At 21 years of age, Brenda Birungi’s future looked bright. She had her own place, she was on course to start her own childminding business and family and friends were closer than ever. But on a night out, a fight in a London club after her sister was attacked, seemingly ripped her identity and future plans away. Calum McCrae talks to Lady Unchained for the latest UNJUST podcast
Over a crackly zoom conference call, I spoke with Birungi, better known as the Lady Unchained, about her introduction to the criminal justice system that eventually led her to find solace in art, specifically poetry. In the third episode of Un:Just, you’ll hear some of that powerful poetry, an art form she now uses to positively provide a platform for those with lived experience of the criminal justice system.
Like many others new to the system, Birungi found it frightening and the seeming unfairness lives with her to this day. Her poem, Road to Victory, starts:
I await sentencing, scared and confused, but there’s no praying,
If God loved me, then I wouldn’t be in this mess that’s all I’m saying.
You’re female, with no previous, you’ll get off, you’ve got this so stop fretting,
I hear my friends saying.
In front of a judge who had little sympathy, she was sentenced to two and a half years for committing grievous bodily harm with intent. Off to HMP Holloway. Immediately, it seemed that she was not going to make it. She told her sister and best friend not to come back. She was either ‘leaving prison that day or in a body bag’. But she found her way.
Through apparent racism at a foreign national’s jail, through the threat of deportation to Uganda, Birungi discovered an uncomfortable truth. Working at the reception back at Holloway, she noticed that many of those who were released on a Friday, returned within just a few days. There was something going wrong. Why did these people end up coming back to this ‘death trap’?
‘Prison starts when you walk out those gates,’ Brenda Birungi says. Upon her own release, she discovered the lack of support, of opportunities and, although it was initially torturous, she felt she had the power to make a change.
Unchained poetry is that change, her poem continues:
Snap, it all just suddenly made sense.
See this is the journey that was written for me to take, so I can teach my fellow brothers and sisters that it’s not about anger it’s about peace.
It’s not about power it’s about grace, it’s not about hatred it’s about love.
These are the lessons I learnt whilst in prison so you don’t have to go there to learn the same lessons.
The choice is yours, I choose to be unchained.
You can find Brenda Birungi’s work on soundcloud (here). She made her broadcasting debut on BBC Radio 4 yesterday. Her programme called Unchained explores controversial short-term prison sentences for women. (here).