“It wasn’t until I went to prison that I found my voice.” Ex-convict talks about her experience

Bianca Mercer shares her life story publicly, but it comes at a personal cost.

By Bianca Mercer, Conviction

I never thought my voice could ever be loud enough to participate in changing the way society looks at people who have experienced the hardest of life’s obstacles. I always thought, why bother? Who’s going to listen? The walls I had built up could be seen from miles away. I had a chip on my shoulder, but a huge craving for change.

It wasn’t until I went to prison that I found my voice.

Participating in a documentary

I was on remand (waiting for sentencing) at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, when I met the filmmakers behind Conviction, a documentary film being made there and airing on the documentary Channel.  I didn’t think much of it, just another “jail movie,” where the inmates, their crimes and tragic stories are all just entertainment. It wasn’t until I found out these three women were actually listening and interested in helping us tell our truth, that I realized that I had a voice.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to act out and get angry to be heard. I had hope. Participating in Conviction changed my life. The filmmakers didn’t just help me find my voice, they became family. In them, I found a great team of people who had believed in what I saw for myself and what I’m capable of doing. It took three directors coming into the middle of my worst nightmare to change my entire outlook on life.

Telling my story and listening to all the other women’s stories, almost broke me, but because I had support and heard from women inside saying, “you are our voice too,” I kept going.

Becoming a ‘lived experience’ advocate

Doors started opening for me (literally) when I left prison and I was given new opportunities. I became a “prison poster child,” for some larger national prisoner rights groups and some small local NGOs. I started speaking on panels, writing articles in the newspaper, online magazines and I was interviewed – a lot. 

Watch a short film Biana Mercer made while in prison

My whole life, my intimate experiences of tragedy and loss, all of a sudden had a permanent trail. This is something people who have been in jail have to accept when they decide to go public. It makes applying for jobs – an already difficult process for ex-inmates – more challenging. So the decision to be a “representative for women inside” came at a big cost.

With so much of my life online, I was vulnerable to trolling, bullying and more judgement. People said that I was a liar, that I was seeking attention and that I was a drug addict who didn’t deserve to be noticed. It began to affect my everyday life. I had been fired three times since starting my advocacy work.  People would call and tell my employers about my record, all they had to do was Google “Bianca Mercer.”

Lack of support for prison advocates

Two weeks after I had lost my daughter, due to obstetric cholestasis complications, I was driven to Quebec to speak about what it was like to be in prison while pregnant. I was opening an unhealed wound, over and over. It was devastating.  But I wanted to speak out for change. I was a natural. It was a long time since I had said, “Damn, I’m actually good at something,” but at what cost?

About a year into speaking publicly about my experiences, depression began seeping back into my life. My anxiety and anger were affecting relationships around me. Even some of the people who were trying to help me were making my life harder. I felt like I had to do things I didn’t want to. It was like being in another kind of prison. Was this cycle ever going to end?

Alia Pierini, a friend of mine, who came out of prison and won the reality show, “Redemption Inc,” is also an advocate and outspoken activist in Vancouver. She told me at a conference once, that “one of the hardest challenges is believing I deserve this and that my experiences are valuable. It’s hard after so many years of being told you are a monster, being constantly kicked and silenced, to break down that feeling.”

Female prisoners create short films to tell their stories
Female inmates collaborate to envision alternatives to prison in documentary film

Like Alia, I really love speaking, so when I do, I have to make sure it’s for the right reasons. I still jump at every opportunity to speak about creating change. I just wish there were more supports in place for me, and any other women with lived experience, when we do. When you constantly pick at a wound, it’s bound to cause an infection sometimes.

But being in the film, an advocate and a “lived experience expert” has been a huge part of my life for the last five years. I flew on a plane for the first time and went to university for a year. I’ve met a lot of really amazingly strong women along the way. I would do it all over again, even with the challenges, because it’s all happening to make me that much stronger – and proud to have found my voice.

Find out more about Conviction.

Available on CBC Gem


documentary Channel