Overcoming Early Life Trauma and Prison

Published 14/09/2023
Author(s) Jennifer Nicholls


A Series of Voices: Twenty Years on From “Making Good” – Entry 2

Throughout my life, even from childhood, I experienced a series of events that fall under the umbrella term of ‘early life trauma’. This included sexual abuse, ongoing socio-economic disadvantage, chronic health conditions (including mental health), and relationship breakdown, which saw me become a single mother to an 18-month-old and a newborn baby. Although I did not realise it at the time, these and other stressors in my life resulted in me engaging in illicit activities, which saw me sentenced to a period of incarceration of 12 months with a non-parole period of 4 months.

When I was first sentenced, I was a broken woman, someone in desperate need of help but too afraid and proud to ask. I was in so deep that I felt that there was no way out. Living with the knowledge and guilt of my actions worsened my mental health. On the day I was sentenced to prison, I thought my life was over, that there was no coming back from this. Today, although I still carry a lot of pride and still find it challenging to ask for help, I have learned there is no shame in asking for help when needed, and my time in prison allowed me to find myself again, to find the honest and trustworthy person I used to be. It also afforded me time to reflect on my life choices and removed me from the multiple life stressors I had been experiencing.

Today I realise that time in prison does not mean that your life is over; yes, it is a traumatic life event and has long-term ramifications on your life. However, that period in my life should not, and does not, define who I am as a person. I only spent 4 months in prison, and the remaining 8 months of my sentence were served on parole in the community; I think this made my reintegration experience less difficult than it can be for those serving longer periods. My success post-release is firmly rooted in the strong support I received from family and friends, who loved me anyway despite being disappointed in me.

Another contributing factor to my success post-release was finding purpose in my life. After being unable to find employment due to a criminal record, I recalled the words of an educator from the prison who said, “If you don’t go to university when you get out, I am going to be very disappointed”. While still on parole, I enrolled in university with those words ringing in my ears. That was the beginning of what has been an amazing post-release journey.

I completed a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice (with Distinction) in 2017. In 2018 I completed an Honours Degree receiving First Class Honours for my thesis. Today, I am nearing completion of my PhD on Women’s Experiences of Health Care Before, During, and After Incarceration in Victoria: Do They Reflect Human Rights and Throughcare Principles Frameworks. I was also given an opportunity by the University to become a sessional tutor and course co-ordinator in the Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice. This experience has opened my eyes to the value of lived experience of the criminal justice system and the first-hand knowledge that can be imparted to others.

I have also been afforded an opportunity to be part of a Lived Experience Advisory Panel for an organisation that provides support to individuals in contact with the criminal justice system, to contribute to a textbook on prison education (publication pending) and to present at conferences. Unlike many others exiting prison, I have been given a second chance at life, and through my research, I hope to bring meaningful change for women experiencing incarceration in Victoria, Australia.

You can follow Jen’s progress on @jennoN52