of the chaos that started surrounding me.

With my brother and I left to fend for ourselves, I was having to go to court to keep a roof over our heads. The mayhem was unmanageable, and it went on like that for a few years. I ended up quitting my job to become a lap dancer and stripper, primarily so I could party my way through the grief. I was very angry at the world. I felt like I’d been robbed of the one person who loved and was proud of me, the one person I ran home to and could talk to about my day. I stopped caring after my dad was gone. The world became darker and I became angrier, wallowing in my grief.

The chaos eventually culminated in me having a car crash which killed my close friend

The chaos eventually culminated in me having a car crash which killed my close friend. He was a friend I met lap dancing, a successful guy in Birmingham. We lived a decadent lifestyle together. One night after drinking at a club, I decided to drive us home and, just after dropping his friend off, I came off the road and drove straight into a tree.

He was older than me and had five children. The thing that hurt above everything was knowing the pain they had to go through, particularly having gone through something similar myself. It felt catastrophic.

I deservedly went to prison for that, an environment that was totally alien to me. I’d always been a good girl, and nobody I knew had ever been in any serious trouble. I remember just after leaving court, during the height of winter, we got stuck in gridlock traffic for eight hours. I was so naive, I hadn’t thought to bring my coat with me. The other girl in there with me said “I’m rattling”, and I responded “Yeah, I’m freezing”. I was going to get eaten alive.

I found myself having nervous breakdowns over the guilt and shame

Inside, with no way to self-medicate, I found myself having nervous breakdowns over the guilt and shame I was carrying. Concerned, one of the prison officers suggested I access some emotional support through Forward (then called Rapt)’s four month intensive counselling course.

Being so focused on the differences between me and the other participants, I struggled with the programme in the beginning. With my ego in the way, it was impossible to engage. But then one day some heroin came onto the wing, and I realised what I was capable of. Despite never trying it before, I went looking for it three times before one of the other prisoners eventually gave me some. I didn’t really feel the effects of it to be honest, but that was still my prison rock bottom. It could have been game over for me. It showed me that I was really no different to anyone else, I’d just been exposed to different things throughout my privileged life. While that was quite a tough way to have a wake-up call, it was ultimately a useful, beautiful process.

After successfully completing Forward’s treatment programme at HMP Send, I became a peer mentor with them. I would say that’s when my journey to where I am now really started. Being a peer mentor reintroduced me to the person I was before all of the mayhem began. And though I was still battling the guilt and shame, I managed to complete the rest of my fourteen month sentence with no further issues.

Prison had shown me that many people aren’t as lucky as I am

When I came out, I was a bit institutionalised and feeling fairly directionless. I still felt so ashamed and unlovable because of what I had done. I started a business briefly but within three months fell pregnant to a man I’d been with since before prison. We soon broke up, and I found myself at a crossroads. Now a single mother, I had to decide between following my heart and helping people, or making money by returning to the corporate world.

Before long, a voluntary position fell on lap. Against my expectations, they were keen to take me on. It was a role with The Sisters Project, mentoring young women when they transition out of prison and into the community. I absolutely loved it and couldn’t believe how much the women responded to me as an ex-prisoner.

After that I got a job with User Voice running national youth offending projects. Through this high impact albeit low paid work, I slowly started building up my self-esteem as well as my knowledge and network.

It was during this period that I got the idea for my business. Prison had shown me that many people aren’t as lucky as I am, to have strong support networks and the ability to make different choices in life. I saw that some people need a lot of wraparound support in order to make better decisions for themselves, and that there are real and tangible systemic issues which act as a barrier to people going straight. Doing probation consultation for User Voice, I also learnt that what these people wanted above all else was people like me, who’d been through the process, to give them advice on things like resettlement and accessing jobs.

The New Leaf Initiative was created to fill that gap. I set it up as a Community Interest Company (CIC) to support and directly employ people with criminal convictions away from crime and into work via a linear pathway of interventions through our social enterprises, including the New Leaf Network, which sits under our newly incorporated New Leaf Co-operative CIC. The Network functions as a peer support community of people with criminal convictions, from business owners to those who are fresh out of prison today. 

You might have done loads of work on yourself in custody, but that’s just one chapter.

New Leaf was formed back in 2014, and since then it’s gone from strength to strength. We’ve now helped over 650 people in the community access work experience, training, qualifications and employment opportunities after leaving prison. We have 40 core members of the Network who meet on a regular basis, and we recently had an amazing black-tie conference and awards ceremony online due to Covid which had a terrific turnout, bringing people from all over the country together to celebrate the skills and accolades of lived expertise within the Criminal Justice System. We now hope to grow as a national resource for criminal justice commissioners, professionals and researchers.

As a single mum, it’s hard running a business particularly given I was doing a degree at Warwick Uni for the first five years of getting New Leaf off the ground but it’s always felt like more of a calling than work. The day might come when it fails, but I will just have to be resilient. That’s another thing my prison experience taught me: how resilient we all are. Given the gravity of my crime, I genuinely wanted to die myself once. But that would’ve been all too easy; the hardest thing to do is face it all. Back then, I set myself a challenge: to see how many people I can help and to leave a positive legacy before I shuffle off this mortal coil. So that’s what I’m doing with New Leaf. And I’m fortunate enough to be doing it with some of the most lovely, authentic people I’ve ever met. My team are the real heroes and each so much more than their pasts.

My advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position would be: keep investing in yourself. You might have done loads of work on yourself in custody, but that’s just one chapter. Get knee deep in courses, tap into positive networks like New Leaf, and surround yourself with networks of people who want to see you do well. Volunteer! I’m really passionate about volunteering; it’s especially great if you don’t know what you want to do. Get busy. The busier you get, the more you’ll figure out the reason for your existence, and that’s a great stepping stone towards lasting change and a level of happiness you could never have dreamed possible.

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