Life After Prison: A Young Woman On What Happened When She Got Out Of Jail

Photo: Wang Lunyi / EyeEm.
Shows like 'Orange Is The New Black' have ignited interest in women's experience of the prison system in recent years, and it's intriguing hearing about life on the inside: what prisoners eat, how they behave, and why they're there in the first place.
Less discussed and TV-friendly, however, is the difficult work of rebuilding a life after being released. As you'd expect, it's not as straightforward as just slotting back into your past life or finding a new job. Half of employers wouldn't consider hiring an ex-offender, according to a 2016 YouGov survey. Some companies now run initiatives to encourage ex-offenders back into work – The Exceptionals offers a directory for businesses looking to employ them – and consultancies like Working Chance exist for this sole purpose. But still, just a quarter (26.5%) of those who have done time join the workforce after release, according to government figures.
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Ex-offenders frequently face rejection, repeated knockbacks and being ignored altogether. This is despite the fact that getting a job on release is proven to reduce reoffending. It's this experience that prompted one ex-offender to go her own way. Brenda Birungi, 31, from southeast London, is a poet who goes by the stage name Lady Unchained. In 2008, at the age of 21, she spent 11 months in prison and five months under supervision. She had no previous offences or knowledge of the prison system, and struggled to find a job upon release.
Frustrated and despairing, she founded Unchained Poetry, a platform for people with experience of the prison system to share their stories and meet fellow artists. She talks openly about her experience of the criminal justice system, runs workshops for fellow ex-offenders, hosts live events, and hopes to eventually work with women inside. The aim is to encourage more ex-offenders to share their stories and prove there is more to a person than their criminal conviction. Here, she tells Refinery29 how she rebuilt her life after prison through poetry.
My prison sentence was stressful and stripped me of everything I thought I was before, of a career, my identity, and stopped me finding out where I was meant to be. When I was arrested I'd already planned out my life – and prison wasn't part of it. I'd planned to get a career, maybe settle down and learn how to drive. Whereas when I went to prison I quickly realised that all my college qualifications, all the school stuff I'd done, was not going to be beneficial once I got out.
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I was never scared about leaving prison, but there was a fear of getting a job and how people would look at me with my conviction. I'd taken the steps while I was inside to start prepping before my release and identified youth work as something I could do. I already had a CV, but even [the advisor I spoke to] was worried about my prospects. She'd say things like, "I'm just really pissed off because I know you're going to find it hard getting a job, but you're actually an amazing person."

I was turned away for countless jobs I was overqualified for. I lost so much confidence in who I was and what I could offer society.

For a year or two after being released (in December 2009), I was turned away for countless jobs I was overqualified for. I lost so much confidence in who I was and what I could offer society. Eventually I started volunteering at a charity called Body & Soul, which was where I realised I could do something with my experience, rather than just sit on it and be angry that I was in prison. Charities are amazing because they're supportive and don't judge you. Their approach is often, "Okay this has happened, how do we deal with it?"
I hid my convictions from the Job Centre for a long time because I didn't want to be judged. I remember asking why I wasn't hearing anything back from employers, and at that point I told them the truth. I was overqualified due to my work experience in volunteering, but often didn't even get a "thank you for your application". It was like I'd never applied.
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It's harder for female ex-offenders to come out and talk about their history.

Depression played a huge role during this time, but identifying and understanding this is something I've only done this year. As an ex-offender you've already been given a label, and if you're struggling with depression, anxiety or anything like that, you don't want another one. So you pretend it's not happening or mask those issues in other ways. But once you finally identify what's wrong, it's easier to find the right help and support.
If I'm honest, I wasn't into poetry before going to prison. I liked Maya Angelou but never thought I could write like her. It was just something that came out of my conviction. During prison I began documenting how I felt in a little book, just writing "this made me angry" or "this made me really happy". It was a form of therapy. Then one day while volunteering at Body & Soul, someone asked if I write poetry after seeing my book. I said, "No, that's not poetry, just my thoughts". Soon enough, I was asked to read out one of my pieces.
After that I reached out to friends, people I viewed as better writers and established poets, whom I wanted to learn from, and started fortnightly sessions at my house. We'd have debates and then write about how these debates made us feel. That became a regular thing and we'd perform together. It was all a way to collaborate with other artists and express how we felt without getting in trouble. From there I got shortlisted for funding to design a community project that helps people from challenging backgrounds.
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Photographed by Jonathan Perugia.
Birungi on stage at The Roundhouse, London, for an event held by Safe Ground.
As an ex-offender, you're so used to hearing 'no' that you believe nothing is ever going to happen. But last August I had my first event and this year I started working with Arts Admin, who have helped with promotion and given me a venue to host events. I only have men involved at the moment, so I'm looking for female ex-offenders to take part and share their stories. It's harder for them to come out and talk about their history.
There are so many different crimes among women in prison. A woman may have attacked her partner, and what will never be pulled up in court is how many times that partner attacked her. Instead, that woman is so afraid to even share that in a statement that they'll just own up to attacking their partner and never reveal that their partner had been abusing them for months or years. Women are less likely to speak about things like this until you give them a safe space, so that's my main goal now.
Unchained has give me more confidence and opened me up to meeting like-minded people. People disconnect from you when you come out of prison, but now I know that I can tell my story and help somebody else. That's an opportunity I never had... I tell people they can't work with us if they don't have a criminal conviction, because I was turned away so many times because of my conviction. But if you do have a conviction, let's work together and help others who think their life will always be about their conviction.
I'd tell employers to give ex-offenders a chance. If you do, you'll see a change in that person and they'll then be able to help somebody else in a similar position. If you don't, you're only making us believe we're just criminals, we're just our conviction and we will never be anything else. Once you open a door for somebody, not just putting money in their pocket, you open a door for plans, a future and for them to think 'I can do this'.
The next #UnchainedNights is on 28th March 2019. Any poets or rappers wanting to share their story through the platform should contact Birungi via email (at officialunchainedpoetry@hotmail.com) or on Twitter.
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