In the Media

Inside the unit for the UK's most disturbed female offenders

PUBLISHED November 6, 2011

The Orchard is a medium-security hospital that rehabilitates women with convictions for violence. Sarah Boseley talks to some of them Marian looks like somebody you might exchange a smile with in a bus queue. Aged 43 and nicely dressed in a bright jumper, she has lovely eyes. Some years ago, she also formed the idea of bombing Tesco. "It suddenly came in my head that I should blow it up," she said. "I'd worked at the Tesco in question and I watched a lot of TV crime. I threatened them [in letters], saying: 'Watch out, there's a bomb coming your way ? boom.' Then I went on to the internet to look up how to make a bomb." She gives a small laugh of disbelief. "There's a page on it. It's monitored by the major crime squad, I think. So I was arrested by them." It wasn't only Tesco. Marian also sent bomb threats to her brother's wife and to her ex-husband's parents. The family is a different matter but she cannot explain why she targeted Tesco. "It was random. I'd like to say there was a deep, dark meaning ? but there wasn't. I sent them messages. Letters. 'The next one will blow up ? are you scared yet?'" This small, matronly woman ended up in Ashford prison. "I could only come out [of my cell] if there were three officers and everybody else was locked in their cells." After she was jailed, she says, "I seemed to get quite violent. I tried to grab people, strangle people, chuck things at people." Marian's life had reached its nadir. An intelligent, hard-working girl, she had been so derailed from the track most people travel along that she had to be treated as a violent criminal for her own and other people's safety. But the more you hear of her life, the more you have to wonder why somebody did not intervene long ago. Marian's tale, though it sounds extreme, is not unusual among the patients of the Orchard, a medium-security unit that is part of St Bernard's hospital in Ealing, west London. She now lives there and staff, with extreme kindness and care, are helping to repair the damage done since childhood so that one day she can reclaim her place in society. Marian was abused physically, sexually and emotionally from a young age. "I was three when the physical stuff started ? the earliest I can remember. I was hit on the head with a porcelain lampshade. I've still got the bump. "Nobody helped me. When I was 10 I asked my teacher how many pills it took to have an overdose. She took no notice. That night I took the whole tinful of medication [kept at home] with some milk. I was throwing up all night. Mum knew what I'd done and didn't take me to hospital." Was her mother aware that her father was abusing her? "She must have been," says Marian almost under her breath. She was the youngest child of three by some distance. "I stayed at school. In a way I put my heart into the education. I'd go up to my room and do tonnes of writing and try to avoid them. So I got reasonable grades. I could have gone the opposite way," she says. At 16 she got a job at the small Co-op across the road from her home, and at 21 she was married. Those were the good times. She went to night school, got typing qualifications and took a job as an invoice clerk. But she was made redundant and joined Woolworths as a night manager. Then one evening she started crying and couldn't stop. "They said go home. I can remember getting in my car and the next thing I remember I was in a hospital bed being told I took an overdose. So they brought me to see a psychiatrist. I didn't feel depressed so he just let me go. Then it happened again a month later and they took it more seriously." Marian began to go in and out of hospital, having breakdowns, recovering and getting ill again. "When I was in hospital for the first time, my husband had an appointment with my doctor. I was waiting outside and he came out, said goodbye, and the doctor brought me in his office. He said: 'I've got something to tell you ? your husband is divorcing you for unreasonable behaviour.' My husband didn't have the guts to tell me. It made me very unwell." She was about 24, she says. "We'd been trying for children and everything." She never saw him again. He sold the flat she had been living in and she moved into sheltered accommodation. In 1999 she got pregnant and had a baby girl. "At six days old she was taken away to foster parents. I could still see her but you can imagine how heartbreaking that was. I tried to persuade them not to but they had put her on the at-risk register before she was born. I never had any intentions of hurting her or anything." Could she have done so accidentally? "No, no." "I had visits and then I went to the mother-and-baby unit in Bristol, where I proved that I could look after her. I was allowed to bring her home. She was 10 months old. That went all right until I had a relapse. I just put her into care. It took three months to get her back. Then I had another relapse and she never came back. "I went to every family court but they had no intention of me keeping her. But I do have letter-box contact with her. I send letters and photos and birthday cards. The family write back and send photos." Her daughter is 11 now and pretty, she says. "I'm proud of her," she says. There is a slight pause. "It doesn't mean I don't miss her." Her baby was 18 months old when she saw her for the last time. Marian decided to prove everybody wrong and got a night job at Tesco. She stayed for a year and told nobody she had been ill, even though she sometimes had to take time off. Then she worked for Sainsbury's for four years, leaving to train as a healthcare assistant at the hospital where she had been treated. She was well and had been off medication for two years. She did a five-day course, but failed because she was not physically fit enough. Having given up a secure job, she was devastated. "I got angry with everybody." Marian tried to kill herself, taking sleeping pills and slashing her stomach open with a craft knife. But a housing official who phoned and "could get no sense out of me" called the police, who broke in. When she got out of hospital, she did it again. "The only way I was found was because I was in the bath and I had Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio on repeat on my stereo for five hours. My neighbour called 999 for the ambulance. She knew I had problems." Yet if these were calls for help, they went unanswered. The one that was eventually was the threat to bomb Tesco, as well as the brother who had disowned her for speaking out about their abusive father and the inlaws she was convinced had persuaded her husband to leave her. She was arrested, charged and convicted of attempted bombing and threats to kill. On remand in Eastward Park hospital in Bristol and then in Ashworth, she was violent, attempting to strangle other women. She can't explain why. She ended up in three-officer unlock. "I got used to it. I spent 23 hours in my own cell. I was lonely but I had an aviary outside my cell window and I watched that all the time. And the officers were really nice," she says. It's hard to reconcile the violence of Marian's story with her peaceful presence. That she has come this far is largely thanks to the Orchard, which is running a pioneering pilot scheme called WEMSS (Women's Enhanced Medium Secure Service). Women with mental health issues who committed violent offences and were considered dangerous used to be treated just like men. Hundreds were locked up in institutions such as Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton with high walls and high security, where the staff counted the cutlery. Only relatively recently was it accepted that women didn't always need that. "The women were not trying to escape," says Aideen O'Halloran, the lead consultant psychiatrist at the women's directorate of the West London Mental Health Trust. In 2007, it was decided to close the women's wing of Broadmoor and Ashworth, keeping just 50 high-security beds at Rampton. The Orchard took 23 Broadmoor patients. "They didn't want to come here," says O'Halloran. "They were institutionalised." The Orchard is a modern block, surrounded by a high wire fence but overlooking public areas of the hospit
al. For one woman, says O'Halloran, "it was the first time she had seen a cat or a car in 15 years." It scared her. The high security hospitals had certainly given women care and treatment, but WEMSS is an attempt to offer more. It has more staff, who form close relationships with the women, working to win their trust. There is more and varied psychological therapy and the physical surroundings are bright and spacious, even if every door has to be unlocked and locked again as you pass through the building. At its heart is an atrium with a small cafe and a hairdressing salon, where women can work or have a haircut in an atmosphere not unlike that of a tiny shopping mall. The WEMSS programme aims to help women along the road that can lead, eventually, to a return to society, although not all will get there. It doesn't take long to realise that the violent crimes committed by these women are often directed at the person they hate most ? themselves ? or are a desperate attempt to get help. Some of them want to be locked away. "Every single woman in WEMSS has a history of abuse," says O'Halloran. "It can be physical or emotional ? and it has often been part of their life since childhood. The obvious question is whether it could be picked up much earlier, preventing such damage. That's about educating social workers and teachers and supporting parents through pregnancy and the early stages. As a society, we haven't done that. Teachers feel disempowered. They don't recognise the signs." Donna was in Broadmoor. Her views of it are fairly negative and not shared by clinicians at the Orchard. "The main thing is you had no hope of anything there. People very rarely moved on. You ended up stuck in the system. Most of the people in there were just misunderstood. It's not full of really evil people ? well, not in the women's services anyway." She had therapy while she was there, but was heavily medicated. "I'd probably still be there now [if it hadn't closed] on so much medication that I couldn't even function, being very unhappy and very distressed and unwell. And I would probably never get out of there because I would never have had hope." Donna is a very bright woman of 30, who looks younger and has ambitions and the ability to work in computers. Before it all went wrong, she was studying for four A-levels at college. She had to give it up because she was trying to support herself, having left home because "things went on in my family that were very complicated and I just had to be on my own". She blames herself. "I've had problems since I was young," she said. "I was very paranoid, very angry, very insecure. Back to the age of about three or four." Her parents, she said, "did their best, but I was very difficult ... Because I was unwell I didn't see that people were trying to help me." She was expelled from three schools. "I thought that everyone was just out to get me. I just felt excluded from everybody." And yet she got six GCSEs, left home, started and dropped out of college and did shifts at McDonald's and in a fruit factory. When she was 17 she met a man. To escape him, she committed arson. "I was in a difficult relationship and I needed help but I didn't quite know what to do so I set fire to an empty building. I told the police that I'd done it and they put me in prison. "I was very scared. I felt quite depressed. He was drinking all the time and encouraging me to drink. I felt in a vicious circle really. I just wanted them to lock me up and throw away the key. I just wanted to be somewhere safe." In prison, she refused help, not wanting to be labelled mentally ill ? until she was due to be released. "I was self-harming a lot and they said I needed to speak to the psychiatrist and I told her how I was feeling." She was told they would send her to hospital. And then she attacked a nurse. "I kicked her in the crotch. She pulled her alarm. They took me to the police station to charge me. I had handcuffs on and there was another nurse who was having a go at me. I hit her on the head with the handcuffs." Donna was given a hospital sentence and sent to Broadmoor. She was so violent on the way that it took four men to control her. That's hard to imagine now as she sits talking about her escorted town leave, her maths and computer studies and her hopes of starting college. The Orchard appears to have set her on the road back to a normal life. And then there's Ruth, who also has plans. "I'm a singer/songwriter and I hope to make it big one day. I write love songs. I've started to take it seriously since I've been in hospital because when I was leaving school I didn't have any qualifications but I found I was good at music. I've written an album now. I'm just hoping for it one day to be recorded so I can show what I feel really." She sings with a band formed by patients at the Orchard and others from the separate men's unit. "They're really good ? they can play absolutely anything." She aspires to be another Rihanna or Beyonc? and sees a good future ahead. She arrived at the Orchard full of hostility and anger. The staff won her round. "They just kept on being nice. I started to realise it's not the end of the world being here ? it's like a stepping stone. Some people are against medication. But sometimes it can give you a better quality of life than what you're used to." Now 30, Ruth has come a long way from the dark days of her teens when she joined a gang and did drugs. She used to be a star athlete, she says, winning trophies until she was 13 or 14 when sport was dropped to make the pupils concentrate on academic work. "I believe if they hadn't done that I may have been successful in that area. The trouble started when I stopped that. I got a bit obstructive in class." In the end, her mother took her to the psychiatric services. She was hearing voices. At St George's hospital in south London, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was put on medication, but became violent with staff and ended up with a court conviction. That brought her to the Orchard. Because each of these women has a criminal conviction, the Ministry of Justice must decide to allow them to leave, based on psychiatric reports. "Ultimately it is about demonstrating that the risk has reduced and the complex disorder ameliorated. It is crucial to be able to find appropriate services for the women to move on to and that has been a challenge at times with their histories and risk profiles, including arson," says O'Halloran. O'Halloran and the other staff working on the WEMSS programme are clearly pleased with what it has achieved, helping women for whom at times there seems to be no future. But WEMSS is only a pilot and inevitably, given the staff/patient ratio, expensive. Its evaluation is due. The Department of Health and NHS commissioners must scrutinise its achievements ? and decide whether its benefit in terms of human lives is greater than its cost. Prisons and probation Women UK criminal justice Sarah Boseley © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds