Michaela Booth was sentenced to 4 years in prison for a crime she was found guilty of when she was 19 years old. She was sentenced at the age of 21 when her daughter was 4 years old. The offence she was convicted of was less than a minute in duration. This interview focuses on her experience of the trial and sentence, and how it impacted on her and her daughter.
Can I start by asking how aware your family and in particular your daughter were about you court case?
My daughter was 2 years old when my offence happened, so she was unaware of it all throughout the bail and trial period. My close family, mum, dad and two sisters were the only ones who knew about it. My sisters were with me then the offence took place and my mum and dad were both present when I was arrested at 5am from my mother’s house after I had stayed there for the night. Extended family including grandparents were unaware of the whole thing until my mum called them to say I was in prison and received a four year sentence.
What were your first thoughts when you heard that word: “guilty”?
I have no recollection of any kind of logical thought process as the verdict was announced. I recall sitting up straight with butterflies in my stomach as I awaited to hear. I was breathing heavily and remember this as I was conscious of being loud so I was trying to control it as to not let anyone hear it. As I heard guilty, I know my body slumped and my head fell down into my hands, although I don’t think I had control of what my body was doing.
I was actually on trial for two counts of Section 18. With two separate victims, who were friends. One count was complete fiction, a friend of the real victim had made up a fictional story to add weight to the events of the night. After the victim of my offence had reported it to the police, her friend reported me also, for smashing a bottle over her face. This was entirely made up. In my trial, 4 different witnesses gave four different accounts of how I ‘used the bottle’ and the psychological harm I had caused the ‘victim’. Also, four different accounts of what happened to the bottle after I ‘had used it as a weapon’. One said it smashed on the floor, yet the bar maid gave evidence of cleaning up the bar and the end of the night and there was no smashed glass. One said she kicked the bottle away because it didn’t smash and there were two more ‘stories’ that I can’t recall.
The first verdict that came back was guilty for the first count, which wasn’t fictional. After this, I was taken from the court room to the holding cell below the court where I remained awaiting the verdict of the second count of Section 18 for smashing a bottle over a woman’s face.
I recall the court usher who was female, coming in to sit with me and she brought me a roll up and let me smoke it in the cell. I asked why I couldn’t go back into the corridor to sit with my dad while I await the verdict for the second ‘offence’. She said I was going to be sentenced as soon as the verdict was reached. I didn’t know at that point she meant I was going to prison that day.
After around 30 mins I was called back up to the court for the second verdict and I remember vividly thinking to myself, ‘it doesn’t even matter about this because I’ve already been found guilty in a courtroom full of lies and made up stories’. I believed I would be found guilty of both charges. As I sat and waited to hear the outcome, I didn’t look up at anyone, I closed my eyes and held my hands together on my lap. I heard ‘not guilty’ and didn’t react at all. I knew I wasn’t guilty.
You’ve mentioned you weren’t expecting to go to prison when you were in for sentencing – indeed you’d left your daughter at nursery that day. Taking you back to that day, can you tell me about your how you felt inside?
I was under the impression and instruction from my legal team, that no matter what happened on the last day of my trial, I would be going home for a pre-sentence report to be done before I was sentenced. This didn’t happen, I was sentenced within an hour of the first guilty verdict.
I was in total shock. It was like nothing I have ever felt before and nothing I have felt since. Its hard to put in to words, I was crying hysterically below the court in the holding cell. I was pacing up and down and walking around in circles because I couldn’t sit still. The court woman brought me some more cigarettes and let me smoke them inside the cell. I recall her telling me she couldn’t believe it, it was harsh and I should appeal. I didn’t know what an appeal was and I didn’t ask. I was sick of people talking about things that I didn’t know what they were. She brought me some water and told me the van was on its way to take me to Eastwood Park prison.
I had a headache, I felt sick, I was completely restless and exhausted at the same time. I was sat in the cell pinching my skin, thinking that this must have been a nightmare. My mum and sisters had come with my to the last day of my trial because we had be assured I would be going home, my dad was the only person there. I was thinking about how my sisters and mum were going to react and how I would speak to them. My phone was taken off me and I didn’t know anyone’s phone number off the top of my head, only my nans and she didn’t know about any of this.
I told this to the woman who was ‘looking after me’ and she let me turn on my phone, get my mums number and write it down. She did all she could to make that experience as good as it could be, but it was still dreadful.
As anyone who’s been convicted knows, there’s an existential shift, you become something else, someone else in the eyes of those through whom we gain recognition. It is one thing for strangers to read the latest crime story in the newspaper but how did those in your community, family and friendship circles react?
My offence and subsequent trial were never published by any media. Thankfully. My family who knew of it, knew it was a moment of madness, so to speak. My offence isn’t who I am and they knew that. My extended family were supportive and disappointed with the outcome of our justice system when they heard about the whole thing. I cut almost all contact with ‘friends’ and associates as soon as I went to prison, so I didn’t really hear of any kind of reaction. Many of the people who were in the club on the night of my offence, knew I didn’t incite the incident and from hearing from them over time since, they have expressed shock and concern for me in how I was treated.
In Injustice Faith Speak says when visiting prisoners she sees beyond the crime to the person. Elsewhere she says that prisons aren’t full of bad people, but people who have done bad things. Yet it seems sometimes among people with convictions there are two whole selves: the one we know (or think) we are, which is often the basis of our interpersonal relations, and that which a judge decides we are. In this sense judgement, conviction and punishment seems set to be a process of becoming that which you are told you are. It is not that you are you and something happened, but rather that you become what happened. You become the murderer, the violent thug, the fraudster. Can you say a little about who you were in prison?
In prison, I was me. A young girl, a mother. I was a drunken teenager at the time of my offence and in prison I was 21. I was quiet, well behaved, compliant in the most part to ‘prison life’ but also observant and questioning of everything. Being a woman in prison, and after prison, with a conviction for serious violence is hard. Needless to say, is it my only conviction for violence. I am far from violent. I have a daughter who is ten and I have never laid a finger on her, very rarely do I even raise my voice to her. That may stem from being physically abused on almost a daily basis as a child from a mother who was drug dependant.
Through-out my prison sentence all of the officers who I conversed with about my offence, never treated me like a ‘violent thug’. They could all see that what was written on paper about me wasn’t who I was and certainly was not how I conducted myself on a day to day basis.
Even today, 6 years on from my sentencing, when I tell people that I have a conviction for Section 18 their face drops. Scared possibly or just unsure of what to say. When I explain to them the circumstance of my crime, they soon become to realise that what happened on that night could easily happen to anyone who is out at the weekend and possibly drinking a little too much that in inhibits their ability to consider consequences to actions and how quick reactions with adrenaline and fear running through your body result in actions that change many lives for many years.
You were sentenced to two years. Can you describe what thoughts went through your head in respect of your daughter on those first nights?
I was going to miss her first day at primary school. That is what I thought about every single day. I was devested and left like I had let her down. My mum had told me, “don’t worry about Crystal, she is fine, look after yourself”. She then went on to tell me after I had been in prison for only a few days, my family in spain had ‘invited’ my child over to live with them until I was home. I hit the roof. I felt like it was so rude of them to ‘offer’ and then I feared what if my family couldn’t cope and actually sent her to spain.
I thought about terrible things, car accidents when they came to visit me, car accidents on the way home when I wouldn’t be able to call them until the next day. I wondered if Crystal would be old enough to remember this period and I tried to recall my earliest memory and how old I was. I was asking girls on the wing to tell me their ages of their first memory.
I feared Crystal being picked on at school because of me and no-one doing anything about it, I feared coming home and her thinking that my mum was her mum and possibly she wouldn’t want to come home to me. I didn’t want my child to visit a prison in the early days, but I wanted to see her and I thought about what I was seeing and how I was affected and wondered if just visiting a prison would put my daughter in a position to witness such horrific sights.
I was heartbroken. I was in prison for a crime, whether I agree with the treatment and sentence in up for debate but I was an adult facing consequences for my own actions. My daughter was a child who on the day I went to prison, she not only lost her mother, she lost her home, she lost her belongings, her bed, her clothes, her bed. As I arrived at prison with only the clothes on my back, My daughter who has never committed a crime in her little life, arrived at a house that wasn’t hers, with only the clothes on her back. No-body gave a shit about her, because I committed a crime, and she was my child. Its infuriating and saddening even as I type this now, while I reflect on secondary victims of our justice system.
You’ve written that before you’re a prisoner, you’re a mother. Were you concerned about how your daughter might have seen you as that new identity was imposed on you?
No. Never. That’s not to say that I haven’t heard the good old ‘well you didn’t think about your child when you committed the crime’ or ‘well, she can’t be that much of a good role model to her daughter with a conviction like that’.
Crystal and I and peas in a pod. With her being so young, she was adaptable and resilient and my contact with her remained steady through out my sentence. Not long after my release, Crystal came home and the rest is history, as they say.
To Crystal, I am nothing else but her mummy.
You appear to have a good relationship with your daughter. It’s one of those settling aspects that there’s someone who knows you more than anyone knows you’re not THAT person. But it must have been difficult to assert your identity as a mother when you were released?
It was difficult, in many ways. Far more than I ever anticipated. The whole family dynamic and routine changed for so many people. I was released with a full time job. I exited the system on a Friday and returned to work on Saturday. When I went to prison my daughter was at pre-school part time, upon my release she was at school full time, I didn’t drive and part of my licence condition was to avoid a main road that I needed to walk along to get my daughter to school and I was also banned from the train station, which I needed to use to get the train to work. The logistics and timings to get her to school and me to work on time were a massive pain the arse.
I was due to rent a house that wasn’t ready until a few months after my release, so Crystal still resided with my mum and I lived temporarily with my dad. I was up at 5am every morning, got rady for work, walked to my mums to get Crystal, walked to school then caught a bus to work. After work I would go to my mums for dinner and to see Crystal, put her to bed then walk home. It was horrible.
My sisters played an active role in Crystals care and my mum was lost when Crystal returned home to me when our house was ready. Crystal asked regularly to go and see nanny, as she had a close bond to her. She would ask when she was going ‘home’. It took her a while to get used to her home being back with her mother, who wasn’t going away again.
The damage done to my daughter is evident today. The guilt I feel for that is still raw. Our relationship is great, I am her best friend and she is mine. Getting to a place where she respects me as her mother and knows that I am not leaving again, was hard and I still say it’s a work in progress. There was a lot of ‘well, nanny didn’t ask me to clean my room’ ‘Nanny didn’t used to feed me breakfast before I got dressed’ etc so breaking down the nanny’s way and mummy’s way was difficult and at times testing, but we got there in the end.
You know who you are, but as David Scott suggests in Injustice, a conviction is a stigma. You’ve positioned yourself to take advantage of that now, but before that, how have people’s prejudices made you feel?
Without going into too much detail and specific examples, other people’s prejudices have made me feel worthless, ashamed and embarrassed. They have made me feel like giving up on life goals, accepting I will always be the underclass, forgotten and hopeless at times. To be judged on a single incident, that happened many years ago, for the rest of my life, is simply unimaginable. I have felt anger, sadness, frustration and sheer abandonment from much of society. After my release I felt alienated and struggled to get used to my new life outside of prison. I was and still am quite avoidant of social situations.
I know it’s difficult to say, but how do you think your experience impacted on your daughter’s view of the world and people in it?
Difficult. I can come to a conclusion in my mind but putting it into words is a bit more of a challenge.
Crystal is very loving, caring and friendly. She gets pleasure from befriending kids at school who don’t seem to have many friends, she helps out with the younger kids in the playground, she was on the school council and a prefect. She takes pride in her ability to offer what she can, to others. She had ideas of what will make her school better and comes up with possible ways to implement them.
Injustice of any kind, in terms of playground politics, really gets up her nose and she has told me on many occasions times where she has picked up kids who have been pushed down, or cared for upset kids. She has brought home cards and gifts from other parents thanking her for looking after their children at school.
I don’t think this would be her life if she hadn’t been a part of what happened to me. She considers life, why she is here, she talks about the world and children in other countries who don’t get what she has.
Crystal has asked me before “Mummy, why did people take you away from me and put you in prison, when you love me so much and look after me and when I was four I couldn’t look after myself”.
I still can’t answer that question.
Crystals view of the world, I would say, is that she knows she is lucky to have people who love and care for her and she understands that’s not all children have that.
She views people with a lot of love. Anything she can do to help people, she will.
She makes me immensely proud that I can call her my daughter.