Just Visiting …..by Barbara Burton, founder of BehindBras

Through our work we want to provide a platform for powerful storytelling and we get to meet many incredible individuals with important stories to tell. In her second guest blog Barbara Burton shares her experience returning to prison to share the work of her social enterprise, BehindBras.

Isn’t it funny when you get that feeling of déjà vu? The weird sense you have been somewhere before. I had been here before. This time under entirely different circumstances.

It’s a very sunny day. In fact, it was a very sunny day last time I came to this prison – but on that occasion I arrived in the back of a prison van (or ‘sweat box’ as it’s nicknamed) travelling back from court.

Not today. I’m the visitor, not the prisoner.

A large white van with small windows – like the ones you sometimes see on TV news or stuck in traffic; I was one of only two women. We were both given a white package. “What’s that for?” I asked. “This is going to be a long journey, you may need it if you want the toilet,” the officer replied. Gulp. Was this the other ‘passenger’s’ first time too? Was she going to use the ‘bag’? Certainly it was my first time and ‘no’ I wasn’t going to use the ‘bag’.

‘I can’t help wondering what kind of reaction I’ll get, as someone who used to be on the other side of the gate.’

It all feels so strange this time around – poles apart from my first stopover at this prison. I’m here now on BehindBras business, to talk to prison officers, serving prisoners and the Governor. Recruiting women to take part in the BehindBras – a social enterprise – training programme.  Wanting feedback on how many women are interested in the fashion industry. How many women want to learn lingerie skills? How we can help them on the outside to find employment. I can’t help wondering what kind of reaction I’ll get, as someone who used to be on the other side of the gate.

It’s all coming back now.  You get up at a certain time, do this at a certain time, do that at a certain time. Activities; lunch; bang-up; activities; tea time; lock- up.  Sleep.  A daily routine repeated for 13 months.

On reflection, some officers called you by a number and some respectfully called you by your first name. You can’t generalise really. Some treated you as a human being- a mother, partner. Others forgot or chose not to remember. I often asked myself, whether part of my prison sentence was to be punished by officers, talked down to as if I were a child. On one occasion I was told if I didn’t obey the rules – I was running two minutes late for roll call – that I would find myself re-offending on the outside as I did not know how to obey rules.  Rules are there not to be broken and if I didn’t obey rules then I would find myself back in prison! Little did she know ….

Today I’m the visitor!

Our meeting took place in a small office of the ‘manufacturing unit’. The officer, especially pleased to see me, listens as I explain how BehindBras aims to help women get involved in the fashion and creative industries. That there are courses in the area, the lingerie women could make. And importantly, what type of woman is suitable to be a BehindBras learner.

It’s all going well (I tell myself). Enthusiasm, smiles, planning next steps – the ‘wow’ factor. “Would I like to meet the women on the textiles programme?”  Of course I would…..

20 women busy making prison garments, towels, sheets and laundry bags. I‘m stunned by how skilled they are. On machines, cutting at the table. The equipment they’re using. The singing.

That’s not how I remember it. I don’t remember happy faces and I certainly don’t remember people enjoying their work. Homemade curtains add a homely touch. Wow…  Now they’re singing Bruce Springsteen tunes too!

I wander around chatting to a handful of women at their sewing machines. It seems the room is full of women who used to work in factories on the outside. They’re keen dressmakers. Other women have taken up textiles because they have a creative side and are in class to learn more about sewing.

Then I explain the reason for my visit. They like the idea. They get it. A few ask in-depth questions about the programme – their interest is overwhelming.

Relief. Now time to take the plunge.

The big reveal. I didn’t plan it this way but they become my audience and I want to drop a bombshell. I want them to realise there is life after prison. That rehabilitation means it’s up to you to make changes in your life after release…. no one else can do this for you.

“I’m passionate about this programme because I’ve been to prison. That’s how I came up with BehindBras. I’m here to inspire and motivate. There is hope for everyone. It’s not going to be easy but it’s worth it.”

Silence. Eyes wide open. Disbelief – nothing said for about a second – total silence….

I go into reflective mode – all my thoughts into overdrive. I’ve come a long way from the woman who sat in the court room, the woman known as a number, the routine of prison life: eat, sleep, repeat!  The woman who the prison officer threatened for being two minutes late for roll call.

The word ‘rehabilitation’ in my eyes becomes two words – ‘self empowerment’.  So there it is. Confirmation – my idea, BehindBras, will work.

Today I am so much more than just a visitor.

BehindBras launches its first ever signature bra and new website soon.

Follow founder Barbara Burton on Twitter: @BehindBras

Read Barbara’s First Blog: Using Lingerie to Support Women from the Prison Gate into Work

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