I was an addict, a prisoner, a sex worker. I thought the world had written me off – but I saved myself | Prisons and probation

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Mandy Ogunmokun stands in the back garden office of a quiet suburban east London house, softly pointing out members of staff who work there with her. It is a brisk, sunny November morning. “There’s Vivianne,” she says, as a woman with long brown hair crunches along the gravel outside. “She’s nine years in recovery and works full-time to manage the houses. She first went to Holloway prison when she was 15.”

Many of those she points out first arrived here, at the Treasures Foundation, looking for help. Ogunmokun created the foundation nearly a decade ago to offer housing and support to women who had passed through HMP Holloway and had experienced addiction issues. When the women-only prison shut down in 2016, she opened up the service to anyone in the country. Residents must agree to remain abstinent and attend daily meetings, as well as receive trauma therapy, nutritional guidance and holistic therapy. The women can stay in the houses for as long as they need, and the foundation has recently acquired four one-bedroom flats for them to move on to until they find a more permanent home. It is also looking to buy more flats and a caravan where the women’s children can stay.

“We’re not just boxes to be ticked,” says Ogunmokun, whose decision to set up the foundation came from direct knowledge of just how much a safe space like Treasures was required. “These are all women with complex issues, and so we want to support them in whatever way they need. With some of our clients, it takes a long time before they feel safe. We’ve had women come here who have not got undressed for a year because they’re afraid of their abuser walking through the door, or they won’t ever take off their shoes in case they have to run. Slowly, we try to make them feel safe and we encourage them to talk, since secrets keep you sick.”

‘I didn’t know how to do anything other than go get another hit’ … Mandy Ogunmokun. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Her own story began in 1960s Yorkshire, where she grew up with her mother and her grandmother. Alcohol was readily available, since her mum was a heavy drinker, and she had her first drink at 10. She didn’t like the taste, but its effects felt like a brief respite from the chaos of growing up in a household where her family were sex workers.

There isn’t much Ogunmokun can remember from her formative years. She knows that she experimented further with weed, acid and cocaine, and consequently had run-ins with the law for acts of petty crime, such as shoplifting and graffiti. In her regular trauma therapy sessions, she has also begun to recall glimpses of child sexual abuse, triggered by the colours of someone’s clothing or other fleeting encounters.

But there is one memory seared into her mind: her first experience of heroin. She was introduced to the drug by someone she was close to but cannot name. They brought her a dose that she heated and mixed, then she found a syringe, located a vein and injected for the first time. “That was it from there. I thought I’d found what I had been looking for my whole life,” she says. “It felt as if I was safe in my mother’s womb, which was a feeling I had always been trying to reach. Once I got it, I wanted it all the time.”

Not long after that first hit, Ogunmokun had her first child, moved to London after making contact with her father, who ran illegal gambling houses in the West End, and landed in jail for theft. Her sentence – six months at Holloway – began a cycle of addiction and imprisonment that would continue for the next two decades. She returned to Holloway nearly every year, serving stints of six to 16 months; some prison officers and nurses got to know her by name. “I used to go to prison for a break, since I felt safe there,” she says. “It became like a second home.”

Ogunmokun was awarded the Butler Trust commendation by Princess Anne in 2015, for her work helping female prisoners. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

She describes her years of addiction and crime as a frenzied spiral driven by three things: “Going out to graft, finding out who’s got the best drugs – and how much.” As well as heroin, she began smoking crack. She became a sex worker to fund her addictions and had three more sons from two different relationships. “I had always said to myself: ‘You’re not going to be like your mum; you will mother your children.’ But I didn’t know how to do anything other than get another hit,” she says. “It was heartbreaking that generations and generations of dysfunction were being repeated again. Every time I came out of prison, I had the intention to go and pick up my sons, but I’d get back on the drugs and then go back to jail. It turned into 11 years where I didn’t see them.”

Ogunmokun kept in sporadic contact with her mother as the years passed, but her children were either being looked after by Ogunmokun’s sister, who was herself an addict, or by their fathers’ families, or being placed into care. Several times when Ogunmokun found herself back at court for a criminal hearing, she was ordered to attend rehab in an effort to kick her habit. “I desperately just wanted to be a mum, and I believed I was trying to stop every time I went to rehab,” she says. “But I didn’t know what stopping meant. I just wasn’t present at all. I was in one rehab for six months, going into the same therapy room twice a day where there was a massive painting on the wall and I never noticed it. I was completely dissociated because that’s the only way I could manage to live.”

While in this state of half-presence, Ogunmokun found herself “terrified of people”. She would expect to be looked down upon, and since she didn’t have the capacity to function outside working out how to get another score, she increasingly felt like an outsider. “I didn’t feel good enough,” she says. “I felt that everyone had written me off and no one could see that I could be helped.”

‘When a woman’s life has been transformed, she can carry the torch for other women’ … Mandy Ogunmokun. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

As well as her self-esteem collapsing, her body began to falter after decades of drug use. “I couldn’t find any more veins and I had a needle addiction, so I’d often lose the hit while I was involved in injecting,” she says. “I never wanted to be a prostitute, and three of my kids had been born with a heroin addiction. It all seemed out of control.”

Then, in 1999, her mother died. Ogunmokun had been to visit her only weeks before to ask for money, and when she arrived, she experienced an unexpected moment of closeness. “I saw her and said: ‘Sorry, Mum, I forgive you.’ I didn’t know what I was forgiving her for, but once I said it, she brought me close and touched my head so gently,” she says, gesturing to her temple where she was touched. “It felt like that was the closest I’d ever been to her. It meant the hold my bitterness had over me started to loosen.”

Soon after, Ogunmokun was approached on the street in King’s Cross, London, by a drugs outreach worker who convinced her to come to a church that worked with addicts. When she arrived, Ogunmokun realised the woman running the group was someone she used to smoke crack with. “I’d been in her hotel room getting high and here she was now, clean, and I wasn’t,” she says. “It was a turning point, since I knew I couldn’t go on much longer. I was there with blood on my jeans and these people still weren’t looking down on me.”

Ogunmokun carries the Olympic torch through London on the eve of the opening ceremony in 2012. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

With this newfound sense of acceptance, Ogunmokun began the long road to recovery. She knew it might be her last chance. “I wasn’t sure how much more my body could take,” she says. “It was the choice to get clean or eventually destroy myself.” She stayed in the Christian rehab, and while she never formally associated herself with the church, she found her own version of faith. “I didn’t want to be put in a box in the church because I’ve been put in a box my whole life,” she says. “But the fact that Jesus was spat upon, despised and rejected was something I could identify with. I had to keep going.”

It was not easy. There was no immediate sense of relief or clarity once she got sober. Instead, the years since have been a constant process of slowly piecing together how her addiction was partly a consequence of her childhood trauma. “I still don’t remember a lot of what happened when I was using,” she says. “It has been hard to look back and I am still making sense of it all.” One of Ogunmokun’s children died as a result of addiction; she is still rebuilding her relationships with the other three.

After a decade of being clean, she also started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and their sense of community has given her the support she needs to maintain her sobriety. “I love NA because people can just be real, rather than trying to be perfect,” she says. “My faith and working the steps has been really profound. It’s given me more intimacy and understanding with myself.” Now 63, Ogunmokun has been clean for 23 years.

At 45, she got her first paid job as a counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare worker back in Holloway, mediating between drug-using inmates and specialist treatment programmes. There was comfort in being institutionalised once more, even though she could go home at the end of the day. “I felt so safe there, whereas in a loving home I would have struggled, since I didn’t know what that was,” she says. “It felt really good to be able to help people, but I kept seeing the revolving door of women who were constantly reoffending and coming back because there was nothing for them outside.”

Female offenders are some of the most vulnerable members of society. The government’s 2018 Female Offender Strategy recognised that they need greater support because they are more likely to have complex mental health issues, trauma and histories of domestic violence. They reoffend at a rate of 19.3%, compared with men at 25.2%. While women make up less than 5% of the total prison population in the UK, current Ministry of Justice figures predict that the female prison population will increase by 30% from 2021 to 2026 because of longer sentences and a backlog of cases being processed following Covid. The issue of helping these vulnerable women in the community is likely only to get worse.

Mandy Ogunmokun with her son Matthew at the 2015 Butler Trust commendation awards. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“There are very few services that can meet the needs of a vulnerable woman with complex PTSD and other mental health problems,” Ogunmokun says. “We’re good at hiding it because we’ve learned to put masks on in society. We don’t need prisons – we need access to proper care and holistic help.”

The longer she worked at Holloway, the more Ogunmokun started to see how the cracks in funding and support meant that women were often released from prison without adequate housing or the stability that could stop them from using again. She began to talk publicly about the issue, and in 2014 a local businessman offered to buy three neighbouring three-bedroom properties in east London, where Ogunmokun could house vulnerable women and provide them with the support they needed to stay clean. She took him up on his donation, left Holloway and created the Treasures Foundation.

Treasures also fundraises so that its clients can continue trauma therapy once they leave. It’s a resource that Ogunmokun has found essential in processing her own life. “I’ve only just been diagnosed with complex PTSD,” she says. “All my life, I didn’t know I was walking in trauma, and I learned how to manage it in a dysfunctional way, through addictions and compulsion. Now I’ve got good people to support me when that pain comes.”

She is also learning to try to form romantic attachments without being reminded of her abuse – “I’ve had to learn about my body, to understand about being a woman,” she says – and in 2021 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The months of chemotherapy not only punished her body but played tricks on her mind, too, producing sensory experiences such as pungent smells that unearthed past suffering.

Thankfully, she is now in remission and is taking each day at a time, finding her strength in visits to the Treasures homes, where she witnesses the willingness these women have to get better, no matter the horrors they too have faced.

“When a woman’s life has been transformed, she can carry the torch for other women,” she says with a smile. “I always thought I was a mistake, but I’m not. I didn’t die in the gutter, I lived for a reason – I have a purpose.” And with that, it’s time for Ogunmokun to head inside for a morning meeting. Her women are waiting.

In the UK, Action on Addiction is available on 0300 330 0659. In the US, call or text SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 988. In Australia, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is at 1800 250 015; families and friends can seek help at Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186

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