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'The women in prison reak you' can make or br; EX-JAILBIRD Hazel Cuthbert has produced a guide to help other women facing prison cope with the experience. She talks to chief reporter ADAM JUPP about life on the inside and how she hopes to put her experiences to good use.

Byline: ADAM JUPP

HAZEL Cuthbert says she can remember the moment she first set foot in prison.

But in reality, it is nothing more than a blur, a muddle of unnerving sights, sounds and even smells she was experiencing for the first time. To the guards booking her in, it was all in a day's work, a routine they had been through thousands of times before, as they quizzed her about her medical history and took her mugshot and fingerprints.

But all the while mother-oftwo Hazel was still in the daze she entered hours earlier, when the Newcastle Crown Court judge sentenced her to 18 months for "warehousing" drugs at her North Shields home.

"When he told me to stand up, that was when I just went numb and I didn't hear what was being said to me. I can't even remember the sentence being given," she says.

"I just remember standing, staring straight ahead and nothing else and I just felt one arm on my arm and the guard turned me round and shoved me through and there were two women officers and they just cuffed me. From then on in, it was a new world, a different world, it was something I had never seen before. When they say 'send them down,' you actually do go downstairs and people might not actually realise that.

"When I got down there, all my clothes were taken off me. I had to take everything off so I was naked and I had to stand there, then they asked me to squat because apparently people pack themselves with all sorts of things like drugs and mobile phones.

"Can you imagine how it makes you feel? Then, you get put in a holding cell for about four hours, or however long it takes."

Hazel had reached the age of 47 without ever being in trouble with the police but crippling financial issues led to her agreeing to store drugs in her home.

"I didn't use drugs but was doing what is called 'warehousing' and it was all just to pay-off some serious debt problems that I had but, not being a criminal, it wasn't very long before I got caught.

"I held my hands up to it and accepted it wasn't the right way to go about things but by that stage it was in the system and I had to go to court.

"Once I got a solicitor, it got to the point where it was going to crown court and on the last appearance before I got jailed, the judge told me 'next time you see me, bring a bag'."

Like many women who enter the criminal justice system for the first time, Hazel was petrified, consumed by a cocktail of guilt, shame and anxiety. She had only ever known two people who had gone to jail and her knowledge of life in a female prison was restricted to TV re-runs of Bad Girls.

And when she found herself in the foyer of HMP Low Newton, the nightmare became a reality, as she recalls.

"When you arrive, you get put through a three-hour induction process, where you are photographed, you get your fingerprints taken and are asked all sorts of questions.

"It is all going through your head but you don't know where you are and what is going on. The staff do this every day of their life and to them it is just a process but to you, who hasn't done it before, it is a massive thing.

"You feel like at that moment you stop being a human being, you are now just a number and part of the process.

"Then you get taken into the main jail and, again, every single thing is new to you and you have to learn about it.

"Nobody prepares you for the noises, the slamming, the banging and girls screaming at night. The people in there are used to it but to you it is new and nothing gets you ready for it."

Hazel put her time inside to good use and was viewed as a model prisoner, which led first to her being moved to a lower security jail, then to her release on licence.

It was during one of her meetings with probation officer Debra Fellows that she was persuaded to produce a guide about her experiences.

Written in hand on a few sheets of paper, it was only intended for one specific female offender, who was also facing her first spell behind bars. B received by woman in ques was taken to official handb other "bad girl to their successfully rehabilitated. N rolled-out nati "For examp days, you ar induction wing the majority o addicts, so the through detox, "You can screaming an going through process but n But it was so well-Debra and the stion, the decision turn it into an book to advise s" how to respond sentence and become Now, it is set to be onally.

le, in the first five re put on an g and I would say of girls are drug ey are also going " says Hazel. n hear girls nd shaking and the withdrawal none of that was explained to m "If someone isn't nice but going to be lik been easier." me. e had said to me 'it this is what it is ke,' it would have She adds: "T that prison tha anything about set of rules you "These aren the prison staff there. It is the who make or b Hazel's g inmates not to they smoke or have all your b no one until yo There's a world in at you don't know t and there are a u have to live by. n't just the rules of f but of the girls in e women in there reak you."

guide advises o tell others that r else "they will aki" and to "trust ou settle in."

She warns "do not join the gym until you are allocated to a permanent wing, the reasons will become apparent" and "don't let anyone just walk in your cell. Let it be known they come by invitation only, not just because they think they can."

The guide, called More Than Just Surviving the Criminal Justice System, advises women about what to expect in the first few hours of arriving at prison and how to cope with their sentence.

It also addresses practical issues, ranging from what to wear to court to the kind of tobacco roller to carry and jail slang terms.

As well as trying to adapt to the tough prison environment, the life left behind by female prisoners can be an equally powerful source of stress and anxiety, which is another issue addressed by the document.

Hazel said: "My children are grown-up and I knew the people I was leaving behind could function and cope but for a woman with a couple of little kids, they have got all that to worry about when they go to jail as well."

The guide even has a chart for people to write down useful numbers for their partners on the outside, who may never have had to pay bills and run a household on their own.

Hazel concludes: "I was the last person you would imagine to have spent time in prison and yet I did.

"I hope this guide will help women like me who have never had any dealings with the criminal justice system and have no idea what to expect if they are sentenced to a custodial sentence, to help them through their first few weeks of prison life.

"I've turned my life around and with the help of my probation officer, I've put my experiences to good use."

Prison slang terms HAZEL'S guide includes a prison "slang dictionary." Examples include: Pad - cell Room spin - unannounced room searches Burn - tobacco Lark - someone believed to tell tales to officers Seg - punishment block Shipped in - moved into jail from another prison Pouching -- hiding tablets in your mouth The seg - punishment book Screw - officer Souble bubble - if you borrow half an ounce of tobacco, you have to pay double back THE guide produced by Hazel comes at a time when the Government has pledged more support to vulnerable women offenders.

Justice minister Maria Eagle announced a commitment to reduce women's prison places by 400 before March 2012, to enable funding to be diverted for specialist services in the community. Ms Eagle says it is recognised prison remains the best place for dangerous, seriously persistent and violent offenders. But the majority of women offenders have multiple and complex needs, including mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse, sexual and domestic abuse and concerns about their children's welfare. And, following a report by Baroness Corston into females in the criminal justice system in March 2007, the view has been taken that these needs can be better met in the community to address their offending behaviour and divert them from crime. Ms Eagle MP, ministerial champion for women and criminal justice matters, said: We have already made good progress in taking forward our strategy to divert women from crime.

"Over the last two years I have ensured there is a specific push to direct resources to stop vulnerable women from becoming trapped in a cycle of crime. Women's offending is a complex phenomenon which burden's society, damage children and families, and creates misery for the women themselves.

"Earlier this year I announced pounds 15.6m of new funding over two years to invest in women's community projects delivered by the third sector and other specialist provision for women in the community. "These projects provide services for female offenders who are not a danger to the public, and those who are at risk of offending. We need to have a system that reforms offenders as well as punishes." The Government's Strategy for Diverting Women Away from Crime gives a commitment to reducing the women's prison estate by 300 places by March 2011 p to pounds 5m and 400 places by March 2012. There is also a pledge to provide up to improve Approved Premises accommodation for women offende are being closely supervised on rele from custody Funding of pounds 1m will a made available for a pilot project to the benefits of early intervention for women with multiple needs from th point of contact with the criminal ju system.

ers who ease also be o explore r heir first ustice The booklet, More Than Just Surviv Criminal Justice System, is one exa here in the North East of action bein taken to address the issues faced b females when they face going to pr well as helping them ease back into outside life upon their release and p them offending again in the future. Produced in partnership with North Probation Area, NEPACS, the North Tyneside Crime and Disorder Reduc and Misuse of Drugs Partnership an website hiwecanhelp, it has been w by Hazel and another ex-offender. ving the ample ng by rison, as oprevent humbria hction nd written Hazels' probation officer, Debra Fellows, said "This booklet is a good example of partnership working that will help make a difference for women in the criminal justice system. It aims to support women who are entering the justice system for the first time and provides first-hand experience from offenders who have already gone through the process.

"This guide will make a difference to the way in which women offenders are able to respond to the demands of their sentence and their rehabilitation once back in the community." Roweena Russell, from the North Tyneside Crime, Disorder and Misuse of Drugs Partnership and hiwecanhelp, said: "It has been a pleasure to develop this resource with our partner organisations. Also, working with former offenders, Hazel and Sarah, has been a great experience. The hiwecanhelp team are delighted to be involved in this work and will host the guide in the criminal justice section of the website."

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INSIDE SUPPORT - Ex-offender Hazel Cuthbert, right, who has produced a guide to help women sent to prison for the first time, with probation officer Debra Fellows.
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 8, 2010
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