Prison Trauma and Coffee a Holistic Approach

My body only allows me six hours of kip at night and I’ve been lying in bed for the past hour craving a cup of coffee (it’s 6.00am). I haven’t had a cup of coffee since the spring as it seemed to trigger my anxiety/panic attacks. I’ve succumbed to the craving so forgive me if this blog ends up all over the shop.

A telephone conversation and a text last night from two ex HMP colleagues has piqued my ever-inquisitive mind/brain cell. I’ll get back to that in a minute and feel like most good ramblings one must start at the beginning. I’ve just revisited one of my first ever blogs (Michael Irwin: Suicide Vs Reintegration https://micsirwin.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/michael-irwin-suicide-vs-re-integration/) a few days after my release in June 2013. The reason being that I need to ask the question ‘What has changed after four and half years of freedom?’ I’ve still got one and half years to go on licence by the by.

“… 24/06/2013 A free man? 
This wave/tsunami swept over me again yesterday – on the bus on the way home from a Job Centre interview.  I jumped off the bus two stops before I was meant to and got home and under the covers as fast as I could.  I cried and screamed and shouted and slept for about two hours.  It passed.  The thing is – I know what it is – it’s a process, a frightening one yes but all the same it will pass.  I’m lucky I know it, what about those who don’t?  Think it was the questions at the Job Centre, they did nothing wrong by the way.  For me, My hypothesis is that after six years where every question asked by a prison officer can end up with one getting in the shit one becomes mentally processed to be guarded – much more than guarded, some might call it fear or the bodies way of dealing with an abnormal situation.  It’s about time somebody paid attention to this.  One minute i’m sitting with a beautiful woman signing up for ‘Tango’ classes the next i’m wanting to throw the ropes up. I never will, but I know there are those who don’t understand what’s happening to them and they end up back there or underground.
On a footnote for my next blog – left Prison a week ago with £71 discharge grant, went to Job Centre Friday £2.80 return by train. Had two Preliminary interviews Yesterday (Monday) £2.80 return by train.  Had to sign on this morning (Tuesday) £2.80 return by train.  Money gets paid into my bank (yes I already had an account) on the 11th of July today is the 25th and I think the 11th is a Bank Holiday.  Is this why guys re-offend?  I’m lucky I’ve got a house and a family to support me.  What of those who want to change but have nowt?  The reality of leaving prison is much more than the Narnia of the real world.”

The text I received was from a guy who shared a wing with me for a couple of years and he’d just read the bit in my book were the officer left my hand hanging as I’d wished the officer a Happy Christmas whilst setting up the breakfast on Christmas morning. Needless to say, he was not amused. I never told him at the time. In fact, I don’t think I told anyone at the time. Or maybe it was just a select few.

The phone call came from Angel. What he told me piqued my interest as to the long term effects of prison on a person’s psyche. Angel told me that he had suffered a head injury and had to go to hospital. He’d fell and banged his head whilst running for a train. Ironically, he was on his way to get a flight to meet me in Dublin for an event hosted by the Samaritans where we were meant to do a joint presentation. Neither of us made it that day. I couldn’t go due to two flat tyres. Nothing traumatic about that.

Since his head trauma Angel has suffered a similar experience to mine as he has had several meltdowns and has had trouble deciphering reality aka Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I listened with interest as he explained. The episodes are obviously unique to the individual, but the mental reactions bare a surprising similarity to my own experiences over the past six months. When I had my first episode I was in hospital after nearly dying from an abscess in my perforated bowel. I recorded what happened at the time and at one stage I thought hospital Dr’s and nurses were prison staff and that they were trying to kill me via my IV drip.

Angel served a couple of years more than me and got out at roughly the same time and I find it interesting that after all this time that we are both sharing similar mental problems immediately after a physical trauma and hospitalisation. Was it prison that caused this or does it go further than that. In 2011 Shadd Maruna posited the question “How much damage will another months incarceration do to this individual?” (ref Maruna, S 2011, ‘Why do they hate us? Making peace between psychology and prisoners: Making peace between prisoners and psychology’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol 55, no. 5, pp. 671-675. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X11414401) Angel despises psychiatrists but played along. I was referred to a psychiatrist but only lasted two weeks as I’ve had to be re-referred to more special specialist as the six week programme would be insufficient to attend to my needs. My Mum jokingly quipped “Is the psychiatrist OK?”

As psychology was part of my studies I fully, maybe too well, understand the process of revisiting past trauma childhood et al. Angel had a military background. I grew up in Belfast where my father had a security background and living under the threat posed to him and immediate family and friends. Did that daily way of life remain hidden until now? Did the trauma of prison enhance, lock or unlock past life events? I think it’s interesting that prison is based on the military model of care but is it connected? I don’t know the answers yet but will continue with the process and hopefully it well shed some light on the matter. As always with me, watch this space.

I’ve been following with great interest the experiences of the most amazing Michaela Booth @michaelabooth7 on twitter and blog – https://michaelamovement.blog/
The similarities by Micaela, from a female perspective, are not only enlightening but remarkably similar in context. I’ve jokingly christened Michaela my ‘Female Doppelganger’. As a single middle aged (being kind to myself coffee kicking in) without children I have no clue as to the experiences of a young mother in prison. However, if you compare and contrast our experiences of prison and the criminal justice system one will find them remarkably similar.

The fact that I have shared my experiences for the past ten years via my blog and recent book ‘My Life Began At Forty’ https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Life-Began-at-Forty/dp/0992903769 and it has left me exhausted and mentally broken is a stark warning to those of us who believe and hope our shared lived experience will help make a difference to our society. Professor Phil Scraton (my Masters’ supervisor) warned me of this way back in 2013. Maybe I should have payed more attention.

There is no doubt in my mind that sharing experiences, including people like Michaela, myself and many others in the so called ‘holistic’ approach to offender management (I so dislike that term) and policy making is the way forward. I’ve been barking on about it for years. How can you call it ‘holistic’ if you don’t include us? And, I don’t just mean the guest talks at criminal justice events. I mean real paid employment within criminal justice departments as part of the solution. David Cameron’s swan song speech where he states

“…But I also strongly believe that we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope, that in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.
In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.” is indeed in stark contrast to his comments on prisoners voting rights in 2012 where he felt ‘physically sick.’
http://www.timesandstar.co.uk/news/national/article/Prisoners-on-day-release-will-be-allowed-to-return-home-to-vote-reports-8e2d6b7f-a52b-4c79-be15-1d8f01cb2fef-ds

I mean seriously, does anyone believe what this current Government says? They have caused the problems in our prisons. It’s the same bloody Government!!! How can you feel ‘physically sick’ about the same people you want to be seen as a ‘potential asset’? I think the onus is on the word ‘seen’ as most of criminal justice policy is focused on being ‘seen’ to be doing something – normally the bare minimum. But that’s a different conversation for a different day.

As I’m writing this my attention has just been drawn to this morning’s article by the BBC on HMP Magilligan – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-42314792 I’ll read the report later. Maybe ‘they’ should ‘all’ read my book to see if and how far they have really come?

Time has caught up with me as usual. As always events and experiences leave me with more questions than answers. 2017 has been a roller coaster of a year and I remain proud of the fact that I have made a small difference by enabling ‘Prison Smart’ to be piloted in Northern Ireland’s prisons – http://www.prisonsmart.eu/
I’ll continue with my efforts. On that cheery note I shall bid you farewell for 2017 and wish you all a Very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. God that coffee was good.

 

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The Importance of Fact – Coolmoyne House

As I trudge up the stairs to go to the loo I look out my landing window as I often do. Looking across to the high rise flats and Colin Mountain is often hypnotic to me as it conjures memories of travels and coming home from some far off land. ‘Holy Fuck!!! That’s flames coming out of Coolmoyne House. Fuck!!!! My Dad!” I don’t think my feet actually touched a step as raced to the living room to phone my Dad.

Due to his diabetes my Dad has a sleep in the afternoon and sometimes he does not week until early evening. The answer machine clicks on and I calmly tell him “there’s a fire in the flats. If you get this leave immediately. I’m on my way over now.” As I briskly walk toward the flats I count the floors. From the ninth floor up it ‘looks like’ the blaze is coming from at least four floors above. A neighbour says “have you got anybody in there Mickey?” “My Dad” I reply and keep walking.

My heart is in my mouth which has ran out of spit as I walk across the main road and see the fire engines and crowds gathered outside the flats. The fire ‘looks like’ it has really taken hold and my only consoling thought was that it is on the other side of the building and above him. He should be ok. “Oh shit, how will he get down the stairs?” As I furtively search the crowd in the darkness I spot him leaning on his stick wearing his pyjamas and slippers. At least he put a coat on. My legs turned to jelly. Still no spit in my mouth.

The car park road in and out is blocked by emergency vehicles. My immediate concern to get Dad over to my house and into the heat. I spoke with local community reps and am told that everyone is out safe and the guy whose flat accidentally caught fire has been taken to hospital as a precaution (get well soon Billy).

Spoke to a female PSNI (Police Service for Northern Ireland) inspector and briefly explained my father’s health condition. He’s recovering from a fourth cancer op and has COPD. Without hesitation two PSNI officers escort him to their car and give us a lift back to the warmth and safety of my house. Thank you so much to the PSNI officers. Once dad is settled I head over to find out the facts of what has happened and what will be happening and when or if residents will be allowed back home.

To cut a long story short the fire had been contained and extinguished in a very short period of time.

Now, after any major incident there will be questions. As an academic I deal in facts. As a human being I naturally think of the what ifs but for the purpose and reason for this blog I will deal with the facts. There were no media present when I left in the police car and the fire had been extinguished. The video footage we all saw was from social media. Someone took a short video on their phone. The fire had been extinguished within thirty minutes and contained to one flat.  Smoke detectors in the flat alerted Billy and he was able to get out and raise the alarm. There were no alarms sounding on any other floor. The Fire Service stated that their procedure for dealing with a fire at Coolmoyne House was ‘text book’ and due to their swift action and professionalism there was no serious injury or loss of life. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Northern Ireland Fire Service for their bravery and professionalism. Residents, relatives (like myself) and local community are angry that they could not hear alarms. These are the facts.

The definition of ‘Freedom of Speech’ is the right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel, incitement to violence or rebellion, etc.” see Dictionary.com (online) http://www.dictionary.com/browse/freedom-of-speech

The ethical principles of ‘Journalism’ are quoted as “…share common elements including the principles of—truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability—as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public…” see Wikepdia (online) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalism_ethics_and_standards

In the aftermath of the ‘major incident’ at Coolmoyne House BBC News reported “Light is beginning to break for the first time since the fire began. Two things that stand out are, first the emerging scar at the top of the building creeping up towards the other flats. Also – the smell around here. It’s quite pronounced despite the fact that there’s a strong wind blowing. It’s still hanging in the air, that residual, putrid smell is quite pronounced.”  See BBC News (online) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-42004752

Now, anyone who lives in Coolmoyne House (like I did) will know that there is always a wind blowing there. Even on the balmiest of sunny days there is always a breeze of some sorts. These guys must have noses like blood hounds or should I say sensationalist newshounds. I was there the next morning at the same time as the news crews and I smelt nothing. Maybe I’ve got a cold. The only smoke I smelt was from in my Dad’s flat caused by his pipe. Even the Housing Executive guy said something similar. Now don’t get me wrong. As a Published Author and lover of words I love the freedom of discourse. However, it can be misinterpreted and cause resentment and anger when taken out of context.

Comments made on Facebook by a Journalist Hugh Jordan from the Sunday World may well be, on my part, taken out of context but I am not alone in feeling they are spurious and inflammatory. This is my opinion and I have a right to them. I’ll leave it up to the readers of this blog to make their own mind up.

” As today is Blue Light Day, right across the UK people are rightly heaping praise on our brave emergency services. With that in mind, it’s an ideal time to say a huge thank you to the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service for the marvellous job it did in Dunmurry the other night. Now is the time to establish the full facts surrounding the fire. The Seymour Hill & Conway Residents Association claims a faulty toaster was the primary cause of the fire, but the experts say there were other factors involved. Perhaps the loyalist propaganda group, the UPRG could use its good offices to establish exactly where each resident was prior to the fire starting. Perhaps Jackie McDonald could assist in this regard.

It’s clear some Dunmurry residents are attempting to exploit last night’s fire for their own ends. I’m with the Fire Service.

There’s a row in Dunmurry the size of the Ritz, but who is right? Residents who claim they were in danger last night, or the Fire and Rescue Service who say everything was under control?

It might be a good idea as part of a review of safety procedures in wake of the fire in Dunmurry, if they increased the price of alcohol in local pubs.” see https://www.facebook.com/hugh.jordan.37?hc_ref=ARTHlPPlhC_Pto3pOeB7NENBb0LKzP3AJavpJWvD6zqldD6RuATWKJgrduguMx9kQR0

As I stated at the start of this blog it ‘looked like’ the fire was more serious than it turned out to be. The facts remain that the fire was dealt with professionally and I find no fault with the Fire Service. Whether a toaster was the cause or not will be revealed in the follow up investigation and to suggest that the price of drink in local pubs may have been a contributory factor is in my opinion ‘disgusting’. My heart goes out to the elderly people (like my father) who live in high rise flats across the whole of Northern Ireland. My heart also goes out to people who have to pay more for a pint in other areas of Belfast.

I can see the headlines now…

 

 

 

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Laughter in Prison – How Very Dare You.

Be careful what you wish for. As a few of you might already know my physical and mental health has not been all that clever over the past few months. After a recent flare up in the old bowel department and yet another course of antibiotics I decided to do nothing and take the Doctors advice and rest. To be honest I didn’t have much choice as I’ve done nothing but sleep since I came back from my book launch in London.

So, it was with great trepidation that I mustered my faculties and headed back to jail last Wednesday afternoon to do an introduction to prisoners about Prison SMART http://www.prisonsmart.eu/.

My good friend Sook picked me up and off we go on my version of a Highway to Hell. It was a bit strange approaching the entrance as the last time I’d been there was in handcuffs in the back of a prison van with little or no view. I’m lucky I’ve got these breathing techniques as I sure needed them as we approached the barriers. There’s no bother and we get lucky with a parking space just across from the reception. ‘Here we go boy. Suck it up and let’s do this. After all, this is what you’ve been wishing for for the past four years’ I mumble quietly to myself.

In the pod at reception I’m greeted by an old primary school friend and we laugh and shake hands. I’m feeling at ease already. Five minutes later I’m greeted by the guy from the Prisoner Development Unit (PDU) whom I also knew from conferences at Queens University et al.

Then the noises hit me, the alarms of gates opening and closing, the radios, the clicking of the turn styles and the memories came flooding back as we walked past one of the wings I used to frequent. Last time I was there it was still in the days of one to one officer prisoner escort. It was a bit of a surprise to see prisoners walking about freely going about their business.

The room in the PDU is a good size and starts to fill up (and on time) with prisoners who’ve expressed an interest in the course. As always, was nervous to start with but soon got into my stride. Sook finished off the last twenty minutes with an explanation about the importance of breath and a short relaxation technique. The guys seemed to enjoy it and have signed up for the actual course (sold out).

prison smart

As per usual my bladder is running amuck and as I come out of the toilet I’m met by an officer I knew from HMP Magilligan. We’d spent four years together on the same wing and yes he’s in the book. He said ‘I heard Elvis was in the building and wanted to come say hello.’ We laughed and joked and laughed some more. Swapped war stories and commented on this one and that one. It saddened me to hear of his colleague who was paralysed after a motorbike accident; another one of the ‘good guys’. Was also shocked to hear that my friend was back inside! Then on the way out I bumped into a prisoner I knew from Magilligan. More sadness as I thought he’d make it this time.

More laughter with my old school buddy on the way out, big sigh and job done. But, it got me thinking. How do the staff who really care get job satisfaction after a prisoner leaves? They only really get to hear about people if someone comes back in. They never really get to hear the success stories or how they might have been instrumental in helping someone change their mindset whilst serving time with them.

I would gladly sit and have a pint with these men and women. I’d love to tell them how they helped me and I’m sure that goes for a lot of people who’ve served time in jail. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is a very different set up to the rest of the UK as staff are still being targeted by the remnants of IRA factions and dissident groups. Any type of fragile friendship inside could cost these guys their lives. So, how difficult/impossible is it to form one of the most important aspects of prison life on the road to reintegration as in – the officer prisoner relationship.

As I sat in the pub later having a pint with a few friends I still had a big grin on my face as I thought of how life could be so different if I’d met these staff members under different circumstances. Something I’ll delve deeper into in the future. Elvis has left the building for now but is still smiling at the warmth and respect given to him by his former gaolers. Hopefully I’ll be back soon and we can laugh some more. Be Careful what you wish for eh?

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Settling Dust On HMP Time

7.00am and I’m sitting here listening to the washing machine humming away in the background and thought I’d share the events of last week. The long awaited official launch of ‘My Life Began At Forty’ finally arrived on Friday night in the London Review Bookshop 14-16 Bury Pl, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL courtesy of L.R. Price Publications. Thank you so much to the staff and organisers for allowing me to be part of a great event and share my ramblings.

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I arrived the night before via Gatwick which in itself was a completely surreal experience as the last time I was in the airport white powder sprayed all over my suitcase and a nice set of manacles were being slapped on my wrist. It’s a fair cop I thought. The bus from the Aeroplane to the terminal took me past the holding pen at the back of the Customs and Excise Department. I remember thinking to myself, way back then, in  haze of drugs and drink, ‘I’ll never make it over that fence in these flip flops.’ I was right – wouldn’t have.

Being back in London was a bit of a culture shock as where I live in Belfast is a quiet little oasis and with my current mental health issues I found it quite terrifying being in close proximity to the rest of the human race. I took my time and waited to find space on trains and tubes and had a ready supply of medication in my pocket. Legally prescribed ones I hasten to add. Unfortunately this continued throughout my stay so even though I managed to get through the event and chat to people you’ll never really know how difficult this was for me. Don’t let the smile fool you. It’s mask.

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Photograph: © Corri Chella, 2017. corrichella@yahoo.co.uk

I dumped my bag in the hotel and decided to go and find the location of the event and after a couple of wrong turns, got there and ended up in a lovely Tapas Bar. Had some grub and few beers and ended up chatting with two lovely girls who worked in advertising. Feeling brave I decided to walk back to hotel, got lost and ended up paying £40 for a taxi home. After topping up my Oyster card, a few beers and a bit of grub that was most of my budget blown and thanks to a dear friend the next morning I was able to get a few more shackles to get me through the day.

Got to the event early and had a few beers in the bar next door, Dutch courage and medication allowed me to scrape through. It was great that a few friends turned up and that I was able to introduce Dr Andy Aresti and Faith Spear and a few others. Had a good night all in but was exhausted. I’ve included my speech at the end if you are interested.

My Book Cover

 

As always, my blogs are about life after prison and during and after a few days of recouping my mental strength I’ve just been reading the new Justice Ministers ramblings in The London Evening Standard and watched the video of the sister of an IPP prisoner on The Victoria Derbyshire Show. Let’s just say ‘I’m not amused.’

The contrast between fiction and reality is palpable to me. The same old sound bites from government makes my skin crawl. The video of the young girl makes my stomach turn as I feel nothing but sadness. Our society is a disaster as are our prisons.

Someone said to me the other night ‘well at least you’ve turned your life around  and are paying back to society.’

‘Really’ I said ‘and what exactly is society? A democratic one at that. If you can stand it in front of me I’ll apologise to it.’

I wonder if and when that will happen. Of course I feel guilt, shame and regret for what I’ve done. I and many others payback by speaking out, sharing our experiences by telling the truth to power. The problem is ‘power’ is infallible.  Successive Governments have created this society and one of the more serious outcomes of that is our farcical prison system. The umpteenth new Justice Minister in England and Wales has suggested that if Governors and his Department decide to accept recommendations made by Prison Inspectors they will robustly follow them up within a month or explain why they are not being implemented or why it is taking so long to do so. I recall a conversation with a Governor over here when discussing the issue of Night Checks and recommendations made by the Ombudsman which would allow prisoners to receive a full nights sleep and be able to function as human beings.  The arrogance of the reply still haunts me ‘They are only recommendations and not policy. We don’t have to accept any of them and well, as far as policy goes due to staffing levels it’s virtually impossible to implement them. I’ve been doing this for a long time Michael. We know what we’re doing. Politicians come and go but we remain and so does the daily running of my jail.’

I’m not really bothered about how people see me now. I’ve got a story out there now. It changed my life and my opinion of prisoners, prisons and criminal justice. Read it. It might change yours. For now I’m just going to let the dust settle on HMP – Time is all of got.

Short Speech for book launch – I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1K of Cocaine hidden in the lining of a bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. The irony of this is that it costs £11 for being a kilo overweight in access baggage. The cost of keeping me in jail for 6yrs worked at nearly a quarter of a million (the 1.1kilo of coke had a highly inflated street value of £80,000) and under current sentencing guidelines today I’d have probably got a slap on the wrist and at worst two years as drug donkey. I use the word donkey as I still feel like one for being so fucking stupid. The problem was that they thought they’d caught a Northern Irish Pablo Escobar. I mean a guy from Belfast living in Cape Town with contacts in Spain and America etc and no fixed means of income didn’t bode well for me but the customs and excise boys seemed rather excited.

At the time I was addicted to cocaine and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of cold turkey in HMP I got my half sensible head back on and started to write.

Daily prison life is one of routine and you hear the same noises as the wing comes to life keys, gates banging, phones ringing, alarms being tested and the cackles and chatter of the ever so happy prison staff starting their working day. On the morning of 29th August 2007 nothing happened and there wasn’t a peep. After a while I heard a female officer shout ‘there’s nothing I can do. I’m on my own.” About an hour later it came on the news that prison officers in England and Wales had gone on strike. I decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. My first sentence was “I cannot fucking believe what’s going on in this madhouse!” I distinctly remember thinking to myself ‘people need to know about what goes on in here and if one person gets to read it (probably my Mum) it will have been worthwhile’.

In 2011 I was mentoring a young guy in Maglligan and showed him my book. He asked me to send it to his Mum. I did just that and after only  week I received a letter from this guys Mum. She said “the kids didn’t get fed, the housework didn’t get done and the dog isn’t speaking to me. I couldn’t put it down Michael. I laughed and I cried but I have to say Thank you for telling me what my son couldn’t.” It was one of the best letters I’ve ever received and it made me more determined to keep writing. I hadn’t been published but someone else had read it and I thought my work here is done.

I didn’t, at the time, really expect too much or to ever think that one day it would ever get published and over the years I simply recorded incidents, events and the constant discourse of the voices in my head. There were two stories going on constantly and throughout. One was about survival, getting through the day and trying to get letters after my name. The other was my declaration of war on the prison service. Matt seen this immediately and if you think the book is a bit long you should see what he’s cut out. This book is about Hope and the second one will be about war. Irwin V’s HMP or something like that.

Life was even harder after prison and I jumped straight into another institution in October 2013 just over three months after my release by sitting a Masters in Criminology at Queens University Belfast out of the frying pan and into the fire so to speak. It was rewarding but frightening as prison did such a number on me I found it really difficult and frightening to be in close proximity with the rest of the human race. And after four years of fear and anxiety I’ve just been diagnosed with PTSD. Thank you HMP.

Despite all this and me being a stubborn bastard I kept going and a couple of years back someone gave my number to a radio guy. Can’t remember who it was but since then I’ve done several interviews on radio and two TV talks on BBC News and The Victoria Derbyshire Show about death, suicide and self harm in prison. There’s more to and it only took me ten years to get my book published thanks to Matt and Russell. Watch this space as this boy hasn’t gone away ya know.

 

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Duty of Care – HMP Style

“How much damage will another month of incarceration do to this individual” (Maruna, S, 2011, Why Do They Hate Us So Much? : Making peace between prisoners and psychology, Online – http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X11414401).

I distinctly remember Shadd sending me this Journal Article whilst still a serving prisoner way back in 2011 and thought to myself ‘I can’t wait to ask him what he means.’ I got the chance two years later at a forensic psychology lecture at Queens University in Belfast. I’d slipped in the back and listened to the lecture and as there was much talk about ‘Duty of Care’ in prisons I eagerly awaited the Q & A. My hand shot up and Shadd spotted me straight away. I was a bit miffed and asked “How can you call what happens in prison ‘Care’ when in this same paper you refer to the damage being done to an individual”. Shadd just smiled and said “Ah Michael, the best person to answer that question is you as it is you to whom I am referring.” Not a lot you can say after that. Is there?

I’ve been trying to answer that question for the past four years. It’s possible that I may have found the answer as I’ve recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) as a direct result of the alleged ‘Duty Of Care’ provided by the Prison Service in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. After a recent mental breakdown, evaluation and assessment I now find myself signed up for counselling, self help groups and prescribed three different types of drugs to help me make it through the bad days.

Today is not a bad day thus far.

I found it rather odd answering questions about my frame of mind considering I’d been reading about, studying and living it for ten years. As time ticked by I had to escape the interview several times. It wasn’t that the questions were opening me up or causing me acute anxiety it was more to do with being confined in a space that I didn’t want to be in. The old institutional Portacabin syndrome kicked in and reminded me of the lovely accommodation I had at HMP Magilligan upon progression through the system. The trouble is, they all look, feel, sound and smell the same on the in or the out. Well, not so much the smell, as any of you who’ve ever had the pleasure of being on a prison wing or unit will know that they all smell of shit – literally. So, I think that I may have an answer to Professor Maruna’s question or in the very least a part of the cause. Confinement or being in a place one doesn’t want to be. You see, in prison I didn’t have a choice but now, in a way, I do. Even, when I go to the pub with friends I sometimes have to go for a walk and come back as I find it all a bit too much. I’ve tried to rationalise it (the fear, anxiety and sheer terror) and explain it and the only way I can describe it is being Agoraphobic in a confined space and claustrophobic in an open space.

Apart from my own personal struggles within prison I found it even harder on the out and sometimes crave to be back! This is not a normal way to be. I’ll always recall heading back to prison after my first home leave and thinking ‘who in their right mind volunteers to go to jail?’

Then, of course there are the night checks. There is some fantastic research out there by professor Colin Espie of Glasgow University and Kevin Morgan of Loughborough University on the long term effects of ‘Sleep Deprivation’. How long does it take to recover from six years of interrupted sleep (Insomnia) and the other mental illnesses attributed to this prison policy. I’ll not get into it again but the simple facts are that prison has given me not one but two mental illnesses despite prison legislation/rules stating that no person should leave prison worse than they went in.

This leads me to more recent events. Even though I’ve had to take a step back from all things prison I’ve been reading some fantastic blogs and articles by Alex Cavendish, Faith Spear, Jonathan Robinson (to name but a few) and most recently by Michaela Booth. I so admire Michaela for what she has done and is doing. Michaela reminds me a bit of what I was like when I first started all of this prison stuff. Keep it up and stay strong Michaela but be careful.

Our prisons are a sham, they do not serve the public and they are a complete assault on the sensibility of rational thinking people (or un-rational in my case having been in it). It’s a lie. Rehabilitation is a blatant misuse of a bureaucratic sound bite. The cold hard facts are that no person who serves more than four years in England and Wales and two years in Northern Ireland will ever have their convictions ‘spent’. Most employers will not entertain people who have un-spent convictions. This Government decimated prison staffing levels to save money and have now done a complete U-turn. The current ‘prison crisis’ is not new. It was there in my day and I am relieved but surprised that more deaths have not occurred. Deaths of prisoners has increased and assaults on prisoners and prison staff have escalated. Drugs are the easy way out in blame and causation but why does this happen. Is it not exasperated by Insomnia and other mental illnesses administered under ‘duty of care’ and ‘safer custody’ policies delivered by the state via this harmful institution of prison. I’ve always suggested that prison creates ‘ticking time bombs’. It took me four years to explode but how many times in those years did I nip it in the bud. Thankfully I was in hospital when I exploded a few weeks ago and got the duty of care I required. Prison not only causes harm to the people serving and working therein but families and friends also bear the brunt and my heart goes out to them all. Families and friends of prisoners and staff also serve time and more often than not they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.

In societal terms, prison is a life sentence and this country needs to wise up and smell the roses before it’s too late. People like me will continue to share our thoughts and experiences in an effort to bring some rationale to an irrational and defunct institution no matter the personal cost. People who go to or work in prison should not die or leave with lifelong mental illness. How does this help? How does this rehabilitate?

I’ll be over in London next week for my book my book launch ‘My Life Began At Forty’. I recorded my six years of imprisonment in England and Wales and Northern Ireland (six jails in total). I’m dreading it but looking forward to it at the same time. My only desire and ‘HOPE’ is that people will read it and it might change the status quo. We as a society deserve better. I’m off to a silence retreat for the next five days, no phones, no internet, just breathing meditation and quiet. Hopefully I’ll see a few of you in London in a better frame of mind.
To all those working and serving in prisons ‘Stay Safe and Be Well’ despite the odds.

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Ten Years Down and Life To Go.

“You need someone to talk to who’s not yourself.”

Unfortunately, due to recent events, this anniversary blog is not the one I’d planned. I’ll cut to the chase and get it off my chest as always, getting it out there makes me feel cathartic-ally expunged.

Two weekends ago, on Friday 9th June, I thought I had food poisoning. Spent the whole weekend being sick and all the rest that goes with suspected food poisoning. As the super hero that I am I sucked it up and tried to get on with life. Come Monday, I was in so much pain I had to phone the Dr. The Doc told me to come to the surgery straight away. After a few prods of the tummy and me nearly leaping off the bed… Next stop Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast. It turns out I had a tear in my bowel which had developed an abscess caused by Diverticulitis. To put it bluntly, if I hadn’t have went to the Doc when I did I wouldn’t be here.

I was out of it for a couple of days on a constant IV drip of fluids, pain killers and antibiotics. On Wednesday night I had a complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) – “Severe anxiety, flashbacks, uncontrollable thoughts and nightmares are common symptoms of the illness.” My problem being that the hospital ward reminded me of jail.

It had been building for days. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was a nurse accidentally shining a torch in my face. This, combined with constant electronic alarm (my old mate Wilson) pushed me over the edge. This is not a bad thing in itself, but I’m lucky I’m not in a police cell. Unfortunately this triggered said psychotic incident.

I visualised with the most amazing of clarity that I was with American university students in a wooden lodge type barbecue building, smoking dope and sipping bud in that wholesome American way, then there were female black, not racial black but black black wonder women cats all sexy and slinky whose crooked smile turned into a sneer, then Devils and ghouls and indescribable apparitions who tore shreds, blood dripping flesh from raw…, more flashing lights I had to open my eyes. Dry mouth, sheer terror. It wasn’t real but where was I? What was poisoning me? Was it the abscess in my torn bowel seeping into my bloodstream and drip, drip, dripping like the IV in my arm, slowly into my brain. I thought I was in prison, I thought I was in a HMP Cell Spaceship, slits of light coming under the door. I felt my heart was going to explode but I had the wherewithal to put my hand on it. It was fine. I could hear people screaming and shouting and music playing from the cell next to me. Was it real?

Anyway, I was in mid acid rush, mid cocaine rush, morphine rush any type of rush I was in it, but it didn’t subside, then the fear hit, the panic – I was stoned simply stoned – then I got paranoid thought they’d fucked with my drugs. Who they? They, they the officers, was I not in prison? After two and half days inside the institution of hospital and duty of care there in I’d finally snapped. You see, what for the non prisoner amongst you who will blissfully cow tow to the every whim of the establishment and be totally unaware of is that everything on the ward and in the cell/room is exactly the same as in prison. Even the smallest detail is painfully mind wrenchingly obvious to the initiated. And let’s face it, how fucking initiated am I? It had been building in me for days. I’m so very grateful to the head nurse of whole hospital who recognised there was something array and made the connection. The nurses and Dr thought I had taken drugs that had not been issued to me.

And, they were right in a way because that is exactly how I felt. I was rambling and having cold sweats, furtively looking round the room for what I don’t know. It was horrifying. Every thought or question in my head was immediately met with a juxtaposition one. Every thought was a fight or flight one whilst at the same time I was trying to use my knowledge and experience not to explode and smash things to pieces and or run out the door to home and safety. But would I be safe at home? I knew if I left the hospital I would day. I also knew that if I stayed I might die or hurt someone else. It was simply terrifying. At one stage I reached out to touch the Head Nurse, he jumped back. You see, I didn’t know if he was real or not, if the conversation was actually happening or that he was a real human being standing in front of me. He had a small minors night light on his head and his phone went off, he turned the light on his head on and off and was apologising and asking me questions at the same time. I thought at the time he was playing at or giving me psychological test and then I thought he wasn’t real again.

There is much more but I’m saving this for a full blown academic journal. I’m home safe now and more or less healed physically but mentally? This, obviously explains a lot as to what’s been going on for the past four years. The plus side, something I always try to look for, is that I now know what’s occurring and will deal with it.

The NHS Doctors and Staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital wards 6B and C are amazing; can’t praise them enough. Thank you guys.

It’s 5.00am and I’m sitting here with a gentle summer burn after a couple of glorious days out and about in the sunshine, long early morning walks and much gardening trying to calm the rage that festers inside me. Ten years ago I had a similar type of glow but not so glorious as I watched a customs officer at Gatwick airport stick a spike in the side of my suitcase, white powder spraying all over my favourite blue shirt and the feel of the cold metal cuffs being slapped on the wrists. Fast forward to four years ago and I’ve been awake most the night, lying on top of my bed with the headphones on awaiting my imminent release.

Recent events aside, life is bit weird as it’s been a pretty great year. Four years after my release on the 19th June 2013 and ten years after first putting pen to paper I’ve finally got my book published ‘My Life Began At Forty” available from L.R Price Publications, Amazon and Amazon Kindle. I’m very proud of the fact but I’m sure I’m starting to do some people’s heads in. Tough! I’m already getting great reviews, all positive and it is changing people’s perceptions of prison and prisoners and in my world that can only be a good thing.

My Book Cover

So, what have I learnt from four years on licence (two to go)? Not quite sure really as at this precise moment in time it’s all a bit of a blur. All I know is that prison has given me a life sentence. There is a prison rule in legislation that states ‘No person shall leave prison worse than they went in…’ or words to that effect. The politque of the alleged governments in both jurisdictions (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) in Northern Ireland were is served the last four years of my sentence –

“Aim of the prison service – The overall aim of the Northern Ireland Prison Service is to improve public safety by reducing the risk of re-offending through the management and rehabilitation of offenders in custody. Its main statutory duties are set out in the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) 1953(external link opens in a new window / tab).
The Prison Service, through its staff, serves the community by keeping in secure, safe and humane custody those committed by the courts and, by working with prisoners and with other organisations, seeks to reduce the risk of re-offending and in so doing aims to protect the public and to contribute to peace and stability in Northern Ireland” (DOJ Website – online https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/articles/about-northern-ireland-prison-service).

And, of course, there is David Cameron’s Prison Reform speech in 2016; despite the fact that he felt physically sick at the thought of me having a vote when I was a prisoner –

“In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed… Prisons aren’t a holiday camp – not really. They are often miserable, painful environments. Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-harm. Violence. Suicide. These aren’t happy places.
It’s lazy to subscribe to the idea that prisoners are somehow having the time of their lives. These establishments are full of damaged individuals.
But here’s the point: 99% of them will be released one day, back into our communities.So we should ask ourselves: is it a sensible strategy to allow these environments to become twisted into places that just compound that damage and make people worse?
Or should we be making sure that prisons are demanding places of positivity and reform – so that we can maximise the chances of people going straight when they come out?
Think about it this way: being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime (MOJ Website, 2016, online – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prison-reform-prime-ministers-speech).”

This has always been a bone of contention with me and somewhat contradictory. How in the name of fuck can you help someone whilst at the same time causing them harm, pain and misery and giving them a mental illness! Shall I be revisiting my Judicial Review of 2011? What do you think?

https://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial%20Decisions/PublishedByYear/Documents/2011/[2011]%20NIQB%20107/j_j_TRE8370Final.htm

I will however, seek the help I need and use the past four years of experience on the out to deal with what life throws at me. For me, at present it’s like day one post release, ground zero. I’ll get there, wherever ‘there’ may be, after all I made it this far.

There are well intentioned people out there but at the end of the day it’s all about one’s self. There is no way on this earth that anyone who has served a lengthy time in prison walks away from it unscathed. If they say any different they are lying or masking what’s really going on in the old napper. I’ve spoken to so many people who have been to prison over the years and, as it’s me, they open up and I can assure you I’m not the only one. I am however, one of the few who has the balls to write about it and get it out there.

I cannot emphasize enough my appreciation of friends and family. My circle of friends (most of them half as mad as I am) listen to my ramblings, make me laugh and keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. My family provide me with unconditional love and a roof over my head and with mental health issues aside I consider myself a very fortunate man. Without this support would I or could I be sitting here sharing this with you lot?
Over the past few years I’ve been reunited with many old friends and it always amazes and humbles me how true friends forgive, accept and love you for who you are. I’ve been rejected by a few but they are dead to me now. Since my little stint in Hospital I’ve been re-united with two certain people (who shall remain nameless) who have warmed me through and through and I simply cannot express how I feel to have them back in my life again.

So, it’s getting to that time of day when I head off for a two hour walk down the tow-path and River Lagan, listen to the birds cheap and watch the fishes (at least I’m not swimming with the fishes), and very excited to be going to see Alter Bridge in the Ulster Hall on Wednesday night (with two other lunatics), Raised On Rock in two weeks, Irish Open Final Day at Portstewart (courtesy of a very special friend), Muse in August and Queens of the Stone Age in October, book launch in London in August and on the calmer side Art of Living Silence course in September.

Who knows what the next year will bring? There is only now. Be kind to yourself and those around you. One never knows, really knows, of the individual battles we fight on a daily basis but remember one thing folks (my favourite quote) “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, stands a mighty commander, an unknown sage – he is called Self. He lives in your body, he is your body (Nietzsche, 1883).”

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Prison From The Inside

“Hurt people hurt people” a harrowing quote from ‘Pat’, a female participant in last night’s second episode of ‘Prison From The Inside’ on BBC1 Northern Ireland – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08n1rgv

There were several times when I had tears running down my cheeks after these two one hour episodes. Pat’s story was one that is indicative of nearly all female prisoners in the UK. It starts from some sort of physical, domestic and or sexual abuse. Pat has been in and out of jail for over thirty years and she describes how she changed ‘inside’ after being raped and how drink, used to fill her emptiness turned her into a violent lunatic. As a society we see people like Pat, male and female on or streets every day but do we ever take a step back and consider why they are like that. “You could drive a bus through the emptiness inside me” is one of the most powerful and emotive comments I have ever heard in all my years of studying criminology and prisons.

I’ve purposefully been putting off writing a blog for a while as there’s a lot going on in my life at the minute (all positive) and in the world of criminal justice, prisons et al. It’s sometimes hard to take it all in but if one was to do a thematic analysis on media and academic coverage on prisons at the present there are a few repetitive themes. Self harm, suicide, mental health, drugs, assault on prison staff and prisoners (in prison) and prison is a dumping ground for the failings of society.

I know the officials who participated in this programme and they too are of a common view that prison is not the solution for the social inadequacies in present society. One of the more frightening comments made by one of the officials referred to the fact that punishment beatings and shootings by paramilitaries does not deter car thieves and anti social behaviour. After all, being realistic, one would expect a good kicking to be a deterrent. If this social norm in Northern Irish society, outside the parameters of law, doesn’t work then why on earth as a society do we sit back and expect people to be cured via a stint in prison?

Paradoxically, many of the participants suggested that they wised up in prison, had grown up and taken the time to realise that their lives didn’t have to be the way they were. One guy said he was simply ‘sick of it’. Another said he was ‘drug free’. How can this be in a place full of drugs and violence?

In my humble opinion it’s all to do with the individual and the help and support being there if they want it. ‘Being on this wing is a bit less manic than the committals’. It takes strength and courage to stand out from the crowd and more importantly to call your ‘self’ to rights. Most prison wings are manic but there is always one that offers some sort of stability once one has jumped through the institutional hoops to get there. But why does this have to be done in prison and at a much greater cost to the taxpayer when there are solutions out there.

I know there are people out there who are working behind the scenes to get these solutions introduced to Northern Ireland (and the UK). Here’s a short video of a tried and tested incentive that has reduced prison populations in America, reduced crime in the community and saves the taxpayer a fortune ‘bang for buck’ as this man calls it. I received an email from Judge Bobby three weeks ago and he is happy to come over here and talk to our politicians and judiciary.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=779p9zFBuP8

texan judge robert francis

Judge Francis – Texas

Michael Gove attended Judge Bobby’s court but we all know what happened there. Perhaps that’s where the problem really lies. Our so called government is a sham and that’s all I’m saying on the matter.

It was really strange seeing the footage of guys walking up and down ‘The Phase’ at Magilligan. Listening to the electronic alarms of gates opening and closing. The toughest thing for me was seeing the inside of the cell again. It brought back so many memories. Constant lack of sleep and mental breakdowns caused by night checks, the loneliness, the isolation and the regret. In a perverse sort of way I look forward to going back and helping others even though at the time “My emptiness was so deep you could have drove a bus through it”.

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