Sally Challen on her release from prison: ‘I’m not sure how I’ll cope on my own’

Anna Moore
Sally Challen on her release from prison: ‘I’m not sure how I’ll cope on my own’. She spent nine years imprisoned for killing her husband. Now, after a groundbreaking appeal, she wants to use her freedom to help other women have their sentences lifted

When Sally Challen began to speak in a packed press conference on 7 June – the day her murder conviction was altered to manslaughter, her sentence was changed to time served and she was formally released from prison – her son David expected nothing more than a few words.

“I thought it would be very simple and to the point,” he says. “Then she read out this statement, not only thanking people but talking about all the other women in prison who’d been victims of abuse and were serving the wrong sentence, and how she wanted to help them. My first thought was: ‘Where did that come from?’ It was as if she was finding her voice.”

It’s almost six months later when we meet in a London hotel room. David is relaxed, reclined, well-practised in working with the media after two years of hard campaigning to free his mother. Sally is more reticent and reserved, clearly wary of being judged. They have spent the previous evening doing more public speaking as special guests at an award ceremony hosted by Samira Ahmed and organised by Justice for Women, the feminist group that helped win Sally’s freedom. “There were over 100 people in the audience, all supportive – lots of applause – but I was still terrified,” she says. “I want to keep campaigning, but I think I’m worse now than I was in the beginning. When I first came out of prison, I was on such an adrenalin rush. The way I’d handled my appeal was by telling myself: ‘I’m not going to get anything. Nothing’s going to happen.’ So when we won, it was unbelievable. I couldn’t keep still, I couldn’t stop talking. I wanted everyone to understand what had happened.”

Plenty of people wanted to hear. This year, Sally’s case captured the public imagination and inspired levels of support rarely seen for “women who kill”. (In February, at her appeal hearing, the queue to enter and the clamour for seats meant the case had to relocate to a bigger courtroom.) In August 2010, Sally killed Richard, her husband of 31 years in a brutal hammer attack as he sat and ate in their comfortable Surrey home. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life, but that conviction was quashed when Sally’s legal team raised fresh evidence to show Sally’s fragile mental health at the time of the attack and decades spent as a victim of her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour. Sally was released on bail and in June the CPS agreed to accept a manslaughter plea. She was freed because of the time already served.

A media frenzy followed – there were emotional scenes of Sally leaving court supported by her two sons, David and James, that tearful press conference, TV and radio interviews and a BBC Two documentary capturing all of it – aired on Monday, The Case of Sally Challen was a gripping, forensic examination. Six months since Sally’s release, the Challens are still fielding offers of book deals and TV dramas. But beyond the spotlight, rebuilding lives and family is far too complicated for simple happy endings.

“We knew we weren’t sailing into the sunset,” says David, 32. “We were going to have to learn to be a family again – and one member wasn’t there any more. Someone – my father – has been lost, so it’s a complicated thing to celebrate. I still have love for him. I recognise what happened, but he’s still my father.

“We worried about my mother’s mental health, and how she’d cope out in the world without him for the first time since the age of 15. And then she’d spent nine years in prison, too – she hasn’t really been around for my whole adult life. Mum bypassed the probation service because of the time served, so there was no advice, no help, nothing. Everyone knew it would be very difficult.”

Sally did not return to Claygate, the Surrey village where she had spent most of her marriage and raised her family – in fact, she hopes to never go back there again. Instead, she moved in with James and his wife, Jen, who live in Essex and prefer to stay out the public eye.

Her first challenge was simply getting up and down the stairs. “There are stairs in prison but they’re very shallow and very wide. You don’t get the exercise that you have outside – there’s so much time spent in lock up, you’re not using your muscles. To get upstairs in James’s house, I had to climb on all fours.”

After the years of prison food, every meal was an event – Indian on the first day, Chinese on the second, a roast on the third. “I kept saying: ‘Mmmm’,” says Sally. “Driving everybody mad.” Being able to open a window, or walk through a door felt joyous. “That was the biggest difference. Walking into James’s garden whenever I wanted. I got a car and started driving again. The family were terrified, but to me, it was freedom.

“I went to Scotland to see a friend for the weekend and ended up staying a week. I went on holiday to France with my brother and his wife. We rented a cottage in Brittany and the weather was awful, but being able to eat when I want, go to bed when I want, get up when I felt like it ... It felt wonderful.”

In those early days, for good reason, Sally’s behaviour did give her family cause for concern.

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“She was trying to do so much so fast,” says David. “You don’t know if that’s a normal reaction – after so much time in prison, you’ve got so much to catch up on. She would talk all the time, over everything. She’d get up to clean, to plant in the garden, to find things in the garage, up and down, up and down.” Part of Sally’s appeal had rested on her undiagnosed mental health conditions – in prison, she’d had years of therapy and been treated for bipolar disorder, dependent personality disorder and adjustment disorder. With no continued outside support, the family were left to manage this by themselves.

“We had massive worries but also wonderful times,” says David. “Just seeing my mother walking around a supermarket felt so surreal. Getting a text from her was bizarre – then she started adding emojis and not too long afterwards, she was using gifs, though really out of context!”

One of the best days was when David and his partner, John, took Sally on a trip around London. “It was something I’d always wanted to do – take her out for the day and take her to lunch. That was the painful thing I’d seen when I was out and about with people and their mothers – and I’d never been able to do it myself.

“I was 23 when it happened, still a student,” he continues. “Now I could show her what I’d done. She could see my flat for the first time, the life I’d made while she wasn’t there.”

And how did that feel for Sally? “I was very proud,” she says. “I thought his place was lovely. I was surprised too, as I remembered him as the ‘untidy David’. I still think of him as a boy.”

They agree that, in the past six months, their relationship has become closer, more honest than it has ever been. Throughout David’s childhood, Richard’s abusive behaviour – his criticisms, humiliations, manipulations and mind games – created a distance, a kind of fog between each family member. No one discussed it because no one understood it.

“It did separate us,” says Sally. “I didn’t really talk about it to David because I was the parent, so you’ve got to be the strong person. I remember when I was in prison, seeing him on TV speaking so eloquently about Richard’s behaviour. I felt very proud – but so sad that he’d seen so much of what was going on.”

David also regrets the fact that so much went unsaid. In the lead up to the killing, although Sally had made the massive step of leaving Richard, she felt unable to cope without him and they were back in contact. David didn’t get involved. “I was angry with her. I’d thought she was stronger – I’d underestimated the power my father held over her. We talk a lot more now because we’re able to. Understanding how coercive control works has given us the words – and I know, if I’d had those words earlier, I would have got the police. I could have stopped it.”

It is this that compels both David and Sally to keep talking publicly, as well as supporting women who are fighting similar appeals. Although Sally’s case was ultimately won on the grounds of diminished responsibility (her mental health) rather than provocation (Richard’s abusive behaviour) neither David, Sally or her legal team doubt that the two were inextricably linked. As a direct result of the publicity around Sally’s appeal, Justice for Women have learned of many more cases of abused women who are serving life sentences. The organisation has interviewed 20 who have stories similar to Sally’s and hopes to release a report in the new year.

For Sally now, it’s important to find a balance. “Part of me that wants to keep campaigning and raising awareness about coercive control,” she says, “but another part of me needs to move on. If you’re always talking about it, the memories don’t really fade – and there are things you don’t want to remember.”

She is still finding her way. “It’s strange. With Richard, I had to make sure my makeup was perfect, I wasn’t scruffily dressed, dinner was on the table. In prison, you don’t make your own decisions either – even when it comes to the clothes you wear. Now, I’m trying to find what I like and what I want to do. I go to the local church, I’ve started pilates and yoga – so I can manage the stairs now! I might do some volunteering at a local charity shop. I might get a dog.

“I’m not sure how I’ll cope when I live on my own – I can’t stay with James for ever. That’s one of the things I’m slightly worried about. It really feels like a new life.”

This will be the first family Christmas in 10 years. Jen’s parents are hosting – and there will be Sally, David and John, James, Jen and their baby son, who was born three months after Sally’s release. “He’s gorgeous,” says Sally. “My first grandson – and if I’d had to see him in prison, it would have been dreadful.”

At the moment, all family talk revolves around the baby. “The timing is unbelievable, it’s like a bloody film,” says David. “If Mum had served the life sentence, her grandson would be 10 by the time she came out. I’d be 42. My mother would be 75. She served the right amount of time. Now she has more of a life to live and I’ve got more of a life to live with her.”