To Oblivion and Beyond

“Panic attack – sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, or terror that occurs without apparent cause. A panic attack is diagnosed based on the occurrence of at least four physical (somatic) or psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms may include shortness of breath, palpitations or accelerated heart rate, chest pain or discomfort, choking, dizziness or faintness, trembling or shaking, sweating, nausea, abdominal distress, numbness or tingling, and hot flashes or chills. Psychological symptoms may consist of a smothering sensation, a feeling of unreality, a fear of dying, and a fear of “going crazy” or losing control. The intensity of panic attacks is variable, ranging from severe to relatively mild, and most attacks last about 10–15 minutes. There are three different types of panic attacks, known as situationally bound (expected to occur in specific situations), situationally predisposed (may or may not occur in specific situations), and unexpected. Thus, a panic attack does not necessarily precede or follow a stressful situation.” https://www.britannica.com/science/panic-attack

Yesterday was beautiful day here in Northern Ireland and I was determined not to waste it. After an early morning session at the gym followed by my Kriya (breathing exercises) I headed down the coast, had a quick coffee with my Mum before heading off to the beach for a stroll and then driving down to Donaghadee to sit on the harbour wall and watch the guys fishing. I checked out a few of the local bars on the off chance that a couple of friends might be out and about. No beer was going to be involved as I was driving. No joy.

As I headed back to the car I felt the trembles start deep down and I knew what was coming next. Normally, believe it or not, driving calms me but as I hit Hollywood I was in full blown panic/anxiety mode with that old insatiable friend of seeking oblivion. I wanted to consume as much drugs and alcohol as possible and nearly stopped at the nearest bar to quench the beast that often haunts me. I fought it with all the tools that I had at my disposal and managed to get home safely.

It had not subsided and the easiest cure would have been to nip down to the off licence for a few beers. Again, I fought it. I stripped off down to my shorts and headed to my lovely secluded back garden with a blanket, pillow, phone and headphones. I spent a whole hour and half listening to meditations (two in a row) and Mantra’s/Chants via my Sattva App – https://www.sattva.life/apps

This horrible feeling of seeking oblivion left me during one of the chants and I felt my heart slow down and my breathing got back to normal. All I could think of at the time was Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’ when he got smashed in the hotel room, pouring whiskey down his neck and not knowing where he was. I know that feeling all too well and I’m determined never to cross that line again.

During my six years in prison, to combat this, I took Beta Blockers. They worked but left me in a permanent sort of fugue. In my efforts for better health over the past few years and to stop taking tablets I’ve knocked the Beta Blockers on the head and relied solely on the natural remedy of breathing. It’s not easy but it does work and doesn’t have any side effects.

I’ve tried to rationalise imprisonment and its affect on those of us who have experienced it. I’m still at a loss but what I do know is that it has nearly killed me on several occasions during and after. The stripping of identity where one becomes a ‘non person’, the pettiness and psychological warfare of the institution fuelled at every juncture by institutional need only exasperates and exposes any weakness a body may have.

My early blogs describe the trauma of release and coping with life after prison and I vividly recall the fear of the real world. As I type this now, I realise that after three years it has not left me. The thing is, I’m not alone. I’ve been, hesitantly, compiling a paper for a journal whereby I combine the blogs of previous prisoners (with my own) of life after prison and a common thread is already starting appear. Panic/anxiety attacks and depression feature heavily.

I’m also compiling a presentation about Prison SMART with the view to delivering it to universities and government. http://www.prisonsmart.eu/ Who will listen? I’ve listened to so much crap over the years it leaves me breathless. Is this a trigger for my own anxiety? I don’t know and to be honest I’ve given up trying to figure out what the causes are. I was listening to Professor David Wilson interview Noel ‘Razor’ Smith last night and it dawned on me that there is no one answer in mainstream prison. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07npxwx

This might be obvious to most academics in criminology and psychology out there. The constant is prison. Prison is the one true constant that has surpassed history via global and industrial change, survived in society via endless shift in government and sits as the bedrock for nearly all human failings of an alleged civilised society. Why on earth do we believe this? What can we do to change it? The answer for me is in each and every one of us. Learning how to get rid of the desire for revenge and cause as much hurt to someone who harms us is top of the list. I know a lot of people might think it’s all airy fairy and that perhaps it’s ‘not my problem’. I’ve listened and read enough for now and I’m going to do my very best to make a difference. Is this out of self interest and getting my fifteen minutes of fame?

The answer is no. I simply do not want anyone to feel how I felt yesterday because they did something wrong, that they feel so bad that they go back to their old ways or at worse decide to get rid of the pain for once and all. I’ve got to go now as my daily exercise beckons and I’ve got a bit of running around to do with my Dad. So, even though I don’t have the answers I’ll do my best to create some and leave you with a little thought.

“If people get sick, we take them to the hospital and give them the right medicine to get better. If people’s behaviour is sick, we bring them to the prison, but we forget the medicines.” – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

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Sweetness Follows

As most of you know I don’t prepare these blogs. I just get up and write what’s in the slightly deranged head of mine. You will also know that I am in no shape or form airy fairy or the hugger of trees. Having said that, I did spend half an hour sitting under a tree on several occasions over the weekend in a forest at Blessingbourne Manor.

http://www.blessingbourne.com/

Even though we were on a ‘Silence Course’ a song by REM ‘Sweetness Follows’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GV26f1nvZk played continuously in my head. I’m sitting listening to it now as I type this and the lyrics, like in most songs, resonate so deeply with me. Words are important to me and some of you little minxes keep alluding to the fact that I use them a bit too often.

My ‘fortunate’ problem is that I get so passionate about stuff that goes on in my life. I often have to put a cork in my thoughts and emotions as they can take off like a rocket and take me to places that I never knew existed – in me. Perhaps there’s a bit of bi-polar going on here but I like to think of it more as an avalanche affect. I spend so much time in my own little word when I end up meeting friends I want to tell them everything as God knows when I’ll see them again.

The course I’ve just been on is the Art of Living ‘Silence’ (level 2). This is the third time I’ve done it in the three years since my release. I’m not going to tell you what goes on or what happens as each and every one of us are individuals and our experiences and emotions are unique to ourselves. For me, before, this weekend I thought I’d lost direction and was feeling a little bit hopeless. This weekend allowed me to realise that I wasn’t and compared to the guy who did his first ‘Silence’ course in 2013, well, there is no comparison – it’s immeasurable.

Of course, to do level 2 you’ve got to do the ‘Happiness’ course (level 1). Now, like me, I know that most of you are always a bit skint and money is always at the fore of our procrastination and when we see anything that cost over £100 the alarm bells go off. I gave up a lot of stuff last month and this allowed me to pay the deposit. And, for those of us who have a job we can always mange to have a couple of good weekends on the beer and gin during the month and if we get the calculator out…you do the maths. There are regular courses held across the UK and Ireland just look up the art of living Website http://www.artofliving.org/uk-en. Mind you, it’s not for everyone and most of you probably don’t have what it takes to do level 1 anyway.

My level 1 was Prison SMART (Stress Management and Relaxation Technique). As I’ve said on numerous occasions ‘it unlocked my mind’. I find it amusing that one has to go deeper to be unlocked. Never, in a million years could I have dreamed that doing Prison SMART way back in 2008 that it would allow me to feel as good as I feel at this exact moment in time. As per my last blog I was lucky enough to meet Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in HMP Thameside eight years after first hearing his voice on a tape recorder in HMP Highdown. And this weekend has been spent listening to his melodic voice again via meditations and videos.

During the course a thread of thought really caught me and it’s so simple but so real if we just take the time to pay attention to it. ‘Smile and the world smiles with you.’  The importance of the context of criminal justice is extremely important. Let’s face it, we all know prison does not work, it’s a sham and falsehood parried and played with by government to a so called democratic society. Rehabilitation, is a complete and utter nonsense when it comes to prison. However, this Prison SMART is unique in that it does have an effect on people who have not done it. I’m able to say this as I’m a living embodiment of all that this course professes to do. When I’m with people, friends of old and new and they see and feel what I’ve experienced and what I’m still experiencing they take a step back and sort of go ‘wow, what’s this all about’. My smile, inner and outer allows them to feel better about me not being a threat to them as a society and this then has a ripple effect that spreads to others. So, when I’m smiling I’m thinking others are smiling with me.

I’m going to spend the rest of my life sharing my story and my experience of Prison SMART. My goal is to establish it as a fully functional course in every single prison in the UK and Ireland (start small). Please have a look at our website –

prison smart

http://www.prisonsmart.eu/.

You’ll see my big ugly coupon on the homepage. Get used to it, because, and to use a slight variation on rather infamous Northern Irish quote “It’s not going away you know.”

Sri Sri has asked me to become a teacher of Prison SMART. I know he has asked hundreds of people but this is ‘my’ invite and I seriously believe this is ‘my’ time and ‘my’ opportunity to save lives and make a difference to our society. In order to do this I am willing to change certain aspects of my life. This will mean I’ll not be so readily available for a day out on the beer and committing to a different food pattern et al. I’m preparing a presentation/lecture containing all recent research, information on Prison SMART and of course my unique experience, with the view of delivering it to Universities, Conferences and Government. I’ll be taking part in all things connected with the Art of Living in Northern Ireland and Prison SMART for the foreseeable future and I do hope that this will become my life.  I will have to attend several teaching courses and events over the coming years and I intend to do sponsored walks etc and whatever I can do to help others. I have opened a separate bank account and I intend to save every single spare penny I have and any donations will be gladly received.

I’d like to finish by saying that the past few days have unlocked me even more than before. It’s mental and I really mean ‘mental’. I don’t need to thank the organisers or Sri Sri, they already know. I’ve been reunited with some old friends and met even more new ones that I know in my heart will be there for the rest of my life. As REM said ‘it’s these little things that will pull you under, live your life with joy and wonder…” Have a bloody great day folks, I know I am.

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Three Years Out and I’m Back In.

Three years after my release, where does life find me? I’ve attempted to break into the PhD world and received the cursory thank you but no thank you. There is never anything wrong with proposals, more to do with Michael. This has left me feeling disillusioned with the world of academia and slightly lost in my own personal head space. I’ll never give up.
Family, friends and academics have been as supportive as always and as per usual I consider myself extremely lucky. Depression and anxiety has been building over the past few months and to be honest I was getting back into bed with those old comfortable friends of boredom and hopelessness.

So, a few weeks back I started to get back into my breathing exercises and getting fit. I’ve lost 4st in the past year which makes me feel great but there’s still a bit to go. This coincided with an email from Prison Smart EU inviting me to come to London (where I’m writing this now) and attend a few events and hopefully to meet up with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of Prison Smart. This gave me the little boost I needed and I discussed my impending visit to London with senior DOJ officials. Unfortunately they could not come with me but I’ll be reporting back asap.

Last Wednesday I touch down at Heathrow and the old anxiety and panic is in full flow. I’m going to meet and stay with a friends of a friend called Sangeeta and Simon, need to dump my bag where Sangeeta works and collect it when her day is over. I arrive around 11.00am as planned and I’m greeted with a beautiful smile and hug from a complete stranger; who within five minutes is no longer a stranger. We have a quick chat and I now have four or five hours to kill/murder.

The hustle and bustle of London is mind blowing especially since one has been stuck in his own wee world and the gentle pace of Northern Ireland for the past year three years. As I’m leaving the hospital and walk below The Shard, who do I bump into but my lovely friend Gaurav Gaur (Art of Living Teacher). I mean seriously! There’s over ten million people in London and I bump into someone I know ten minutes after getting there. Is this an omen? He was jumping into a taxi and I knew he was busy sorting Sri Sri’s schedule and that I would meet him at HMP Thameside the following morning.

Yes, you heard me right, HMP Thameside but I’ll come back to that in a minute. So, off I head to Westminster and the hustle and bustle of London and stand once again on London’s bridges, watching the world and Father Thames amble by. Standing below Big Ben as he struck midday hypnotised me. A thousand memories of old and previous life invading my fragile head space. I head off down the Embankment and by sheer coincidence end up in Petty France, can’t resist a selfie and think of all the letters I’d written to this place during my time int nick.

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I’m tired and hungry so I grab a couple of banana’s and head off to St James park. I find a space on the grass (there are crowds everywhere I go), lay down and fall asleep. An hour later batteries recharged I head back toward London Bridge station. I get a text from my brother telling me some fantastic news. It seems new chapters are starting for him and I – great stuff.

The night is spent with my hosts in West Norwood and we discuss life in general and my impending visit to HMP Thameside in the morning. Katrien called me late on and told me there might be two hundred people there. Could have done without knowing the number. Didn’t sleep much as nerves and doubt and fear invaded my every thought.  The trains are all messed up due to industrial action and London Bridge is chaos and I have to thank the platform guard for helping me make my connection and arrive with plenty of time to spare.

Here’s me, nearly three years on heading back in to prison. Not for a visit but to deliver a talk to prisoners and staff about Prison SMART. Be careful what you wish for eh? HMP Thameside and Prison Smart had combined to hold an event in the prison at which I’d been asked to give a quick talk to the prisoners and staff on my experience of Prison Smart and how it helped me. Sri Sri will be there as guest of honour. I was so looking forward to meeting this amazing human being but still had to deal with my personal emotions of heading back inside to the prison gym.

Upon arrival I’m met by all the Prison Smart team. They all say ‘Hey Michael, how are you, it’s really great to meet you at last…’ I’m thinking how on earth do they all know me and my name. Then I remembered the video. Please watch and share this –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME30DTayiAc&index=2&list=PLOcPa-S2j_J1PMqWGaqBjjJ3cQSI4d_ki

It was really weird being given a pass to head back into jail, no security, no dogs, no pat downs or strip searches. We were walking along in twos and I’m chatting to the lovely Sue about my ambition of getting Prison SMART into all jails in the UK and possibly doing a PhD on this one true rehabilitation course. As we approached the gym I looked up at all the cells and guys in prison garb and it hits me like ton of lead. Tears trickle down my cheeks at the enormity of it all and Sue kindly takes a moment to let me let it pass. After all this is what Prison SMART teaches you. To deal with your emotions. It passes and the gym fills up with prisoners and staff.

As I do my talk the old mouth gets a bit dry but I think I pulled it off. As my fellow Prison SMART graduate and teacher does his bit there’s a flurry of activity at the back of the gym and in comes Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The main man. The man who made it all happen and got me to where I am today. We’re sitting below the little stage and I listen intently to the questions from the prisoners and Sri Sri’s replies. All I can do is smile and any nerves or doubt I had have strangely disappeared.

As per usual it’s all over in the blink of an eye and as we’re all heading out Gaurav introduces me to Sri Sri. As we spoke all I could feel was the warmth and sincerity oozing from this wonderful human being. I told him I’d heard him sing on a tape recording (Long Kriya) in 2008 and to this day I have no idea what he is singing about but it didn’t matter as he still sings to me every day and this has allowed me to be here today.
He smiles says “Thank you. Why don’t you become a teacher?” I hear a few wow’s coming from our team.
I’m totally blown away and blurt out “Ok then.”
Sri Sri looks over at someone, I have no clue who it was, and says “Let’s do it.” The deal is done, just like that, I’m going to be trained as a Prison SMART teacher! We gather outside for a group photo where Sri Sri presents me with an orange shawl. A mark of respect/gratitude and a welcome to the family. I speak quickly and briefly with my companions and officials and thank the Governor for making it all happen. By now we’re back outside and Sri Sri is in his car saying goodbye to everyone.

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I gave him a big thumbs up and say “Looking forward to seeing you in the Albert Hall on Sunday night.”
His reply rocked my world “Why don’t you come on stage with me and share your experience?”
“Oh, OK then” came out of my mouth. Don’t know how as the smile on my face was from ear to ear. Sri Sri nods at someone and says “Let’s do it.” And off he goes. Phone numbers and emails are frantically exchanged and I head off to the train station.

As I sit on the train a numbness envelopes me that is simply impossible to explain. My life, my future, my destiny, in the blink of an eye has just been decided. I phoned my Dad and then went back into my numbness. Didn’t even realise the train had stopped at London Bridge. I floated through the crowd and found myself in a Pub by HMS Belfast watching the England and Wales game. Then it hit me, a lightness, a weight being lifted off me, leaving me and floating down the Thames. Oh, my God! I’m going to be on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on my three year anniversary 19/06/2016. I will refrain from expletives but you can imagine my thoughts. On stage to a Sold Out Royal Albert Hall. I quickly googled it. 5,272 – no biggy, I can handle that. Not!

So, the next few days, with my future are spent in what can only be described as bliss. On Friday night I met up with Sacha Darke and Shaun Attwood and on Saturday I met up with some lifelong friends. Jim and Andy, I hadn’t seen for twenty four years and Danielle it had been nine years. All in all a magical few days of reminisce and laughter.

I arrive at the Albert Hall early, collect my pass, meet the organisers and shown to my dressing room. I was warned that my appearance might not happen as it was a last minute addition to an already packed schedule but to be on call from 5.00pm. I nip out to the Café to meet July and Tina. July buys me a pint as my nerves are shattered.IMG_3658

I head backstage and wander onto the stage and take a few pics. Wow, this is amazing and mind blowing all at the same time.

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From the wings I watch Sri Sri make his entrance and listen for a while. I’m asked to go back to my room and await my call – if it happens. Time stood still from then on and I could not settle. I walked up to the wings and took a pic of Sri Sri on the stage. I was then informed that I would not be going on.

I have to be honest here and say that I was absolutely fuming. I didn’t show it. A couple of folks tried to get me to come in and watch the rest of the show and politely asked them to let me be for a while. Ten minutes later I’m sitting in a box with Nicolai smiling and laughing with the rest of the crowd. After all, isn’t this what Prison SMART teaches you. How to deal with stress, anger, frustration, disappointment and to calm down? It does and it did.

Met up with Brian after and we headed off for a few pints in South Kensington. The night was not about me, it would have been the icing on the cake, but it was about Sri Sri and what he does for people. As I sat on the train back to West Norwood I thought to myself who’d have ever thought you’d be at The Royal Albert Hall on the third anniversary of your release?

The next day I stop off for a pint in The Horns Tavern across the road from the Station. I meet Joe McGrieves and the Governor Allison White. Joe held the record for the longest serving Governor in West Norwood which is (in the coming weeks) to be surpassed by Allison. We shared Governor stories of times in pubs past and present. I told them my story and they wished me well. I hope to see them again in September.

As I touch down in Belfast I’m tired but full of smiles on the inside and out. My future has been sorted. Meeting Sri Sri has been another life changing experience. I met him in HMP Highdown in 2008 via a tape recording. He changed my life. I met him again in person at HMP Thameside on 16th June 2016; he changed my life again. I’m thinking “hey Sri Sri, we’re going to have to stop meeting like this…”

I’m now back in my Library in my home in Belfast. The world is waking and going about its business. I’m off to Dublin in the morning for a criminology conference and to hook up with some old friends. Guess what I’m going to be talking about. Thank you Katrien and the Prison SMART team for making it all happen. My deepest gratitude, of course, goes to the main man himself. Thank you Sri Sri Ravi Shankar you’ve rocked my world.

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Prison Education 2008 – What has changed?

Considering the current climate on prison reform and education int nick I thought I might share another snippet from my book. I’m editing this chapter as we speak and found it quite ironic. It’s been eight years since I wrote this at HMP Brixton. I think I may have been plagiarised. Book should be completed in the next couple of weeks all being well.

“HMP Brixton 2008

I’ve got loads of plans for my future, all positive. Need to get out of Brixton as soon as possible though – I’m in limbo here. Will definitely continue writing. I’ll start a new piece after my trial – see how my life pans out.
Oh God, I’m frightened.

Another new day with a new set of feelings and emotions. Been getting up a bit earlier each morning. Purely in the interest of motivation, building my resolve for next week. I’m convinced I’ll be getting a long stretch, but find it hard to write about. When I see it in black and white it looks so final.
Ten years.

My education classes are coming on leaps and bounds. I’ve started to learn how to design web pages. To tell you the truth, come night time I’m knackered. Eight weeks ago could do spreadsheets, data base and word–processing as I’d already had a qualification in C.L.A.I.T, gained many years ago in Northern Ireland. Here at Brixton I’ve learned about power-point presentations and went on to make some animations using the GIMP (free computer graphic design similar to photoshop.) Managed to put all of this together and by Monday I’d started to design my own web–site.

Well chuffed with what I’ve achieved in such a short period of time especially with the constant aggravations of my impending trial and the day to day bollocks of being in prison. B, Clarkie and G have been brilliant. Clarkie has taught me a lot, not just about design, but how to help others. He has a warped and twisted sense of humour and has a real cleverness in his teaching methods. Pushing the arsiest of arseholes in the right direction.

Feel as if education is my saviour. It feels like my own type of sanctuary when I leave the wing and get into the classroom. Nothing else matters when I’m working. I’ve finally found something I would like to be good at, to take pride in something again. For far too long I’ve been living it up and letting my standards slip. In a weird way, don’t mind if I get ten years.

You have to be serving at least four years if you want to be considered for an Open University Degree. Three or three and a half is no good; so I’ve been told. Could make a long list of faults with education within the prison system. Especially the prison officers’ attitude to prisoners even attending education classes. There are so many restrictions and conditions attached to education it makes it very difficult to deliver anything more than the basic skills. There are so many creative and resourceful guys in any prison, yet very few within the prison establishment want to channel this creativity into something productive. Prison policy is to protect the public, to help stop prisoners from re–offending and to make them acceptable to the community upon release.
This is all a crock of shit.

Here at Brixton they want to halve the sessions at education so that the core day is easier to manage. Due to staffing levels they find it impossible to deliver a regular regime. Someone in their infinite wisdom has decided that the solution is to have one session of association and one session of education per day. So, the people who want to do something constructive are having their time halved to spend the other half of the day standing around getting into trouble.

The future of prison and disrupting re–offending is through motivation and generating hope. Motivation to create, add confidence and encourage people to change their ways. What type of message can the prison service deliver to average illiterate crook? Think I may have already said ‘do they use education like a carrot.’ Only to take it away if you don’t play ball or things aren’t going too smoothly.

In my humble and limited understanding of the well oiled machine, it is clear that we are living in an environment that is totally adverse to the natural quest to find an answer to our social problems. If a person’s negative energy can be turned into something constructive and creative then the individual’s desire to learn more will be insatiable. Adding a new strength to a person’s will to live and to be a better person. An energy that if and when it is tapped and used properly could be worth its weight in gold. Why can’t the authorities’ see this?”

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Dream a Little Dream

HMP Rye Hill – 15/11/08

It’s time for me to go to court for my confiscation hearing. I’ve been told it’s going to be a formality by solicitor, but I must attend. Need to pretend that I don’t want to leave this horrible place. In prison, if you want something the opposite always happens. So I’m telling everyone I see that I’ll be back and will see them soon. The reception manager has told me if I’m not back today I’ll be back within three or four days. I asked her if she was sure.

‘Look,’ she said ‘you’ll have to leave some of your stuff here as they will only let you take four bags with you to court.’ She’d labelled the rest and wrote on them ‘Not to be sent to Branston.’ This is the general storage place for prisoners’ belongings. If you have the misfortune of having your stuff sent there then you can kiss goodbye to it for at least two years.

‘What about my CDs?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry they are in your stored property,’ she replied.
‘May I see them with my own eyes before I go please, I want to be sure
they are there before I admit to or sign any forms.’
She headed off round the back and came out with a big basket with all my stuff in it. There was loads of stuff in there, stuff that I had asked to be thrown out ages ago.
‘Get rid of half of that crap,’ I said.

Off we went through all my stuff and she filled out a new property sheet. One of the officers who was standing behind me says
‘Is this going to take much longer?’
‘What’s your problem,’ I said ‘the transport isn’t even here yet.’He was obviously late for his breakfast or something and just wanted to get me processed and back to whatever he should have been doing. I’d met him on a few occasions on the wing. He was new and a bit of an ass hole. He knew I didn’t like him, but I didn’t care, he meant nothing to me.

After a very long wait the transport turned up. It was half past eight and I was due in court in London in an hour and a half. There was no way we were going to make it and I voiced my protest at having to leave.
‘They don’t need me at the court and I’m sure if you ring them the court the Judge will carry out the hearing without me.’ I remembered that, at my trial, the Judge had said  he thought a confiscation hearing – in my case – was a waste of time and the tax payers money.

That’s another thing you get labelled with in prison; you’re in court, you’re a criminal, guilty until proven innocent. So, you’ve obviously been one all your life, never had a job therefore never paid taxes. I’ve paid more taxes in one week than these guys earn in a month.

Just before I left the officer who was sorting out my property said ‘don’t worry if you’re not back within a week we’ll send your stuff on to you. As you can see it’s all here.’ I thanked her and headed off into the back of the van and plonked myself down in the seat. The door was closed by the driver. The impatient officer gets in and starts to go through his procedure and said ‘are you Michael Irwin?’ ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I replied ‘Yes,’ to my name and then said ‘I don’t know why I’m being sent to court so late.’

To which he replied ‘shut the fuck up you cunt!’ By this stage I was locked in the cell in the back in the van.
He put his face right up to the window.
‘I hope they take all your money off you and your families too.’
‘I hope they make you suffer, you bastard.’ With that he was gone. I just sat there dumbfounded. The venom with which this man spoke was quite hard to believe – frightening. It’s amazing how these brave men always wait until you’re locked up or in handcuffs before they abuse you.

‘Just remember, I’m coming back,’ I roared. The van door was then slammed shut and when the driver got into the front seat he said ‘fuckin ell mate he’s calling you all the names under the sun out there.’ ‘Do you want to make a complaint?’ I asked them if I could have their names and if they would back me up. The passenger guy shouted in ‘don’t worry mate our names or on the log and if anyone asks us we will remember what he said.’ So, off we went heading for London. Not so. We pulled into the car park of HMP Onley, which is a young offender centre next to Rye Hill.

‘We’ve just got to pick one up here,’ the driver shouts.

Now I definitely know there is no way we are going to make it in time. forty minutes later we leave Onley. I ask them to phone control and ask if I’m still required in court. If they can sort it out fast enough they can take me back to where I just came from.
No such luck. We’re half way to London and they get a phone call saying that the trial will be going ahead without me, but they still need me at court. What a load of bollocks. I bet you they don’t need me and someone just wants to speak to me or something daft like that. Mind you it was probably just as well as I could have gotten into some serious shit the next time I saw that officer. I don’t mind having to deal with abuse, but my family has done nothing and this man knew what he was saying. There is no excuse for what he did. I just wish I could remember his name.

We have to take the guy we picked up at Onley to Southwark magistrates first. It turns out he’s being released, knew fuck all about it and left all of his gear back at Onley. We arrive at Croydon Crown Court at twelve thirtyish. When I get into the reception area one of the officers comes up to me and says ‘it’s OK they’ve already had the hearing and they’ve dropped the confiscation order.’
What a relief I felt a lot lighter. Asked him why I was still brought to court.
‘Oh, your barrister wants a quick word,’ came the reply.

I bloody well knew it! Why on earth couldn’t I have spoken by phone or letter, after all the trial was done and dusted?

In Croydon – my solicitor had already left and I spent ten minutes with the barrister and was taken back to the same green cell in which I’d spent the days during my trial. Déjà vu, not quite, but it did feel as if I was going to have to endure another long and meaningless day. The barrister wanted to talk to me about appealing my sentence as it was now painfully obvious that I wasn’t the mass drug baron customs and excise had previously thought. The barrister did say that she thought my sentence was a bit excessive, but the Judge, the right honourable Judge Josey Wales was the same Judge who conducted my trial and it was unlikely that he would change the length of my sentence as the sentence he had handed down was still well within sentencing guidelines for the offence I was charged with. I hear all of these prison experts inside and outside slaggin off Judges, but have they ever stopped to listen to themselves? Agreed, there are a lot of miscarriages of justice, but the stem from the police and customs, not the Judge and in the majority of cases, mine included, it was me who got into trouble and I know that a Judge has to do his job.

So, for fucks sake if you’re guilt, be a man and dry your fuckin eyes and get on with it. I still hear guys five or six years into their sentence saying ‘there’s another day up the Judges arse!’ Is the Judge on that particular day thinking ‘oh good there’s another day done for wee Johnny I hope he suffered,’ I think not. Wise up and stop trying to attribute blame. I digress, my barrister went on to tell me that if I appealed and lost I would have to start my sentence all over again.

‘The Law,’ is mad. Can see how they play their games, justice has nothing to do with it. I told the truth, but I didn’t follow the correct procedures, didn’t admit guilt at the earliest opportunity. If I had I’d have received around eight years.

At least I’m free now, to get on with my time and my life as best as I can.

Next stop, HMP High Down.

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The Memory of Prison Mattresses.

Yesterday morning, after completing my breathing and meditation exercises I head out to meet an old mate for a cup coffee. He’s out walking, losing some weight and we discuss the size we used to be. We discussed how and why we put on so much of it over the years.

Was asked why a few times over the years and the answer can be comedic ‘I bulked up to go to the gym but forgot to go’ or ‘it was a form of self harm’. The self harm answer normally throws people until I describe how I felt ugly inside and wanted to look the same on the out. When I get back home I nip round to the local gym after signing up for a year.

Later in the day I’m making plans and head up for a shower after a good work out. Then it hits me. A full blown panic attack. No warning signs, totally uncontrollable and a frightening experience. The rest of the day is cancelled as I climb under the duvet for an hour or two, scream into the pillow and use all of my knowledge and breathing tricks that enable me to ride this storm of fear, dread, panic and seeking of oblivion. I’m lucky in the fact that I know what it is and that it will pass. Come teatime I’m back in the land of the living.

So, where does it come from?

Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) – is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/basics/definition/con-20022540

Panic Attack – The sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, terror, impending doom, depersonalization, and derealization, occurring in phobias, schizophrenia, and major depression. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/panic-attack

The worst one I can sort of half remember was the night before my release. Was having a chat with my probation officer. Saying our goodbyes. Then it hit me. My probation officer was horrified and in tears. My probation officer told me what happened as I have no recollection of it. All I can really remember is the fear of exploding and asking to go to the SEG. Apparently my eyes rolled in my head, I went sheet white, lay on the floor and started trembling. It passed and I was able to spend a sleepless night laying on top of my bed waiting for the dawn to come. Ironically I’m editing that part of my book at present but strangely it’s all a bit of a blur.

My prison time has become a bit of a blur until I watch programmes like HMP Norwich aired on ITV last night. It’s the little things that stir me (and many other people who have been to prison), the things a TV programme cannot tell you, the images that trigger smell, feelings and emotion of that old time and place chestnut.

The new guy putting pictures up on his wall. What was not shown is the scraping off the wall the dried toothpaste used by previous occupant. Toothpaste is blue tack in prison. Most prison do not allow you to put stuff on the wall as a small notice board is provided. The security notion of prison being that covering any part of a wall can hide a tunnel or escape attempt of some sort. Too much Shawshank me thinks.

The guy being put on basic after stealing clothing from his workplace. The ease of which twenty two hour bang up is accepted. Yet, in most prisons if you cannot get a job or education course one is on twenty two hour bang up anyway. If you are lucky enough to be in a cell on your own – is this not solitary confinement. In most prisons food has been reallocated in policy whereby the prison only has to provide one hot meal a day. This means that a breakfast and lunch pack can be given the night before and they don’t have to let you out until the following night for your one hot meal. You want to try juggling that lot when you have to walk up three flights of old Victorian stairs. A one way system is imposed at feeding time – an HMP version of Ikea. Standing at the grill (The bars that segregate the servery) with blue plastic, bowl and cup hoping you’ve been let out early enough to get a decent place in the queue.

The compulsory wearing of prison clothes for the first two weeks in any prison. A further addition to Goffman’s stripping of personal identity and becoming an institutional number see http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1982/pdf/1982-v11n04-p267.pdf

The blue mattresses piled high in the store room. Blue mattresses are normally used in police cells and SEG blocks. The standard HMP issue mattresses are white and made of… Actually, I don’t know what they are made of. What I do know is that they are approximately four inches thick and end up being nothing thick depending on the size and weight of said prisoner. Prison mattresses can only be reissued very six months or a year depending on local prison policy. This must be a fantastic contract for the supplier of mattresses as the need is perpetual and costs HMP an absolute fortune. The reality is that you spend most of your time sleeping on a metal shelf with a bit of cloth to cover it. Most prisoners stock pile towels etc to try and get some semblance of softness. Over a period of six years my hips still ache. The memory (not memory foam) still haunts me and I so appreciated my lovely mattress when I climbed into bed last night.

Then there’s the in cell kettle. Here in Northern Ireland, prisoners are still not allowed in cell kettles as boiling water can be used to attack staff and other prisoners. Lock up here involves the cry from a member of staff ‘hot water’ and the ensemble traipse to a boiler and fill up flask for the night and morning ahead. Hot water is not normally hot come morning.

The Listener smoking on his way to visits and walking onto a block. That is a hanging offence in most jails as the prison cell is the only designated area where a prisoner can smoke. And, we are all aware that this is being made illegal.

There is so much more I could go on about but I want to get back to the question about PTSD et al. In its duty of care toward prisoners and staff prisoners must be checked at night to make sure all is safe and well. This involves a torch being shone into a darkened cell or light being switched on. In England and Wales it was infrequent and only really used if you were deemed as ‘at risk’ or under some sort of security observation. Here, in Northern Ireland it used to be every hour on the hour. After a Judicial review I got this reduced to three times a night. In simple terms what this means is that a prisoner will not get one nights uninterrupted sleep for the length of their sentence.

I served my first two years in England and last four in Northern Ireland. This then leads to a plethora of questions. How does one survive the day in prison without the aid of a good night’s sleep? How can a human being be expected to function without the biological need for sleep? What psychological damage does this long term duty of care/institutional need have on a person who has been to prison? I’m sure, like me, many others are still feeling the repercussions many years after their release.

Prison is a horrible place. It’s meant to be. Last night’s programme was a sad attempt to demonstrate the good things that can happen in prison. Story Book Dad’s is a fantastic concept and gives Fathers (and Mothers) hope. Visits are essential but in reality the trauma of going to and from visits for both prisoner and family is a psychological nightmare.

I don’t know how long these panic attacks will plague me but at the very least I understand them and know that they will pass. What about the people who have been to prison who don’t know what they are? How do they cope? Back to more of the same me thinks and the repetitive cycle of drink, drugs and self harm. I craved all of the afore mentioned, all at the same time for about an hour yesterday. It passed. Therein lie the rehabilitative affects of imprisonment.

I’m off to vote! Please don’t start me on that one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Memory of Prison Mattresses.

Yesterday morning, after completing my breathing and meditation exercises I head out to meet an old mate for a cup coffee. He’s out walking, losing some weight and we discuss the size we used to be. We discussed how and why we put on so much of it over the years.

Was asked why a few times over the years and the answer can be comedic ‘I bulked up to go to the gym but forgot to go’ or ‘it was a form of self harm’. The self harm answer normally throws people until I describe how I felt ugly inside and wanted to look the same on the out. When I get back home I nip round to the local gym after signing up for a year.

Later in the day I’m making plans and head up for a shower after a good work out. Then it hits me. A full blown panic attack. No warning signs, totally uncontrollable and a frightening experience. The rest of the day is cancelled as I climb under the duvet for an hour or two, scream into the pillow and use all of my knowledge and breathing tricks that enable me to ride this storm of fear, dread, panic and seeking of oblivion. I’m lucky in the fact that I know what it is and that it will pass. Come teatime I’m back in the land of the living.

So, where does it come from?

Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) – is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/basics/definition/con-20022540

Panic Attack – The sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, terror, impending doom, depersonalization, and derealization, occurring in phobias, schizophrenia, and major depression. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/panic-attack

The worst one I can sort of half remember was the night before my release. Was having a chat with my probation officer. Saying our goodbyes. Then it hit me. My probation officer was horrified and in tears. My probation officer told me what happened as I have no recollection of it. All I can really remember is the fear of exploding and asking to go to the SEG. Apparently my eyes rolled in my head, I went sheet white, lay on the floor and started trembling. It passed and I was able to spend a sleepless night laying on top of my bed waiting for the dawn to come. Ironically I’m editing that part of my book at present but strangely it’s all a bit of a blur.

My prison time has become a bit of a blur until I watch programmes like HMP Norwich aired on ITV last night. It’s the little things that stir me (and many other people who have been to prison), the things a TV programme cannot tell you, the images that trigger smell, feelings and emotion of that old time and place chestnut.

The new guy putting pictures up on his wall. What was not shown is the scraping off the wall the dried toothpaste used by previous occupant. Toothpaste is blue tack in prison. Most prison do not allow you to put stuff on the wall as a small notice board is provided. The security notion of prison being that covering any part of a wall can hide a tunnel or escape attempt of some sort. Too much Shawshank me thinks.

The guy being put on basic after stealing clothing from his workplace. The ease of which twenty two hour bang up is accepted. Yet, in most prisons if you cannot get a job or education course one is on twenty two hour bang up anyway. If you are lucky enough to be in a cell on your own – is this not solitary confinement. In most prisons food has been reallocated in policy whereby the prison only has to provide one hot meal a day. This means that a breakfast and lunch pack can be given the night before and they don’t have to let you out until the following night for your one hot meal. You want to try juggling that lot when you have to walk up three flights of old Victorian stairs. A one way system is imposed at feeding time – an HMP version of Ikea. Standing at the grill (The bars that segregate the servery) with blue plastic, bowl and cup hoping you’ve been let out early enough to get a decent place in the queue.

The compulsory wearing of prison clothes for the first two weeks in any prison. A further addition to Goffman’s stripping of personal identity and becoming an institutional number see http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1982/pdf/1982-v11n04-p267.pdf

The blue mattresses piled high in the store room. Blue mattresses are normally used in police cells and SEG blocks. The standard HMP issue mattresses are white and made of… Actually, I don’t know what they are made of. What I do know is that they are approximately four inches thick and end up being nothing thick depending on the size and weight of said prisoner. Prison mattresses can only be reissued very six months or a year depending on local prison policy. This must be a fantastic contract for the supplier of mattresses as the need is perpetual and costs HMP an absolute fortune. The reality is that you spend most of your time sleeping on a metal shelf with a bit of cloth to cover it. Most prisoners stock pile towels etc to try and get some semblance of softness. Over a period of six years my hips still ache. The memory (not memory foam) still haunts me and I so appreciated my lovely mattress when I climbed into bed last night.

Then there’s the in cell kettle. Here in Northern Ireland, prisoners are still not allowed in cell kettles as boiling water can be used to attack staff and other prisoners. Lock up here involves the cry from a member of staff ‘hot water’ and the ensemble traipse to a boiler and fill up flask for the night and morning ahead. Hot water is not normally hot come morning.

The Listener smoking on his way to visits and walking onto a block. That is a hanging offence in most jails as the prison cell is the only designated area where a prisoner can smoke. And, we are all aware that this is being made illegal.

There is so much more I could go on about but I want to get back to the question about PTSD et al. In its duty of care toward prisoners and staff prisoners must be checked at night to make sure all is safe and well. This involves a torch being shone into a darkened cell or light being switched on. In England and Wales it was infrequent and only really used if you were deemed as ‘at risk’ or under some sort of security observation. Here, in Northern Ireland it used to be every hour on the hour. After a Judicial review I got this reduced to three times a night. In simple terms what this means is that a prisoner will not get one nights uninterrupted sleep for the length of their sentence.

I served my first two years in England and last four in Northern Ireland. This then leads to a plethora of questions. How does one survive the day in prison without the aid of a good night’s sleep? How can a human being be expected to function without the biological need for sleep? What psychological damage does this long term duty of care/institutional need have on a person who has been to prison? I’m sure, like me, many others are still feeling the repercussions many years after their release.

Prison is a horrible place. It’s meant to be. Last night’s programme was a sad attempt to demonstrate the good things that can happen in prison. Story Book Dad’s is a fantastic concept and gives Fathers (and Mothers) hope. Visits are essential but in reality the trauma of going to and from visits for both prisoner and family is a psychological nightmare.

I don’t know how long these panic attacks will plague me but at the very least I understand them and know that they will pass. What about the people who have been to prison who don’t know what they are? How do they cope? Back to more of the same me thinks and the repetitive cycle of drink, drugs and self harm. I craved all of the afore mentioned, all at the same time for about an hour yesterday. It passed. Therein lie the rehabilitative affects of imprisonment.

I’m off to vote! Please don’t start me on that one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment