Piles of boxes stacked on top of each other line Karen’s* small apartment, as she prepares to move out – she cannot afford to pay the rent any longer.

I don’t want to depend on social benefits. I want to work.

Karen currently relies on social benefits. Aged 50, she struggles to find a job, and not just because of her age or the fact she does not have an education beyond secondary school. Karen had spent a three-year stint in prison – 20 years ago.

For most of her life, she had been supported by her husband, who was adamant that she need not work. However, following the couple’s separation, Karen found herself in dire straits. She turned to working as a cleaner to help pay her expenses, but she developed a bad back and the physical exertion only helped aggravate it.

She decided to pursue her dream of becoming a security guard. She duly applied for a ‘private guards and local wardens’ course at the Reggie Miller Foundation, which she successfully accomplished.

Security services companies were ready to take her on board, as soon as she provided them with the mandatory licence.

However, she was denied the operating licence due to her tarnished criminal record.

Refusing to give up, Karen filed a judicial protest against the Police Commissioner.

“Everyone is human. I paid for my mistake. I’ve behaved myself and proven myself throughout all these years. I never got into trouble with the law again. I don’t want to depend on social benefits, I want to work. I want to be my own woman. Why are they trying to stop me? Why does society want to stow me away?”

Karen’s case occurred over 30 years ago, when she was still a young woman. She was charged with being an accomplice in an attempted murder.

After a trial by jury, 15 years later, she was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Her good behaviour qualified her for remission, and she was released after three years.

She said her time behind bars taught her a lot, both on a moral and practical level. She acquired a number of skills, including hairdressing, drawing, using the computer and reading and writing in English.

For her part, Karen industriously cleaned the offices, painted her cell and put her seamstress skills to use by providing fellow inmates linen, bedclothes and a brand new outfit.

But when she anticipated how society would treat her once outside, a sense of dread would kick in.

“Sometimes, being outside prison can be more of a challenge than when I was still within. I feel as if people are always gossiping behind my back. It’s not the first time I end up in tears in the middle of the road. I wanted to leave Malta at one point.”

Tears still stream down her face when she recalls an incident which happened years ago. “A tiny, four-year-old girl once turned to me and said: ‘Don’t you dare speak to me you, you convict.’ I can never forget her accusatory tone, as she pointed her finger at me. My blood turned cold. Her mother told me to ignore her. But she was too young to think up such a thing by herself – she must have heard it from her parents.

“Maltese society can be so unforgiving at times. All I ask for is a second chance. The victim forgave me. If he can do so, so can society,” she said.

Since separating from her husband, things have become bleaker. Having been prescribed tranquillisers, she is pushing herself to exercise, has taken up sewing again and is mixing with people. Two years ago, her apartment was broken into and all her jewellery was stolen. The robbers urinated on the holy pictures which she regarded with much devotion.

“If only they would let me work my dream job, I would be given the chance to get back on my feet again. I made a mistake and I paid for it. Please don’t condemn me for life.”

*Names and certain details have been changed to protect the woman’s identity.

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