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Locked down but still free

Woman stands before a microphone
Brenda (Lady Unchained) at an Unchained Nights event at Toynbee Studios. Photo by Greg Goodale

Brenda Birungi reflects on lockdown inside and outside of the prison walls. 

Brenda Birungi AKA Lady Unchained is a poet and educator. She works with Artsadmin’s Engagement Producer Siobhán McGrath regularly to deliver projects and performances in prisons and with people in the community affected by the criminal justice system, such as Unchained Nights, as part of Artsadmin’s Creative Criminal Justice programme.

So, the whole country is on lockdown. For some people this may be a shock to the system. For me, it’s brought back memories of my time in prison. That was the first time I ever heard the word lockdown. 

It has been eleven years but as soon as the nation got placed on lockdown, I found myself back in that low place again. It’s honestly taken me a while to remind myself that I am free. I am returning to the distraction strategies I learnt whilst inside, exercising again – in prison I was on the gym course, which meant I was working out at least three times a day. I started writing poetry in prison and, in this lockdown, I’ve started writing blogs – something I never thought I could do.

When I wasn’t working as a gym orderly in prison, time would stand still. On my day off I would clean and rearrange my cell at least three or four times in a day – I suppose I got good at keeping myself occupied and keeping my mind active in difficult circumstances. I used to dream of being in my flat and how different it would have felt if I was just given a curfew – the freedom I would have in my own space.

Now that we are on lockdown I can’t do the things that remind me I am Unchained.
I can’t perform my poetry and I can’t go into prisons to deliver workshops to prove that there is life after prison with the people who need to hear it the most.

So here’s what I heard when they told us to stay inside and only go out for an hour of exercise or essential shopping trips. 

“Unlock ladies! Get your hot water and get back behind your doors – you’re on lockdown”

You see, in prison going outside is not promised. If there are no officers available, you don’t get to go out into the yard. So the fact that I am still allowed to go outside, even if it is restricted, is one of the reasons I know I am not back in prison. Although when I heard that the police have the right to stop you to see if you have a good reason to be out, well, that does sound like being in prison and needing a movement slip (signed paper from a staff member) to explain why you are walking around unaccompanied. Also, a fine from a police officer sounds like getting ‘written up’ – a mark in your file in red pen so other officers know you’re not following the rules.

The most emotional reminder that I am no longer in prison was when I found an application form to the prison pin clerk when doing a clear out. Your pin allows you to have contact with the outside world by registering a small amount of approved phone numbers that you are able to call. When I found the form, it made me feel so grateful that I am not in jail, imagine not being able to ring whoever you want to at this time? From conversations I am having with loved ones serving a prison sentence currently, I know that getting access to a phone in prison is a lot harder than usual at the moment.

On the outside we have access to the internet and social media, which is totally banned in prisons. Since lockdown began I’ve connected with people I have not spoken to in a long time. If I was in jail, they would have had to write to me or wait until I could ring them – and only then if I had their number approved on my pin and enough credit to do so. 

I am reminded of conversations out the prison window bars to my friends with random women jumping into our conversation because they had nothing better to do with their time. These memories are from so many years ago, but they feel like only yesterday and the COVID-19 lockdown hasn’t helped one bit. 

My prison lockdown stripped me of my name, my identity and my smile which I left at the gates of HMP Holloway. 

And then I remember the brilliant things….

In April, a documentary I created was released on BBC Radio 4 and, in that 28 minutes, my smile was returned to me. For the past few years I’ve been trying to get back that 20 year-old me before prison – the happy version of myself who, even with pain, still laughed through it. I never thought I would get her back, I learnt how to do a fake smile and force fake joy. This lockdown has brought back difficult memories I thought I had lost, but I know I am not back in prison because I never laughed and cried tears of joy like this, whilst on a prison lockdown.

And this is because – 

I am Unchained.