’I’m no longer in jail but the nightmares don’t stop’
SENTENCED to seven years jail for a white-collar crime, Sydney mum Victoria Schembri was bashed, threatened and sexually propositioned-and that was just the first day she was an inmate.
Mother-of-three, Schembri, 38, was sent to Mulawa Prison (now Silverwater Women's) in 2009 for tax fraud. She was charged with claiming more than $500,000 worth of bogus GST refunds between 2002 and 2003.
Her now ex-husband was named in court as a co-conspirator, but he was never charged. Their swimming pool company was in both of their names, but it was Schembri's signature on the false GST claims.
"It's absolutely nothing like Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) or Wentworth. It's about 100 times worse," says Schembri.
"They couldn't possibly put on TV the things that go on inside women's prison.
"I saw women having sheets thrown over the top of them and having their faces kicked in, to the point where they would end up in hospital requiring whole facial reconstructions.
"There were drugs hidden inside places that definitely they should not be in, and then torn out of those places by other inmates. Yeah, really gruesome stuff."
Schembri says for somebody like her, a 'normal mum with kids', the horror of what she experienced is still difficult to forget.
"Even though now the nightmare is over, I am no longer there, the nightmares don't stop. The things that you see, nobody should ever have to see, let alone witness or experience some of the things that happen inside womens jails."
Schembri recalls what it was like walking through the prison gates for the first time, naive to what the other inmates would do to her.
"How to describe what it was like? How would you feel if you were surrounded by men and they started to play with your hair? Touching your skin? Stroking your cheek? Now imagine this is being done to you by women, covered in track marks, teeth missing, that have sores and scars all over their faces. It is completely surreal. I was literally sitting there, screaming inside my head thinking 'you wouldn't possibly let a man do this to you, how can you let these women do this to you?' But I was frozen, I was just numb."
It wasn't long before Schembri was sexually propositioned.
"I was offered protection in return for 'favours', which to my detriment I turned down. And there were many occasions where inmates would offer me sex for money.
I would do hair and makeup for the others and one day the girl I worked with said she needed to buy some pills and could she pay me in favours. I told her to keep her fists to herself!
"It was crazy. I walked in a few times to hear and see people doing things to each other that should be left behind closed doors.
Trying to rationalise what she witnessed, Schembri believes many female prisoners become sexual partners in jail initially for a human need to connect, but then it becomes all about survival.
"Absolutely, many people connect with other women for safety. There's a saying that women come into prison straight and leave the gate lesbians. And their partners have absolutely no idea what goes on behind those closed walls."
She's quick to add that was never the case with her. Schembri says she didn't have a sexual relationship with any of other female inmates.
"That meant for me, there was no protection. Because of that, I did get bashed quite a few times. I'll never forget being told by one of the other inmates that by the time I left jail that my pretty little face would have a big scar, motioning with her finger a knife running from my jaw to my ear. 'From smile to ear' she said to me.
And it wasn't an empty threat. Schembri was attacked so many times that she was classified high-risk of being critically injured.
"I had my nose broken, I had a table thrown at me, and this was in the first two months of being inside. I was bashed four times because I refused to name the perpetrator (of my crime). If you name the perp, you are literally dead, you can not be a dog in jail.
I would have my cell ramped at two o'clock in the morning, other inmates would be yelling at me 'Who did this to you? Are you going to speak up?', and I kept refusing to say.
The next thing I knew I was being 'shipped out' of medium security and into maximum security at Emu Plains for my own safety.
But it was inside Emu Plains jail Schembri witnessed 'pure evil', locked up with NSW's most violent inmates including Rebecca Butterfield.
"I could hear her running and smashing into the cell wall, trying to headbutt the wall. She split her head open and cracked her skull-everything was visible, like all the grey matter.
Butterfield brutally murdered a fellow inmate with a pair of industrial scissors. Prior to the attack, Butterfield was a relatively minor offender.