Breaking Out is the story of Janice Nix.
Janice Nix lived a life of crime. Groomed to work as a shoplifter in London’s West End, she entered a glamorous underworld of beautiful possessions – and drugs. As she rose to the top of her criminal empire, Janice achieved the money and status her family had never had. But one day, it had to come tumbling down.
Several prison stretches later, Janice was reformed – and inspired to join the probation service. Using everything she learned in her years on the streets, she’s devoted her life to ensure girls like her don’t make the same mistakes.
Read on for an extract from Breaking Out, Janice Nix’s incredible true story.
Probation is a lifeline.
I looked at the pile of client case files on my desk. Every file held a life. It was the story of a human being in desperate trouble, struggling to cope with the issues they were facing.
I knew that some offenders were never going to listen. They didn’t want to work with me. They were people who hadn’t accepted they needed change in their lives. But mostly what I faced day by day was different kinds of crisis. Some crises are slow-burning, and some are immediate and violent and dreadful.
My job is to keep offenders out of prison. To help them to make changes before it’s too late. To support them as they try to turn things round. A client on probation sees his or her officer or engagement worker weekly. We check that the client is doing the community work ordered by the court and advise them on looking for a job, housing problems, benefit applications, childcare or domestic issues. The client can ask us for support with anything else they might be worried about.
But far too often, the lifeline is pulled tight. It’s close to breaking. Then a probation meeting becomes a frantic attempt to grab hold of someone who’s teetering on the edge of a cliff. I have one last chance to catch them before they topple backwards and vanish from sight.
A new client, Becca, was in serious trouble for breaching the terms of her probation. I reached court early, dressed in the smart black clothes my job required. I wanted to make sure I spoke to Becca before her appearance.
Breach court was where the people who had fallen through the system ended up. They were there because they’d failed to keep the terms of their probation, which usually meant they’d failed to fulfil a community work order. Now they were in breach of the instructions of the court. They were sent back before the judge. Sometimes the court would accept that there were reasons why the problems had happened. But for others, this was the last stop on the line. If you breach the terms of your probation, it usually means prison.
In the entrance hall, security staff checked everyone who came into the building for weapons and drugs. The guard on duty smiled and said good morning. I went through checks and bag searches and headed to the first floor. I was hoping I’d find Becca in the waiting room for court number two, although I wasn’t confident she’d even make it to the hearing. But to my surprise, she’d got there before me. What didn’t surprise me was the misery, confusion and defeat in her face.
She hunched forward in her seat, arms tightly wrapped around her chest, rocking backwards and forwards. Her coat was bristly with dog hairs. Her dark hair was greasy and uncombed. Her face was very pale. I could see she was completely exhausted.
‘Good morning,’ I said. Her eyes flicked towards me when I spoke, but she made no reply.
‘Becca, come with me for a minute. Let’s go and sit in the consultation room where it’s private.’
I held the door open and watched her shuffle slowly along the wide corridor. The consultation room was tiny and windowless, painted a chilly pale blue. She sat down heavily in one of the wooden chairs. I closed the door behind us.
It was three weeks since my colleague Ros had handed me her bulging case file with a worried frown.
‘One for you, Jan. She’s breaching and things are getting serious. Any chance you can talk to her?’
The case file told a wretched story. Becca was a gentle, kind-hearted woman. She loved her fourteen-year-old daughter Amanda, and Martin, her husband, very much, though she couldn’t always manage to take care of them. She had learning difficulties and her mental health was up and down. Her GP kept on trying to ease her mood swings and depression with medication, but it wasn’t so easy for someone like Becca to follow a routine. From time to time, she’d forget to take her tablets and things would go pear-shaped – but at least the family was together. As a unit, they were coping. Then one June day, Becca found Martin dead in their kitchen. He’d had a heart attack, out of the blue, in his mid-forties.
Martin had done everything at home. He was Becca’s carer, he looked after Amanda and he kept the household running. Without him, things quickly fell apart. Becca didn’t know how the bills got paid or how the lightbulbs got changed or how the heating got fixed. She didn’t understand that the housing benefit covered the rent, or how to make sure it stayed that way.
So she did nothing to keep her life in order. She’d no idea at all what to do. She failed to contact anyone she needed to. More confused and scared every day, she simply froze. She spent all the money in her bank account, and when the cash ran out, she started stealing food. Letters from the council and benefit forms from the Department for Work and Pensions landed on the doormat, but Becca just ignored them. As the writing in the letters turned red, she shut the DWP and the council from her mind.
When a man she knew offered her a chance to earn some money, she believed he was her friend. He spent time with her at home, which she thought was nice because since Martin died, she’d often been lonely. Then her friend invited other friends to hang out there as well. Five or six strangers took over Becca’s living room until the small hours of the morning, drinking and smoking weed. The job her friend gave her was to take a bunch of credit cards and go out and buy watches. Pretty soon, she’d been arrested for credit card fraud.
By now it was November. Her heating wasn’t working and the house was freezing cold, but her landlord refused to do repairs while the rent was in arrears. The unopened letters in the kitchen were all final demands for unpaid bills, and Becca and Amanda were in danger of eviction from their home. When her fraud case went to court, the judge put Becca on probation. She didn’t keep the appointments. She’d never been able to get organised without Martin. But by breaching the terms of her probation, she was at risk of being sent to prison.
I remembered our first meeting. At the best of times she was easily confused, and by that stage her thinking had almost completely shut down. All she could say when I’d asked about any situation in her life was ‘my husband did it’. A few days after we first met, she and her daughter were evicted. Amanda was put into emergency foster care by the local council. Forced to sleep in the open, alone and terrified, Becca thought the carpark of Iceland seemed a safe and quiet place. But late at night she was attacked there by two men. Both of them raped her.
I had to find a way to get her off the street. She was in terrible danger, and with every day that passed, the weather grew colder. Her homelessness endangered her life. But my power was limited. As an engagement worker, I couldn’t give her all the help and support she needed. She needed to go to a crisis centre, so that her name could be added to the list for emergency housing. I’d tried to explain this in a way which wouldn’t overwhelm her. But as I’d searched for the words, I could see she wasn’t taking it in. She’d just kept shaking her head.
It was filling out forms that was the problem, I realised. She’d anxiously questioned me about it. ‘Forms. Will they have forms?’ Even when I told her I’d go with her, it didn’t seem to help. That’s when I’d suddenly understood how all of this had gone so wrong. Gently, I’d asked Becca whether she could read. She answered in a whisper: ‘No. My husband did it.’
All those letters from the council piling up. Those final demands for bills she hadn’t paid. Those notifications of arrears. She hadn’t understood a single one of them. For Becca, being asked to fill out forms was almost as humiliating as having nowhere to sleep.
Now she sat in the court’s consultation room, arms folded tightly, just rocking. I glanced at my watch. In a few minutes, she must face the judge. A paralysing panic had her in its grip. I knew I must break through it. I looked for a way to help her trust me.
‘Becca, I understand how you feel.’
She made no response.
‘If I told you something, something about me, would you believe me?’
For a moment she looked up. Her eyes met mine.
‘So,’ I went on, ‘I was on probation once. Just like you. It was a long time ago. And I breached, and they sent me to prison.’
Her expression didn’t change. She was so stressed and overwhelmed that I wasn’t sure she’d heard me.
‘So I know what this is like,’ I continued. ‘It’s scary when you have to face the judge. But I promise you that I am here to support you.’
‘You were sent to prison?’ she whispered.
‘Yes. Yes, I was. I know how scared you are. I hope the judge is sensible today and doesn’t send you down. I think that’s what will happen. So as soon as we’re done here, we’ll go and get you something to eat.’
Two tears had trickled down her cheeks. She quickly wiped them away.
‘Okay,’ she whispered.
‘How about we get a sausage roll? Is that a deal?’
When she heard the words ‘sausage roll’, she looked up at me at last.
‘Deal,’ said Becca. I reached over and gently squeezed her hand.