As the police officers swarmed towards me, my pulse raced. This was it.
’You’re under arrest,’ one said. I didn’t put up a fight. I was guilty.
To those who saw me that day, I would have looked like a contented wife and mother who liked to take care of herself. But behind closed doors, my marriage of 12 years was crumbling and I was struggling to support my two girls, Sarah, two, and Shannyn, four.
That wasn’t my only secret.
For the last six and a half years, I’d been stealing money from the sawmill where I worked in administration.
It started as a small amount – a one-off to help make ends meet. Once I had my finances under control, I’d stop.
But as time went on, I sank deeper into deception. I found myself writing cheques to help pay the mortgage and moving funds to keep up repayments on my car.
Then, in 2002, when my husband and I divorced, I splashed out $3000 taking some friends on a break to Queensland.
Looking back, I was desperately trying to keep up appearances when my world was falling apart. In total I stole almost $2 million – spending much of it on gifts for the girls and others as a way to make myself feel better.
But the price I’d pay for my deceit would be even greater...
I hung my head in shame as I was marched to a police van and taken to the station. A mixture of fear, panic and regret churned inside. Did this mean I might never see my daughters again?
’We have a warrant to seize all your possessions,’ an officer said, explaining I’d been under surveillance for two months.
Over the next 11 hours as I confessed everything, reality dawned. I was a criminal.
Desperately, I asked if I could speak to my kids but I wasn’t allowed. Instead, I was charged with theft and put into a cold holding cell with 10 other women. As I curled up on a thin foam mattress, I knew I had only myself to blame.
That night I tossed and turned, terrified about the future. Finally I was told the kids were safe with their father and I broke down in tears. How would I ever regain their trust?
While I waited for my case to come to court, I was transferred to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a maximum-security prison whose inmates included stalkers and murderers. I wasn’t a respectable suburban mum any more. I was prisoner number 171435.
I’ll never forget the moment I saw my girls for the first time in the visitors’ room a week later. Their faces crumpled with fear and confusion when they saw me in my blue jumpsuit.
’Mummy’s okay,’ I tried to reassure them.
They didn’t understand. They just wanted me home, and as I held them close, their tears shattered my heart.
It would’ve been easy to let prison life break me. But seeing the pain I’d caused, I made a vow – to change. I took on a role as a peer educator and when I left my cell at 8am each morning, it was my job to reach out to other inmates.
I assisted one woman who’d stolen money to help her sick son, and another who’d turned to drugs after years of abuse.
’We can work through this together,’ I told them. Their tragic stories made me realise how blessed I was.
Of course, being locked up affected the relationship with my girls. They couldn’t always visit and when we spoke on the phone I’d try to explain my actions. It must've been so hard for them.
Finally, after more than a year and a half in custody, my case came to court. I pleaded guilty to four counts of theft and one count of obtaining property by deception, totalling $1,962,602, and was sentenced to seven years in jail.
Knowing I’d be separated from my family was tough. But I had to embrace the future. That’s why I took up the chance to study writing in prison.
Every week, a tutor from Swinburne University taught five of us, and three years later we graduated with a masters degree at a ceremony behind bars – the first in Australia’s history.
Finally, after four and a half years in jail, I was given a taste of freedom. Stepping outside the prison walls was both liberating and frightening.
Facing all the people I’d hurt was the hardest part of the journey. I made a huge mistake and I'm so sorry to all the people affected. Of course, some couldn’t forgive me, but thankfully my family saw I’d changed and accepted me back.
Sarah and Shannyn came to meet me. By now they were 11 and 13.
’I missed you so much,’ I cried, pulling them into a hug and promising to do whatever it took to regain their trust. ’I’ll make you proud of me again,’ I told them.
And that’s been my mission ever since.
I was thrilled when Swinburne University offered me a job. Working my way up the ranks, I completed a PhD before becoming a media lecturer. Then, I was asked to join the Women’s Correctional Services Advisory Committee to continue helping inmates and I became an ambassador for Wear for Success, a community service helping women get jobs.
Years on, I still deeply regret what I did.
But prison made me the person I am today. In some ways it’s the best thing that happened to me. Now I’m free, I’ll make every moment count.
The Prisoner, by Kerry Tucker with Craig Henderson, is published by Penguin, on sale now.
This story originally appeared in that’s life! Issue 28, 2013. Kerry was not paid.