Everyone punished for their crime deserves a fresh start - which is why Michelle Nicholson spends her life helping women in prison to shape a new life for themselves on their release.
Michelle, 42, knows only too well how difficult it is when the prison gates open and an inmate finally walks free. She served a 14-year sentence for her role in the brutal murder of her drug addict father. Michelle, from Bridlington, was jailed at 22 and on her release six years ago was determined to use her life to help other prisoners to go straight.
Her Sheffield=charity, Key Changes - Unlocking Women’s Potential, this month won the social impact category of the Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber awards and in just a year has mentored 110 female prisoners being released into Sheffield, Barnsley and Rotherham.
Q. You were found guilty of your father’s murder. How did that make you feel?
A. It made me feel hopeless. I had pleaded not guilty throughout and passed a lie detector test. It will take more than a lifetime to come to terms with.
Q. Do you feel remorse for your father’s death?
A. I would do anything to turn back the clock and change events which led to that day.
Q. Did you love your father?
A. Yes I did. I loved him more than anyone in my life at that time and I still do.
Q. What affect did your role in his death have on you and your mother?
A. My mother stands by me as she knows how close me and my father were.
Q. What was life like in prison?
A. Newhall is a very large and intimidating prison. The women wore a bravado mask. Many of them have two or more mental health problems like depression and anxiety. But they looked after each other. If you needed anything, like getting your clothes ironed for court, there was someone you could go to. Most of the chaplains in prison offer humanity in a place where it is often forgotten. There is also a listening system; prisoners are there to help others who may be suicidal. It’s run, with the help of the Samaritans, to save lives in prison. I was part of the listening team in HMP Newhall. And there are some good prison officers. I won’t forget for their kindness.
Q. Your daughter was six years old. Who looked after her and did she visit you in prison?
A. My mother looked after her and, because of transport issues, came to see me every three months. I wrote to her most days of my sentence and spoke to her nearly every day.
Q. Do the two of you have a good relationship?
A. Yes, I was a single mum when I first went to prison and so we were very close. We are still close and she is still affected by the separation.
Q. She became a solicitor so she could help women in your situation. Do you feel proud of her?
A. Yes of course. I think she is incredible to become the woman she is considering the events that happened in her life.
Q. Your charity gives women with a criminal record a fresh start. Is that regardless of the crime they committed?
A. Yes. We believe everyone can change and get past their conviction. We take a kind and tolerant approach and help them with issues they may have.
Q. How did you make a fresh start on your release six years ago?
A. I went to a new city. I was able to find a place to live and got a job with a crime reduction charity as a result of a housing project I had set up in prison to try to put a stop to women being released as homeless. Because of my commitment I was soon fast-tracked to a managerial position. My daughter was there for me on my release, She helped me with things like how to use a mobile phone. We lived together for a year until she moved in with her partner. Apart from that, there was very little support. There were huge gaps in my life to deal with, too. Making new friends was very difficult. It has taken me a number of years to find new friends who are accepting of my life.
Q. What is life like for you now?
A. I have a good relationship with my family, a mortgage, pets, a network of friends in Sheffield and a great team of volunteers. But I continue to strive against stigma and feel I am still rebuilding my life. I have put everything into my work. I work long hours including weekends and put my whole life into making opportunities for women leaving prison.
Q. Why do you do it? What drives you?
A. I was afraid to go to prison and expected women to be bad people like the media portrays. However what I found was a prison full of broken women. Many had experienced abuse and negative relationships from an early age. My friend Ronnie, who I met while was on remand at Low Newton, was happy, caring and considerate but she self-harmed because of the hatred she felt about herself. She had been abused as a child. She found it hard to cope in the outside world and re offended just to get back to prison. She ended up in one of the harshest prisons and took her life. She will be remembered by very few.
Q. Already, your charity is seeing results. Tell me about some of them - and the success stories
A. We have women who have been prolific offenders - they re-offended for long periods of time. We help them with the struggle of resettling into the community. One woman suffered domestic violence but is turning her life around and now helps us with our educational presentations scheme. She is proud to be part of something worthwhile.
Women say they engage as we are non-judgemental and accepting - and they feel they are equal to me, their mentor, knowing they have walked the same path, which is important to them.
Q. Re-offending rates are high among women released from prison. Why?
A. Women are released facing many issues and find it hard to fit in their community. This, coupled with poor coping mechanisms or mental health issues, may result in poor choices which may lead to re offending. We try to empower women before release and support them a so that they can get through these problems.
Q. How do you feel when you walk back into New Hall Prison, where you were incarcerated for 14 years, to mentor women?
A. At first it did feel strange, but now I am getting used to being a visitor. I feel privileged that the prison allows me this trust and thank both the chaplaincy department and the governor at that prison.
Q. What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?
A. Clients thanking us for the difference we have made in their lives. When they tell me they have never known so much support and understanding, it hits home that we are making real impact.