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18 November, 2013

Carlotta’s Story: Women in Prison

Carlotta Allum: the future of Stretch is uncertain (Photo: Pete Sherrard)
Carlotta Allum: the future of Stretch is uncertain (Photo: Pete Sherrard)

Extracts of a speech by Carlotta Allum, Founder of STRETCH, at the event: Finding Our Voice: Speaking Up For Women in Prison, Tuesday, 14 October, organized by Initiatives of Change-UK.

It feels like an auspicious time, completely by accident, it is exactly, to the DAY, 16 years since I was taken to prison in Los Angeles, United States. I was arrested on 14 October 1997, and placed in custody the day after. So, how did a nice, well brought up girl like me end up serving time in prison? And what was it that inspired me to forge a career in the welfare of prisoners.

I am the youngest of three children, born to quite liberal parents in Manchester. I drifted a bit as a teenager, I was given a free rein, really. My friends were mostly my brothers’ friends, two or three years older than me, so I was soon drinking and smoking dope and all that. I had a huge appetite for getting high, which I wore as a badge of honour! When I was 16, the Acid House scene exploded in Manchester. It was an amazing and creative time and I felt lucky and special to be part of it. I still do. I was going to the Hacienda nightclub three or four times a week, dating drug dealers, skipping school, lying to my parents regularly. I still managed to get decent grades so there wasn’t anything too much for them to worry about. At 17 and 18, my boyfriends could sometimes earn £1000 a week. We were having a ball: new clothes, cars, holidays, we wanted for nothing and everybody loved us! I fancied myself as a bit of a gangsters’ moll I suppose. It didn’t feel like crime, everyone was having such a good time.

Partying hard

Over the next few years, things did turn darker, but I didn’t really notice, as I was so busy getting high – a few friends disappeared to prison, and I wrote to them, it was kind of romantic. And the drugs had turned harder, more and more people were taking heroin, or getting ill. I went off to university and massively under achieved – It was just an excuse to party hard in London. After university I was in a pretty low place. I knew someone, who had a business, an empire, importing and exporting drugs and I agreed to act as mule. No doubt about it, I wanted to do it. I needed the money, I wanted two weeks in California, it seemed a no-brainer, why would I get caught? Lots of girls had done it before me.

Unbeknown to me, the guy that put me on the plane was already being watched, and in fact, he was stopped with my flight details on him – when I landed at LAX they knew someone was on that plane, I was a lamb to the slaughter. Like so many drug mules are.

I had a terrifying and surreal wait in the airport hotel for the man who was going to come and meet me, 24 hours with armed FBI agents, in case there was a shoot out. Of course no one came, and they had to take me to the Metropolitan Detention Centre where I spent the next eight and half months.

One of the lucky ones

For the first few months I thought, and I was told that I could be there for 10 years. I was in shock obviously, but it soon became clear that I was one of the lucky ones there. I watched other inmates arrive and they had no one or nothing. I had a constant stream of letters, phone calls, books to read and even a few visits. My parents came three times and friends of the family even dropped in to give me support.

The routine medical at the prison had shown me to be pregnant, another massive thing for us all to deal with. My mum was even making plans to come and live in a trailer park near the prison and raise the baby if I couldn’t go home.

Things were happening behind the scenes anyhow. I was lucky that they had caught the man that put me on the plane and I could make a deal, him for me. My parents remortgaged the house and put up $30,000 bail and I was allowed to come home.

Putting all behind

Once back, I just concentrated on trying to put it all behind. I was told that the crime would only stay on my record in the US, it was before the Criminal Record Buraeau (CEB) checks came in. I concentrated on being a new mum, and then trained to be a teacher.

I was thinking a lot about prisoners, I was volunteering in a local prison in their job club, helping ladies write CVs and practice phone skills, I was already wanting to put something back. I wasn’t telling anyone about what had happened to me unless I had to. A teacher training agency reported me to the home office and I had to fight to keep my name off List 99, a list for people not allowed to work with vulnerable groups. I was fine, I had a stack of good references, but I was shocked that a serious drugs offence was classed AS serious as a violent or sexual offence. That is still something I take issue with. I am a firm believer that drug crime and issues should be dealt with quite differently.

I had started to study for an MA in Museum Education and one of the projects was to do something socially aware, so I decided I wanted to take a group from Askham Grange women’s prison to Yorkshire Sculpture park, and write about it. I got funding from the Arts Council and through this support Stretch was born. That was ten years ago in September, another auspicious anniversary! It made perfect sense at the time. Like many ex-offenders, I started my own business because I did not want to have to keep explaining my criminal record, I didn’t want people to judge me.

Welfare of prisoners

Stretch set about to involve the offending community in museum and gallery education. I was bringing together my personal interests in the arts and culture and my growing obsession with the welfare of prisoners. I still wasn’t being honest with most people about why I was working with prisoners, it was very much on a need-to-know basis as I was worried that prisons would not let me in if they knew my past.

Of course, the criminal record checks found me in the end and some of the prisons said it was impossible for me to work there anymore. I felt really hurt and annoyed that institutions that claimed they were in the practice of rehabilitating people would not work with me, surely I was the living embodiment of rehabilitation!

Family relationships

This new honesty had to include everyone, even my own children, as obviously it would be no good if they found out through a newspaper or something. My two older girls, who were then 14 and 10, actually took it really well – children, I think, give you very straight-forward feedback, they bounce back their thought process and moral barometer – so I could see the thought process in my 10 year old. She thought prisons were full of bad people – I said: 'they are, on the whole, full of normal people who have been caught making a bad decision' – You could see she was thinking ‘well, my mum isn’t a bad person, so she must be right, prisoners are not bad people’ – and she accepted it , straight away – I am glad she won't ever really have that knee jerk prejudice about prisoners ever again. My experience was so obviously the driving force behind what I do – the older teenager said, ‘well that explains your obsession with prisons, and oh, by the way, you can never tell me off again!’

It has been a hard year for Stretch funding wise, for the first time in ten years not one of my applications in 2013 has been successful. A sign of the times, more and more charities are chasing less money. The future for Stretch is very uncertain.

Despite that I have become stronger in the last year and have become more and more interested in working with female prisoners, with their issues and with speaking up on criminal justice issues.

STRETCH works with the Sustainable Communities Programme of Initiatives of Change.

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