Sonja’s story

Vicki Sampey tells the inspiring story of Sonja's journey to overcome her past traumas

Sonja is a 29 year old young woman, who is currently serving a four year sentence at Styal for an arson offence. This offence occurred after many years of self-harm and destruction due to severe childhood trauma.

Sonja experienced sexual abuse from the age of eight and didn’t share this with anyone and used self-harm as a coping mechanism.

She finally opened up about what had happened whilst at Styal and she was supported by prison staff to report this to the police. Whilst at Styal, Sonja has displayed huge levels of self-harm,  at her most distressed period she was ligaturing up to ten times per day and this resulted in her being observed constantly for a sustained period.

As part of the complex case management approach we adopted a more trauma informed way of working with Sonja. This involved asking her what would help and giving her the control over her own wellbeing. One of the main things which Sonja wished for was for her mum to visit her.  We visited her mum to find out what were the obstacles for her coming to see Sonja. We found out that she could not drive and her partner had recently been in hospital, so we arranged for her mum to be collected and brought to the prison. To make this a more special occasion Sonja was given the opportunity to cook a meal for her family, this involved staff and her visitors sitting down for a meal together.

Sonja’s mum revealed that Sonja has trust issues with people because of her past trauma and felt more at ease with animals.

She also explained that she had unfortunately been unable to keep maintaining Sonja’s horse whilst she had been in custody so we located the horse and made sought permission from the farmer for Sonja to visit the horse at the farm. This was done as an escort from the prison, and Sonja was able to spend several hours with the horse which she loved and missed so much, and she explained that ‘this meant the world to me’.

It was identified with Sonja that being locked in her cell on the wing at lunch times was increasing her trauma and level of anxiety, therefore the decision was made with Sonja to spend lunch times on the house of her choice. This led to Sonja asking to move onto the house permanently, whilst it is not common practice for women with high levels of self-harm to move onto a house, it was felt that by doing something different it could lead to positive change. This approach has seen very positive outcomes.

Sonja’s self-harm incidents have reduced in number from 66 in July, to only 7 in November.

Sonja has shown true strength and courage over the past two months as the trial for her historic sexual abuse took place at Liverpool Crown Court. We understood that this would cause further trauma so we went to visit the court managers and explained that by putting Sonja in a cell at the court they would increase her anxiety. The court had never received a request before for changing the arrangements for vulnerable witnesses who were serving prisoners.

However, when we explained the situation and the work we have done with Sonja they were more than happy to help.  So instead of going into the court cells she was allowed to stay with our staff in a comfortable room on the staff side of the court house. The police have now asked Styal to work with them to help change the process for victims in the future.

Sonja felt that the way the court day was arranged prevented her from further trauma and helped her to give a strong and clear account of what had happened. Her attacker received a 13 year sentence.

We are very proud of Sonja.

Vicki Sampey

Vicki Sampey is Head of Safer Prisons at HMP Styal