|Tracy aged 17 back in 1999, with her boyfriend Jon|
I was about to publish the long read below about Tracy Felstead, exploring what it's like to be sent to prison for a crime you have always insisted you didn't commit - when I wondered if the Daily Mail would be interested in speaking to Tracy. They were.
With Tracy's permission I contacted Sam Greenhill, Chief Reporter for the Daily Mail. Sam went to visit Tracy. Using some of the conversations I had with her and his own interviews, Sam published this piece.
The DM have kindly said they don't mind me publishing this longer version of Tracy's story. I am grateful to Sam, and of course I am grateful to Tracy for her willingness to open up about her experience.
This is where it was meant to start
Tracy's first proper job out of school was at the Post Office. She started in 1999 at the age of seventeen. At the age of eighteen she was accused of theft, sacked and prosecuted. Tracy pleaded innocent. Using the "computer never lies" approach, the Post Office successfully secured a conviction at trial by a majority verdict. Tracy was thrown in prison. She was nineteen years old. Tracy is now a claimant in the group litigation against the Post Office and her case is one of the 34 being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
During mental health week (13 - 19 May this year), the Post Office posted a couple of tweets, signing up to the Time to Change initiative congratulating itself on the work it is doing to be more aware of its employees' mental health problems.
This understandably outraged some respondents who hold the Post Office responsible for destroying their lives, livelihoods and in many cases, their mental health. I asked the Post Office to comment on this apparent hypocrisy but got nothing back. I asked the people at Time to Change (strapline: "let's end mental health discrimination") if they had anything to say about apparently legitimising the Post Office's position. They first ignored my email, then refused to comment. I suggested to them that supporting an organisation actively accused of harming its employees' mental health and ignoring those who are suffering as a direct result of that organisation's actions was not a good look. More silence.
Draw your own conclusions.
When I spoke to Tracy, I asked if the Post Office seemed concerned about the effect criminally prosecuting a teenager might have on her mental health:
"To be honest," she replied "from day one, from when I was a kid, they didn't seem to care... there was no compassion, nothing. They didn't care that I was this scared girl. They didn't care that I'm sitting there and I'm absolutely distraught... And I don't think they realise overall what they've actually done. Because still to this day I'm having... since this all started again, and it's mainly since we've been at court, it's been really tough."
Over the course of several hours' conversation, Tracy took me through the last twenty years...
Tracy landed her job at Camberwell Green Post Office in South London through a family friend. She was sent on a two day training course to learn her way round Horizon, the computerised till system which hadn't long been installed in the branch. Before long Tracy was working on the counter, serving customers and using Horizon.
There were 12 counters and it was a busy branch. Tracy was the youngest operator, but she was taken under the wing of the experienced staff.
"To be fair, everybody seemed lovely. Everybody seemed pretty much on the ball. If you needed any help, you could just ask."
Each member of staff had their own login, allowing them to "jump on" any counter which was free, but Tracy told me the regime was lax. No one minded if you used somebody else's login. If someone needed a break during a busy period, another member of staff would jump straight on to their Horizon terminal without going through the logging off, logging on process. This ensured minimum disruption for customers, but it muddied the waters when it came to accountability.
Occasionally Tracy would encounter deficits when cashing up, but her manager was relaxed:
"I had a problem one day and I approached her. I think because I was the baby as such, all of them mothered me. She said, "Oh, it's fine, it will rectify itself." And I was like, "Okay." Because, you just trust they know... I suppose I was a bit naïve being 19, but I trusted her."
But in mid-2000 the size of Tracy's discrepancies started getting serious. Again, her boss seemed relaxed.
"I did a cash up at the end of the week and I had like a £1,300 loss. And then she did something and it went up to £1,800. And then she said, "Oh, leave it, I'll sort it out." And then that's how it kind of worked in our branch. So if there was a problem, you would initially go to the branch manager. But obviously, because I'm cashing that up, I have to sign that piece of paper at the end of the day because I cashed that till up and I've seen that discrepancy. So my signature is on everything."
At this time Tracy was living with her partner Jon, who worked as a reprographics manager in the City. They'd bought a house in Penge together and were planning to get married.
In October 2000 Tracy locked her till in the Crown office safe and went on a big family holiday. It was her parents 15th wedding anniversary, so they chose somewhere special - Dominican Republic. While Tracy was away her till could be used, so long as all the stock and cash was checked before and after each session, and the operator entered the figures under their own login in Horizon.
"The day I came back, I was told to go on my till and do a cash up. So I did. It was £11,503.28 short."
Tracy had never had a discrepancy of this size before.
"I'm looking at this woman like, "What on earth is going on?" And she said, "Oh, another member of staff had used the till while I was away and found the discrepancy, which is then why they wanted me to do a cash up when I come back. She asked me whether I know [how the discrepancy came about] and I was like, "I have no idea."
Tracy continued serving customers. "About two weeks later I get to work and I've got two strapping, great big guys sitting there waiting for me, and they want to interview me. And I said, "Okay, that's absolutely fine." They asked whether I wanted legal representation and I told them, "No, I haven't done anything wrong, so I don't need anybody. Happy to be interviewed. Not a problem."
The interview turns into an interrogation: "They constantly through the interview ask where the money has gone. And they don't ever ask do I think anything's gone wrong. They're just constantly asking "What did you spend the money on?" And I remember looking at them and saying, "Seriously, I haven't taken any money. You can have access to anything you want. Bank accounts. I haven't taken any money.""
Tracy was suspended. "They put me on paid leave... They said they needed to do some more investigation. I was distraught, absolutely distraught. But part of me actually thought - well, they'll get me sorted because I haven't stolen any money. So they'll fix this."
Three weeks later the Post Office investigators knocked on her door at 8am, accompanied by the police.
"The he police weren't there to arrest me or anything like that, they were just there to keep the peace. What they thought I was going to do, I'm not quite sure. Because I'm only 5-foot-3 and small, you know, a size 10. And I'm not gonna... these men are massive, intimidating, huge men. And they said, "Could you escort us down to the police station for interviewing?" And I said, "Yeah, fine.""
On this occasion Tracy did ask for a solicitor.
During the interview the Post Office investigators seemed fascinated by Tracy's family holiday. "They were asking me how I paid for the holiday. They said "Did you pay for everybody to go?" So that's when we said, "Right, you can have access to everybody's bank accounts so you can see exactly how people have paid for the holiday and where the money's come from.""
Prosecuted for theft
Three weeks later Tracy was called in again. This time she was sacked and charged with theft and false accounting. "Because my signature was on the paperwork."
Tracy's solicitor was unamused: "He was just like, "I don't understand how they can bring this to court because it is just your signature on a piece of paper. They haven't found any money. They haven't searched your property." It wasn't as if I was driving around in a big, fat car."
Although Tracy was devastated, part of her thought either the investigators would realise their mistake and drop the charges, or if the worse happened, the justice system would prove her innocence. There was no evidence of her doing anything wrong.
"Family friends, like the guy who got me the job, his family refused to talk to me. They just totally ignored me. And I had people looking at me as if I was a thief. As if, you know, "She's done this.""
Tracy's self-belief began to crumble. She sank into depression alarmingly quickly.
"The only way to explain it is that you're in a black hole. You feel trapped... suffocated. I couldn't understand how anyone could think I would do that [steal]. My mental health... my whole life took a hit. I was a bubbly girl. I would go out. I had a decent life, I enjoyed life. And then all of a sudden... I didn't want to go out."
Things escalated. "Because I had time on my hands, because I wasn't working, because I'd been dismissed, I got stuck in a rut. The more I was indoors and the more my mind wasn't occupied, the more frantic I became and the more depressed."
Tracy went to see her GP who prescribed her Prozac.
Overdose and trial
Early in 2001, Tracy tried to kill herself.
"I didn't want to have to answer questions I couldn't answer. I didn't want people to see me. I didn't want to go to court. The stigma was very strong. I didn't want to feel like that. I wanted me back. I wanted to be me again and I didn't feel I was me. I just wanted to die."
Tracy took an overdose in her room. She was found by a friend while she was still conscious. She was rushed to hospital and had her stomach pumped.
"That's when my family were like "Enough's enough." so I went back to the doctor's and I listened. I felt very stupid. I felt I'd let everybody down."
But a few weeks later Tracy had a really bad day, and took another overdose. "I thought I can't deal with this anymore. I can't cope. I just didn't want to be alive. I didn't want to feel the pain."
This time, alone in the house, Tracy slipped out of consciousness. By luck, Jon came home early from work and found her. Against her wishes, Tracy was committed to a secure psychiatric unit at the Princess Royal Hospital in Bromley.
Tracy was given intensive psychotherapy treatment and responded well, but once she was out she had to deal with the court process. Tracy was not a well woman, and now she was being put through the legal wringer.
First there was an appearance at Guildford Magistrates Court where Tracy pleaded not guilty to both theft and false accounting, then came the three day trial at Kingston Crown Court.
Tracy was basically a wreck. She described how she shivered in the dock as she watched the trial happen around her. She can't remember much about what was said, but she remembers a point that came up during her cross-examination.
"Basically, they were saying, "You did take the money. Your signature is there. It's your till. You've taken the money. You've cashed up this till twice, you had the loss of £1,800, and on this occasion, you had the loss of..." And I'm like, "But I went to the manager and explained and I was told [it would be okay]." But it didn't seem like they wanted to listen."
The jury was unable to come to a decision about Tracy's innocence. The judge told them he would take a majority verdict. Tracy was heartened by this.
"Obviously, they could see how distraught I was in the dock. They could see what I was trying to say, and they could also see... because as my barrister said, "It's very hard to explain something if you don't have the answer." I couldn't answer the prosecution's questions because I didn't know what had happened."
The jury came back. Tracy was convicted by a majority verdict, ten to two.
"I was just in disbelief. I just couldn't believe what I was hearing."
Tracy wasn't sent to prison immediately. Because of her fragile mental state and previous suicide bids the judge wanted psychiatric reports completed. Without Tracy's knowledge her family were also told if they paid the Post Office £11,503.28, Tracy would be unlikely to get a custodial sentence. Tracy's family found the money and handed it over.
When Tracy found out she hit the roof. "I was like, "Why are you paying them something I haven't taken?""
Tracy returned to court. Tracy was told by the judge that she was a liar, that she had stolen money from pensioners, and she had put her family in the position of having to pay back the money she had stolen. She was invited to apologise. Tracy refused.
"I said in court, "I'm not saying sorry for something I have not done. I'm not saying sorry because I haven't done anything wrong."
The judge sent her to prison for six months. Tracy's father had to watch his daughter being led from the dock through the door to the cells in handcuffs.
"I was absolutely petrified. Petrified. They took me down to the cell. My barrister came and saw me and said, "I don't know what more to do. I've got... disquiet about this. Something is not right, but I don't know how to prove it." We didn't know how to prove it. We didn't know how to almost [how] to defend ourselves in a way. Because we've got these big guys, they're saying, "Well, you've signed that piece of paper and used on that till and it's a discrepancy and you're the only one that uses that till and blah, blah, blah." As much as you can say, "Well, actually, no, I wasn't, other people used that till as well," and they just didn't want to listen."
On 20 June 2002 Tracy was sent to HMP Holloway. She was put put on suicide watch.
"I was in a high-security prison at the age of 19. I walked in and... you go through all the protocol. You've got to strip. You've got to be searched. You've got everything like that. And then I met the governor of the wing, because you have to have a meeting with them when you go in. I sat down, and I was obviously very, very distraught because they had to give me medication to calm me down. And he said to me, "What are you doing here? A girl like you shouldn't be here." And I said to him, "If you can tell me why I'm here then you're a genius because I don't even know why I'm here. I've been accused of something that I haven't done and I'm sat here and I'm dealing with it." And he said, "I will try and get you out of here as quick as I can." He said, "You know, we'll do everything we can to get you out.""
Tracy was desperate.
"I'm in this room, I'm on suicide watch, so I'm not allowed to be on my own, and I'm with people that have murdered people. I'm with people that... it's their home if that makes sense. You listen to their stories and you think, "Oh my goodness, it's all they've got." They actually go out and re-offend because that's all they've got. They know that they've got a bed, they've got food..."
One afternoon, Tracy walked in on a dead girl who had hanged herself in her cell. She began to have nightmares.
"There were fights - people screaming they're going to kill someone. It was like prisoner cell block H."
Whilst she was in prison Tracy found the mental strength to get through her experience.
"I was trying to prove that I wasn't going to do anything to myself. I wasn't going to kill myself. I wasn't going to do anything."
Tracy was released after three months. Her parents and Jon (now her fiancé) picked her up.
"I got in the car and I was shaking. Literally. I remember I was shaking. I just had to go home. Jon gave me my engagement ring back and I put it on my finger. I'd lost a tremendous amount of weight, and all I wanted to do, I just needed to get home. When I got in, I was conscious about the door going. I said "Don't close the door." And still to this day I can't have doors closed in my house... because it takes me back to that sound of the prison door slamming."
Life after prison
Tracy had it hard when she came out of prison. She was wearing a tag and had a 12 hour night curfew. She couldn't find a job. Without her income she and Jon had fallen behind on the mortgage payments for their house. It was repossessed.
Tracy eventually managed to find work at an opticians, but only because she didn't tell them about her criminal conviction. After six weeks she came clean.
"I thought I needed to be totally honest with them because they hadn't asked me to fill out any paperwork. I took them to one side and I just explained the situation and they were like, "Tracy, you've been working here now for eight weeks. We have no qualms about that whatsoever. Carry on doing what you're doing."
I asked Tracy if that had an effect on her.
"It was amazing. I felt I had a meaning, I had somewhere. I wasn't being judged. They said to me, "I would never ever believe that you would do something like that. You're too much of an honest nice girl to even think about that." So, in that respect... it was nice."
A new start
Tracy stayed at the opticians until 2004, then she and Jon moved their family to High Wycombe for a fresh start. But it wasn't over.
"I kept a lot to myself. I didn't talk about it. I didn't trust anyone. I was very cautious. I didn't talk to Jon about things. I buried it, to be honest."
At first Tracy and Jon managed to put everything behind them and put their energies into raising a family, but as the kids got older the pressures on their relationship led to arguments.
"I couldn't trust anyone. I couldn't trust him. He'd come home from work and I'd be at him straight away "Who were you talking to?" I didn't have a life as such. I had my children, I was a stay-at-home mum, but I had no independence. I'd lost who I was. There were other things around our marriage, which didn't help, but from my side of it it was definitely my anxiety, my trust issues... you can imagine if you're coming home and you're wife is doubting everything you've done or doesn't trust where you've been. Our marriage became very toxic, because I was taking a lot of my anger out on Jon."
In 2013 the Post Office, then working with MPs and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), announced a mediation scheme for aggrieved Subpostmasters. The long-suppressed trauma which Tracy carried with her began to surface. Whilst she thought there was a potential chance for redress there was also a worry it could tip her back into illness.
"It was like... hold on a second, we're having to relive this all again." And it is difficult, very difficult. And I know it's for the good. As much as everybody can say they're not going to hurt you.. it's still that panic."
Half way through the mediation scheme Tracy received a letter from the Post Office telling her that because she had a criminal conviction, they were not going to let her case go to mediation.
"When I got that letter it felt like they'd won again. They stabbed you again and they've twisted the knife."
At this point in our conversation, Tracy was silent for a while. Then she said quietly: "It messed me up...."
Tracy's mental health started to go downhill. "I felt like I had no life. Obviously my marriage was breaking down, which didn't help... it just spiralled from there."
In 2015, Tracy's relationship with Jon collapsed. He moved out and they divorced.
"My attacks got worse. If I saw a police car or prison van I would start to panic. If I heard a song on the radio from the time [I was being prosecuted] I would have to switch it off or get away. I started to not eat. Jon had gone. I had to deal with the kids. It became too much. I couldn't cope any more. I kind of... lost me."
Tracey's family saw what was happening and persuaded her to move with the kids to Telford where they could be close. The support of her family and the physical split from Jon gave Tracy an opportunity to get out of a damaging rut. She began to look after herself again, started to socialise and took a job as a teaching assistant, which she loves.
Therapy, litigation and flashbacks
After more than a year apart Jon realised he missed Tracy and the children. Following long and careful discussions, he jacked in his job and moved to Telford. Tracy and Jon are now back in a relationship and have moved in together once more.
"Jon and I talk a lot more, whereas before we never used to speak. I never used to talk about the Post Office with him. Now we have a whole different approach on life and a whole different view on things. Now if it's not worth arguing about, we don't. We talk about it. Whereas before we used to argue and argue and argue."
In 2017, after discussing everything with Jon and her family, Tracy joined the Bates v Post Office group litigation.
"Having Jon there and my family behind me... we thought this might be the time for justice. We never believed this day would come. Before I had to prove I hadn't taken the money. Now they would be answering the questions. And the truth would be told. But I didn't realise the impact it would have on me."
As Tracy started having to go over all the paperwork again, she started having flashbacks, nightmares and worse:
"I got really, really bad. And suicidal. And with children that's not ideal. I'd walk over a bridge - there's quite a few bridges here in Telford - and instantly think, "Oh, this is a good bridge to jump off." Not, "Oh, it's a lovely day today." And I actually found that disturbing. Worried that those feelings were coming up in me, and that I couldn't control them."
Last year Tracy asked for help. Thankfully she got it. She has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is receiving treatment in the form of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which she says has helped a great deal.
"When I first started having treatment it was, "I'm totally worthless." That's the way I saw myself, "I'm worthless." These people have walked all over me, they've sent me to prison, they've said I've done this, they've said I've done that. And the treatment... it's quite intense, you have to go back and you have to visualise and analyze everything. It is just like you go back in time through the visualisation but it helps the processing of it."
Tracy is on heavy duty medication. She takes the maximum dose of Sertraline first thing in the morning, and at night she pops Quetiapine, an anti-psychotic drug. It stops the nightmares.
In recent months, Tracy has been turning the corner. The drugs have stabilised her and the EMDR therapy has helped her unpack thoughts previously too painful to think about. Tracy can now talk about and process her experiences. It has helped heal her relationship with Jon. Before, Tracy wouldn't tell Jon how unstable she was feeling or becoming. She would just lash out. Now, they talk a lot. Last week Jon came along to Tracy's therapy session for the first time. The therapist explained to Jon some of Tracy's behaviours and trigger points and the underlying reasons for them.
No happy ending
Last year Tracy's local newspaper, the Shropshire Star, found her name and address and started asking questions about her past. She had another panic attack, but managed to think rationally about it:
"I sat down with my family and said, "What do we do here? My name's out there, what do we do?" And my parents said, "Well, from our point of view people are gonna talk. Get your side of the story out there." So I was, like, "Okay, I'll brace myself for it." And I thought, "I can do this.""
Tracy contacted the paper and agreed to do an interview. Before it was published she sat her children down and told them about her past. She told them that people or other children might say things to them which were mean. She also informed the childrens' schools:
"The schools have been fab. If any child goes up to them and says anything or they get upset or anything at all they're happy to deal with it."
Tracy was photographed by the paper and a sensitive piece appeared. What Tracy didn't know was that every time the Shropshire Star printed an update to her story, they would re-use the photos they took when they came to interview her. This is pretty standard practice, but the effect it had on Tracy was disorientating. Her anxiety shot up. The stigma of having her name and image and her criminal conviction repeatedly aired brought the panic attacks and nightmares back.
"I didn't realize that that would happen. I started locking myself away and I was like just, "I'm not coming out the house. Everybody knows, everybody's looking." That's how I felt, I felt everybody was looking at me."
"The school were saying, "Well, you don't need the hassle at the minute, we don't need the hassle." And I'm like, hold on a second. I've done nothing wrong. I've come in every day, I do my job, I get on well with the kids, I get on well with most of the parents. I've got three boys, they're growing up, they're very clever boys. And I kind of think to myself I haven't done anything wrong, but I didn't even get an interview because a parent complained. And then that takes its toll on you because then you think, "Well, actually I can't get a job." And because you've been in the newspaper and everybody's seen it you then sit there and then when you do apply for jobs and you get things through and it just says, "Rejected. Rejected. Rejected. Rejected." That then plays a part on your mental health because you're thinking, "Well, why don't they want to employ me? Do they not want to employ me because I've got a criminal record? But have they not read the article? Have they not seen it?" It drives you absolutely insane is the only words I can use because, to an extent, you drive yourself insane because you're constantly sitting there thinking to yourself, "Why?!"
The experience of talking to the Shropshire Star has not been wholly bad. Tracy now has a good relationship with the paper's editor, who warns her when another piece is going in and if her photo is going to be used.
"My children have dealt with it pretty well. I have had a lot of positive feedback. People want to talk to you and they want to know, "Did that actually happen to you? Did you go through that really?" And you sit there and you're like, "Well, yeah." People say "You're such a tough cookie. Everything you've been through, how are you still standing? How are you still going?" But I just am. You just have no choice.
"And then you'll get the people who say, "Oh you know, all will be okay." And you just want to scream at them and say, "My head isn't okay and I'm not okay. You haven't had to do this."
Tracy knows she is not well:
"I had a funeral on Monday in Brighton and I shared a hotel room Sunday night with my sister. My sister said that all night I was crying in my sleep. She said I kept her awake. But that's the norm. Some days I wake up or I'll get up at like 4:00 in the morning or I'll startle myself awake and it'll be because I've heard a bang and it's made me think that that's like a prison door slamming which is the most dreadful sound in the world. And that'll be it, I'll be up. I'll be pottering around and doing housework, putting washing on or cleaning. As long as I can be distracted I'm okay."
"Anger. The anger that I have is unreal. The anger for the Post Office. I'm not an angry person, I'm quite laid back. The anger I have for them is just... I can't even explain it, it's just "I cannot believe that you have got away with this.""
"Definitely. They didn't seem to care that I was 19, they didn't seem to care that I was scared. There was no compassion at all, there was nothing. Even when I went to prison, you know, I've come into prison and I've got the governor of the prison of that wing telling me I'm not the type of girl that should be there. I remember his name, Mr. Daniels his name was and he said to me, "Promise me when you leave here and one day you'll write a book and it'll have all of this in." he said, "Because what they've done is wrong." And I had the prison governor saying that to me. I was petrified. Even though I was an adult in the eyes of the law, I was a child. You know, I hadn't lived life, I hadn't done half the things that a normal 19-year-old would do. And I've seen things. I've seen a girl hanging. Trying to get that out of your head..."
Although Tracy is getting treatment and is opening up in order to deal with the trauma of her past, she knows it is never going to go stop hurting. It's always going to be part of who she is.
"There's trigger points, there's smells, there's songs, there's things like dates. I know as soon as the 20th of June comes around... that's the day I got sentenced. You know, Jon may forget, my mum may forget, my dad may forget, but on that day it doesn't matter how much you try and put that to one side and try and deal with it, it's still a trigger date. And you'll think, "Oh, 19 years this year." And that's just, unfortunately, going to happen. It doesn't matter who you are. We all have memories. It is a tough one to deal with."
I asked the Post Office for a comment on Tracy's story and the Post Office's commitment to the mental health of its staff back when Tracy was an employee and now. They refused.
I am obviously enormously grateful to Tracy for opening up to me in the way that she did, and allowing me to publish her photographs. And I am grateful to the Daily Mail for picking up Tracy's story.
If you would like to read more, please do have a look at "Post Office vs Mental Health: Wendy's story" - which describes what happened to the mental health of a Subpostmaster in Cheltenham who was sacked, taken to court and ruined by the Post Office back in 2008.
If you want more, try Balvinder Gill's post "This was systematic abuse... I lost my business and lost my family."
A lot of people seem have suffered in horrendous ways. I'm not sure the Post Office gets to brag about its commitment to mental health before it properly addresses what it has alleged to have done.
If you can, please help keep this crowdfunded public-interest journalism project going by chucking a few quid in the tip jar below. Contributors who give £20 or more will start receiving regular "secret" emails which have all the info and gossip about this litigation as it makes its way through the courts. If you'd rather make a donation to a mental health charity, please do.
If you want to find out a little bit more about the underlying story, click here.