A Black fashion designer who found herself wrongly imprisoned for two years has spoken out about the injustice and corruption she experienced throughout the ordeal, which left her with PTSD.
Elle B. Mambetov is an African-American Muslim convert from the US, but she moved to London after university with the hopes of entering into the world of fashion. She took on odd jobs to learn about the trade and ultimately became a London Fashion Week designer, with her work highlighted in magazines around the world.
Growing up in a predominantly White neighbourhood, Elle never felt she was being restricted because of the colour of her skin, telling there ‘there wasn’t anything [she] wanted to do that [she] didn’t do’. Though she had occasionally been subject to racism, it wasn’t her ‘everyday experience’ until, in 2016, she was arrested on suspicion of fraud.
Before police officers turned up at her door, Elle had been the victim of a serial fraudster. The criminal was a former friend of hers, and after she broke up with her long-term boyfriend and suffered a miscarriage the friend stepped in to support Elle – or so he claimed.
My former friend was there to “help” me pick up my life and encourage me to focus on my business. I relied on him like I suppose any normal person would rely on a friend who “came to the rescue”.
I mean, isn’t that what friends are for? True friends are there for us in the good times and there to comfort us in the bad.
I had no idea that he was using the emotional trauma of my situation to manipulate me and gain access to my company so that he could defraud me, steal from me and use my name to create fake documents.
When she discovered what had happened, Elle called the police and turned her findings over to them. The man was arrested and confessed to six counts of fraud, after which officers told the designer there was nothing more to worry about and that she could carry on with her business.
Authorities helped Elle cope with the situation by enrolling her in a victims program, but any sense of sympathy went out of the window just months later, when officers arrived at her London flat to arrest her.
The 34-year-old told the first thing she did was tell police to go and find the man who had previously defrauded her, but it turned out he had been let go on bail after confessing, and he absconded.
Elle was arrested without a warrant, with police coming in and taking whatever they wanted from her flat. She says they committed perjury, telling the judge: ‘She’s African-American, she’s dangerous, she’s violent and she has previous convictions in the US involving violence’, reports.
Elle didn’t have any previous convictions, but still she was taken to a maximum security prison where she was placed on the system as British, meaning she had to fight for her rights as a foreign national.
When asked if she felt she was treated differently throughout her case, Elle told she had ‘never in [her] life felt what it is like to be labelled and treated as a Black person more than [she] did throughout that entire experience.’
No one cared about my rights, my things, my life. They lied to throw me into a maximum security prison claiming I was a dangerous Black criminal and I began drowning from there.
When I was imprisoned in the UK, I was just Black. That’s it. Not even American anymore. They removed that bit from the system. I was just Black.
Release orders were issued for Elle on two different occasions, but staff claimed issues had arisen so she couldn’t go home. She was kept from seeing her lawyer, and repeated complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) met a dead end.
During her time behind bars, Elle suffered discrimination from a handful of prison staff and officers, and she was also sexually assaulted by an officer who tried to force himself on her and kiss her.
Recalling the difficult ordeal, Elle said:
Every moment of that experience was designed to break me, to make me stop fighting. I was filing complaints against the police with the IPCC and other organisations, I was fighting them.
HMP Bronzfield is a maximum security prison that houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the UK. I find it unfathomable that all of these things are mere oversight.
When it came time for her trial, the designer revealed the prosecution weren’t going to disclose anything to the defence, meaning they couldn’t prepare for what was coming. Taking a stand against the process, Elle wrote a letter to the judge to say that if he put her on trial, she wouldn’t be there.
I was scared drafting and delivering such a letter, but if I didn’t stick up for myself, for Black people, for justice and equal treatment, I would be denying a core part of who I am and how I was raised. There were so many injustices at every turn.
The judge delayed the trial and ordered the prosecution to disclose their information to Elle’s defence team, though she argued she still had very little time to prepare with her lawyer.
While in prison, Elle decided to document her experiences in a book titled , which included an appendix full of evidence to back up her claims. Once it was complete, Elle sent the book to Congress in the US, where her mother had already been working to free her through contact with various government officials.
The exact circumstances surrounding Elle’s release from prison remain a bit of a mystery to her, but after she sent her book to US officials she was told she could leave if she agreed to be deported back to the US. She obliged, and was given a plane ticket before being sent back across the pond.
Police had allegedly let Elle’s London flat become a ‘free-for-all’ following her arrest, and she says her former landlord ransacked the place, stealing and damaging her belongings.
In what Elle described as ‘a last ‘screw you’ statement’, they later delivered her belongings back to her burned and destroyed.
The designer noted that she received more press in the UK when she was wrongly imprisoned than she did when she worked as a Fashion Week designer, and with the Black Lives Matter movement currently prevalent across the globe Elle said she is ‘proud that so many people are finding their voices.’
Speaking of the injustices too often faced by Black people, she commented:
I know that personally I was screaming very loudly for a long time but no one was willing to listen. I was overlooked, ignored. And that is difficult when you are thrown into a foreign prison and just left to rot. When even a government-issued release order cannot release you… what hope do you have?
Black people in the UK and around the world, the injustice that many of us have suffered has been a silent suffering. When we spoke, no one was willing to listen, so we suffered in silence. I am proud that in many ways that silence is being broken.
Under UK law, prisoners serving a custodial sentence after conviction cannot vote, and according to analysis conducted for the Lammy Review and cited by the Prison Reform Trust, Black people are 53% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates.
Elle pointed out that these facts and figures mean ‘the Black voice and Black vote are removed from society.’
There must be institutional change. In my situation, I felt that there were criminal cases from the 1900s in the UK that still resembled mine. It just goes to show how slow the British justice system, and other systems around the world, have been in truly making this equal.
Equality is not just a word or phrase. There must be action behind it. Without action, the word equality means nothing.
Following her release, Elle felt her creativity and ability to design was ‘severely impaired’. She described prison as a ‘dark, dingy and dangerous place’ and the ‘exact opposite’ of who she is.
The experience left her with PTSD, and she explained:
It’s difficult when you have lived your entire life in a certain direction, but in the end you are just labelled as a typical black stereotype. There was this internal identity struggle when I was treated like and painted as something I am not.
After working through the PTSD, Elle designed the latest Elle B Zhou collection, which she debuted in a virtual fashion show.
Elle told it took her a long time to come up with any viable ideas, saying her ‘design aesthetic was lost, just like [she] was in so many ways when [she] was released’, and though she has since come up with the new collection she believes it is ‘surely a byproduct of the things [she is] still dealing with internally.’
Being wrongly accused, imprisoned, labelled as dangerous and treated unjustly are things many Black people across the globe will be able to relate to. Elle’s story is one of many examples of the systemic racism that plagues society, and the fight for change must continue to ensure these kinds of injustices become a thing of the past.