When Michelle Nicholson was on trial for murder she protested her innocence, but nobody listened. When she was imprisoned for life she wondered if anyone ever would. Now in an explosive new book she finally gets her say
Michelle Nicholson was 22 years old when she was convicted of murdering her father. A single mum from a council estate, she had become involved with a man she naively trusted. But after just a few weeks of knowing him she ended up in the dock beside him in Sheffield Crown Court as her co-defendant accused of the terrible crime. When she first met the man she says she had no idea of his violent background. On trial the man blamed her, in words to the effect of, “she made me do it.” He said he was under her spell. The prosecution picked up the thread and described her as “manipulative.” Nicholson told the judge and the jury she was innocent. She was at the scene, she said, but had no idea her father was going to be killed and was adamant she played no part in his death. “I was vulnerable, I’m not capable of doing that,” she said in her evidence. But her voice went unheard and she was taken away to begin a life sentence with a minimum tariff of 15 years.
Now nine years after her release Nicholson has told her story in a gripping, moving book called, Without a Voice: One Woman’s Fight for Justice. It is a disturbing account of how the criminal justice system treats women in this country. Nevertheless, this beautifully written book allows the reader into the mind of someone who found herself at the centre of a living nightmare and had nobody who was prepared to listen to her.
From the moment she was taken into custody Nicholson protested her innocence, and when she went in front of the parole board 14 years later she told the exact same story. Somebody in authority must have believed her, otherwise she would have been categorised as “In denial” and kept in until she conformed to the jury’s verdict. “When I was arrested I thought the police would find their evidence and realise I was innocent,” she says. “When they charged me, the most crushing thing was, how could anyone think that I could do a thing like that? First of all I was absolutely devastated because I had lost my father, then the double blow, they think I’ve done it. Before it happened I was just a single parent in a fairly poor community, just going to college and thinking about creating my own business and getting a better life for me and my daughter – and then it all suddenly changed to everyone thinking that I’ve done this horrific crime. When the jury came back with the guilty verdict I was in complete and utter shock. I just couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t take it in. That shock continued… for years. Even after five, ten years, I was still experiencing shock.”
After sentencing she was taken to HMP New Hall, near Wakefield where she spent the first six months before being sent to the high security wing at HMP Durham, (which after a damning Inspector’s report in 2004 described it as, “A constricted and forbidding physical environment with a dispiriting and bleak exercise yard… an unsuitable place to hold women,” was closed down. “If you’ve never been to prison before, well it’s a different culture,” says Nicholson. “It has its own set of rules that you have to try and learn and learn fast. I was lucky in a way being young, as the first couple of years I was looked after, sort of mothered by the older women while I found my way. The hardest part in the early years was the nightmare of Durham. That felt like I was in hell. I felt so vulnerable. It was a horrendous place, a place run on lines of divide and conquer. The staff would stand about giving out really negative banter, they used to just crush us with their attitude. There were some good officers, but the worst often called us animals as we went to collect our food. There was a lot of self-harming among the women, but there were also some very strong characters and when I looked around, I felt so weak and vulnerable. I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ But I was determined to try and be strong for the sake of my daughter.”
In fact Nicholson did make it, and then some. After her release first she secured a job as a caseworker with the charity NACRO. It was while she was at Durham that she first had the idea of trying to help other women caught up in the criminal justice system. “I just saw so many women who needed help, more than punishment. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I decided I would gain as many skills as I could so that when I got out I’d be in the best position to make it a reality,” she says. Her local church held a collection for her which paid for her to do a GCSE in psychology and later she went on to achieve a degree in Social Science. “Studying really opened my mind,” she says. “In a place where there is no mental stimulation you have to find something. When I started studying social science my brain came alive. I was learning new things about society that I’d never understood before. I’m so grateful to the Open University.”
Walking out of the prison gate for the last time was amazing, she says. “I’d learned to be a survivor, but I’d also developed this huge sense of empathy and compassion for this group of people who nobody ever listens to. I was free at last and I wanted to make a change.”
At NACRO there was no specific work aimed at supporting women prisoners so Nicholson devised a business plan and began researching where to raise funds so she could start her own charity. The determination and skills she developed in prison served her well in the tough environment of charity fundraising. Her resilience and resolve eventually paid off and in 2011 she founded the women’s support charity, Keychanges: Unlocking women’s potential. “It’s about empowering some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” she says. “I believe the women who get caught up in the courts and prison have hidden talents and I want to help draw them out so they can appreciate their value. I’m not trying to change anyone. I’m just trying to get that little special thing about them out so they can celebrate it and feel their true worth.”