Love & Family

Brought up behind bars

Helen was determined to be with her daughter even though she was locked up

Helen Barnacle, 61, and Ali Barnacle, 35, Melbourne, Vic

The Mum

Looking down at my beautiful bub, I felt my heart swell with pride. If I produced something so perfect, I can’t be all bad, I thought.

I was 27, addicted to heroin and in jail. But as well as being a prisoner, I’d recently become something else – a new mum to my little girl, Alice, known as Ali…

My own childhood had been quite happy. At 12, I was school dux and a talented piano player.

But by 16 I’d dropped out and was mixing with a rebellious crowd. Fairly shy, I used alcohol to give me confidence but before long heroin had taken its place.

That’s when my life took a sinister turn. From the moment that first hit entered my bloodstream, I began making bad choices.

Eventually I had a run-in with the police and I landed in jail for a brief stint. There, I got the shock of my life during routine medical tests.

‘You’re five months pregnant,’ said the nurse. Such was the extent of my addiction, I hadn’t even noticed the little life growing inside me.

Luckily, I was released from prison two months before Ali was born. But still addicted to drugs my troubled path continued.

When Ali was nine months, I was charged with conspiracy to import prohibited narcotics and was jailed for a minimum of eight years.

As I stood in the dock and my sentence was handed down, my first thought was for my little girl. She’ll be eight when I get out, I agonised.

Back then, in Victoria, babies could only stay with their mums in prison until they were a year old, meaning I had only three months left with the bub I adored.

At that time, I viewed myself as worthless, but the love I had for my daughter overshadowed everything.

If I let my daughter go, I felt sure I wouldn’t survive.

‘I want to have a life with her. I’ve got to fight this,’ I told myself. So when the time came to hand over my girl, I fought to have the rules changed.

Incredibly, after two months apart, I succeeded and Ali was brought back to me.

Now I had to prove that I could bring up my baby in prison…

My birthday behind bars (Credit: Supplied)

The Baby

One of my very first memories is of being on the prison oval.

I had my own song books that my mum and another inmate had made for me. I remember using a toy piano and guitar and singing along to tunes we’d made up together.

For the first four years of my life, there was a definite feeling that I had my mum and then at least 60 other mums around me.

Yes, there were bars on the windows where we lived. But it was like a unit with four bedrooms and a communal area.

It didn’t feel like prison.

Many of the other inmates were like Mum, having found themselves locked up after battling drug addiction.

Many had their own kids on the outside and they liked having me around to care for.

There was another little boy who lived in the prison with his mum too. I remember making birthday cakes with him.

For a while it felt as though I had a brother but he didn’t stay for very long.

Unlike Mum, I could leave jail if I needed to. Some days I went to kindy.

Other times, Mum would go and study at the education centre and I would play with one of the teachers there.

But at 4pm every day it was time for lockdown, so we had to stay indoors.

While it sounds difficult, I didn’t know any different. In fact, my memories of prison life with Mum are happy.

But when I was four, it was decided that I should leave to have a ‘normal’ life. I don’t recall the day I left.

Mum later told me she didn’t stop crying. I was placed in the care of my uncle Ron but, grieving for Mum, I remember feeling hollow.

Life outside the prison was so unfamiliar. I didn’t have many friends and few people knew about my mum being locked up.

When I plucked up the courage to tell other kids, I got teased. It wasn’t until then that I realised it wasn’t normal to have a parent in jail.

I knew my mum wasn’t a bad person but other people were so judgemental. On November 24, 1987, Mum, then 33, was released.

By then she had transformed her life, was clean and on her way to becoming a trained psychologist.

I was eight and I have never felt so excited as I did the day she came and picked me up from school.

I ran over and we hugged each other with the biggest smiles on our faces.

As soon as she came out, life fell back into place. We stayed with Ron while Mum finished studying for her psychology qualification and then she got a job.

Mum’s always been very honest with me about her drug addiction and the things it led her to do. But I’m so incredibly proud of the strong and independent person she is today.

‘We’ll be seeing your daughter here in 15 years,’ a prison guard once said to Mum.

Well, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Mum’s an inspiration to me.

She’s taught me to be strong and growing up in prison has made me non-judgemental.

When you feel loved and have people who care, you can get through anything.

Mum and I today (Credit: Supplied)

Originally appeared in that’s life! Issue 43, 29th October, 2015.

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