After committing a non-violent crime when she was 18, entrepreneur Mariam Mola, now 27, was sentenced to 12 weeks in HM Prison Holloway last year. Ahead of Holloway’s closure, she tells Stylist what life is like to be pregnant and behind bars
As told to: Corinne Redfern
Photography: Sarah Brimley
I went to prison in a Reiss jumpsuit, newly gelled nails and a terrified expression on my face. It might seem odd to remember what I was wearing, but everything about that day has been etched into my memory ever since. I’d woken up in my parents’ house, nervous about spending a few hours in court but determined to make a good impression – and convinced I’d be home again a few hours later. I’d made a mistake, I’d explain how sorry I was, and I’d never screw up again. But by 11am, I’d been found guilty of fraud and sentenced to at least 12 weeks behind bars. And it was all for a crime I’d committed when I was 18, when the man I was dating started setting up fake identities and stealing strangers’ details – and I went along with it, only to discover he’d listed fraudulent businesses in my name too. I’d even handed myself into the police after he was arrested because I knew I’d broken the law, but they’d let me go.
Now, seven years later, I was in a court room, watching my mum start to heave, her sobs echoing round the room. Handcuffed, policemen led me to a cell below. They had to wait for a female employee to become available in order to escort me across London – and they didn’t have enough of those. So I sat on my own for six hours, scared and hungry. And eight months pregnant.
Life behind bars isn’t like you see on TV – or at least, it isn’t in the UK, anyway. I was sent to HM Prison Holloway, the UK’s oldest (and western Europe’s largest) women’s prison, which closes this summer. Upon arrival, I was taken through the labyrinth of concrete hallways to my small, dirty cell, which I shared with three other women. There were four levels: the ground floor was for people with heavy drug issues and mental health problems, the second and fourth floors were for regular prisoners, and the third floor was for women using methadone to get over heroin addiction. Then there was the separate D-Wing, which was for long-term prisoners who behaved themselves.
I’d heard people claim that Holloway wasn’t fit for purpose, and they were right. It was overcrowded, filthy and dangerous. I feared for my life and my unborn child every day that I was in there. We each had a single bed with a thin, stained mattress pressed up against a wall and there was an exposed metal toilet in the corner of the cell. If you needed to use it, your cellmates would just turn away and burn incense to mask the smell. It was completely humiliating, but I quickly learned that prisoners don’t get privacy. There weren’t any uniforms, but you could keep the outfit you were sent in with. If you needed new clothes, you were only allowed to buy them from a prison-issued catalogue. If you couldn’t afford them, you were forced to rewash the outfit you arrived in in the sink and let it dry out overnight. Within a couple of weeks, my jumpsuit was too tight over my bump, so I leant it to a younger girl. When you’re sharing all your space anyway, you quickly learn to pull together and help each other out.
My cell mates taught me how to cope in jail, showing me tips such as diluting my bottle of Victoria’s Secret spray so that it lasted longer, and the officers smuggled me toast because prolonged morning sickness meant I couldn’t keep anything else down. But most of the time, Holloway felt like a boarding school gone wrong – grown women in their 40s having fights with teenagers as everyone tried to find their place in the hierarchy.
Almost everyone was behind bars for non-violent crimes, such as benefit fraud, but prison can bring out the worst in you and I was constantly scared. Bullying was relentless and women would push in front of you in the queue for the phones in an attempt to assert their authority. I quickly learned to just calmly walk round and take my place again. If you let the bullies get away with things, everyone would know you were weak. There was also a lot of drama. Sexual relationships were forbidden, but they happened anyway – it wasn’t a matter of your sexuality, it was just about passing the time. The same went for drugs. Sure, addicts were supposedly kept on a separate floor, but people would still sniff deodorant in an attempt to get high.
The boredom was overwhelming. Every morning, the alarm would go off at 7.30am and everyone would rush for the shower. If you had a job or you were lucky enough to be on an educational course – such as Maths, English or Business – you’d begin that at 8.30am. Everyone wanted to be on those courses, but they were underfunded and oversubscribed with month-long waiting lists, so most people would just go to the gym or stay locked in their cells. I got a job in the kitchen but the food was old and out-of-date and just looking at it made me feel sick. From midday until 2pm, you were locked in your cell for lunch – which generally consisted of cold, congealed stew that I couldn’t bring myself to touch. Then it was back to work, followed by dinner at 5pm, after which you were locked back in your tiny, stagnant cell again. By 7pm, I was always starving. Being so heavily pregnant made me exhausted and while the other women in my cell tried to help by staying quiet when I needed to nap, the constant fear started making me bleed. I was only allowed a medical check-up once a week, but one of the nurses eventually referred me to the nearby hospital – where a midwife insisted that I stayed until giving birth. Officers stood outside my door 24/7 but they were kind and didn’t handcuff me.
Legally-speaking, no baby can be born a prisoner but approximately 100 babies are born behind bars every year in England and Wales. You can keep your baby with you for 18 months, which is enough time to have a huge impact on a child’s development. I heard so many stories of children who had spent their first year and a half in this highly segregated environment only to go back into the ‘real world’ and cry whenever they were in wide, open spaces. And there’s no middle ground – once your child reaches 18 months, they’re taken away from you and placed in foster care if you have no family who can take them in.
Holloway’s Mother and Baby Unit closed down in 2013, so one week after I had my daughter, I was sent 80 miles away to the nearest prison that could accommodate us both. There, you have a room to yourself, but there aren’t any activities and there’s no support – you’re just locked up on your own with your baby, 24/7. I’ve heard it’s hard to be a new mother with support so you can only imagine what I felt like all alone. That’s when the loneliness really set in. Holloway was horrific – feeling so scared does something terrible to your mental health – but being sent so far away from my family, as many other women now have been due to Holloway’s closure, was almost as bad. It cost £65 for a train ticket from London, so I felt completely isolated. As it stands, nearly half of all women who go to prison will reoffend. But that doesn’t surprise me anymore. When you’re cut off from the world for so long, it’s hard to still feel part of it. All the lines have been blurred.
After six weeks in the Mother and Baby Unit and a total of three months in prison, I was released on ‘licence’ – which means you’re not allowed to stay out after 8pm and if you get a job, it has to be approved by your probation officer.
I’ve been out of prison for almost a year now but I can’t stop thinking about my time in Holloway. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling of being locked up and forgotten about by society. I try to pay for as many magazine subscriptions as I can afford for the women I know from Holloway who have now been sent to other prisons, far away from their families, and I hope to work with external support groups such as Women4Women and Birth Companions. They used to come into Holloway and talk to the inmates and it often felt like they were the only people who cared about supporting us and changing our lives for the better. But vulnerable women shouldn’t have to wait until they’re in prison to get help. That’s why I founded a new initiative, Mentor MatcHER, upon my release. I want to pair young women in need of guidance with older women who have the experience to mentor them through their professional lives. I’d had the idea in prison, and had spent weeks in my cell coming up with lists of people who I wanted to work with. Less than a fortnight after my release, I’d looked up the details for Amanda Wakeley’s PR, and rang him up out of the blue – asking whether she’d potentially be up for mentoring somebody. Amanda agreed, and since then, I’ve signed up over 60 high profile mentors, and we’ve had hundreds of applications from women of all ages and backgrounds who need that kind of qualified, dedicated support in order to get their life in order.
For me, it took going to prison to come up with an idea that could turn my life around, but I want to stop women ending up behind bars in the first place. It’s not just prison reform we need, it’s changing the way society treats women from disadvantaged backgrounds. And it’s about providing support for those who don’t always know how to ask for it.”