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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What Is Hope?

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. One of the best, if not the best, movies I’ve ever watched. Think I know it off by heart now I’ve seen it so many times.

Hope. What is hope? The Oxford Dictionary describes one of the elements of hope as “Grounds for believing that something good may happen.” For me, it’s always been about this. I now finally have a release date for my book. It’s only taken me ten years.

“My Life Began At Forty” 1st of May 2017.

My Book Cover

A story of hope

The day has finally arrived and I simply hope that people will buy it and it might help folk have a better understanding of the hidden life behind the high walls of the institution of prison. I’ll not say it’s been a long hard battle because it hasn’t. I’ve enjoyed writing and recording the shenanigans of prison life and for me it allowed me expel on to the page anger, frustration, fear, joy and hope. Cathartic is a good word to describe it.

I haven’t written a blog this year for a number of reasons but for the life of me I can’t remember what they are at this particular moment in time. I suppose it’s really been that since my editor Matt Vidler of L.R Price Publications replied to my first tentative email, just before Christmas, my feet haven’t really touched the ground since.

I’ve had some great days and nights out with my fantastic friends who I am literally indebted to for supporting me through this mad stage of my weird and wonderful life. As many of you know I’ve been on the radio a few times and I thought that appearing on the Victoria Derbyshire show with my friend Mick Horn was a defining moment. Not true. It was only the start.

Mick came true on his promise and came to Belfast to have a pint with me. Something we had promised each other way back in HMP Rye Hill in 2008. Our friendship has stood the testament of time, like all true friendships do, but to see this man walking into the arrivals hall at Belfast International Airport blew me away. To see Mick laugh and share stories with Dad, Mum and friends in Belfast bars was simply brilliant. We had more than one pint by the way. Cheers Mick many more to come my friend.

I’d just got my breath back and another friend arrives in Belfast for the first time. My mate Mark from South Africa. Mark was the last person I spoke to on my last night of freedom. I was in a Jacuzzi with two dusky maidens, a bottle of Jack and big fat Cuban cigar. Twenty Four hours later I was lying on the floor, throwing up, in a cell at Gatwick Airport. Again, it was fantastic to hook up again with another true friend.

And, it’s not over yet! I’m off to London tomorrow to hook up with British Convict Criminology, Shadd Maruna and Pete White more friends more laughter amid the serious business of academia. Tomorrow night I’m off to The Cavern in Wimbledon to see one of the best bands on the planet ‘Paddy Goes To Holyhead’ and reunite with my old mate Danny Hynes along with Jim Scanlon, Greg and Danielle from Cape Town and I’m sure we’ll be bumping into many more old friends from way back in the days of The Swan Fulham Road and The Redback in Acton. Saturday, I’m meeting up with Russell and Matt my publishers and cannot wait. I’ll not say what’s happening next week as it hasn’t been announced yet but watch this space.

I’d a funny feeling things would start to come together. The stuff I have lined up for the future? Well let’s just say – it looks like I’m going to be a busy little bee. Red said ” Hope is a dangerous thing my friend, it can kill a man…” for me I’m not buying it, I will never, ever give up on hope, my dreams are coming true.

I’ll leave you with a message from my publishers –

Hi Guys,
I’m Michael’s publisher. A lot of people are asking about the book and when it is going to be released, how they can buy it and where and we are also getting loads of interest about the crowdfunder page.

First of all let me say that myself and everyone at L.R. Price Publications are massively proud of Michael Irwin and all that he has achieved, his story is inspirational which is why we are publishing it.

Release date 1st May 2017

Thank you to everyone who has pledged so far on crowdfunder.
But why have we used crowdfunder?

Crowdfunding is a great way to raise awareness and publicity of a product before it is launched and to get it launched quickly. And this book needs to be published as soon as possible.

If we raised the funding to publish the book the traditional way with bankers and boardrooms, like we have done in the past. We’d spend more time writing and editing finance agreements then we would on the book.

And this is not just another book. It needs to be published now.

Not only that but we wanted this book to be something special. Which is why if you contribute using the crowd funder page, you can even have your name listed as a contributor to the book.

So when your have your copy in your hands, when you have it on your book shelf and when you see it in your local library or book shop your name will be in the printed acknowledgements / credits in the book. We think that is something really special.

Of course if you just want to contribute to crowd funder page to get the book for cheaper or to save postage costs or to save having to buy the eBook seperateley, thats great! You’re still contributing to this great book.

Really this book is as much a part of its readers as it is of Michael.

So thank you everyone for all of your support and we hope you enjoy reading.

http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/help-publish-a-great-book-by-author-michael-irwin

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Resetting The Prison Clock

Never listen to a Scotsman before going to bed! Thank you @TheTartanCon for resetting my prison clock. I say this in jest of course but as usual the topic of discussion is nothing to laugh about. This blog is really a follow up to afore mentioned phenomenological and heartfelt blog. If you haven’t already read it do so now – http://thetartancon.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/what-am-i-doing.html

So, here we are at 5.00am a time that used to be my favourite time of the day. Then, like now I’d sit and listen to the pipes crackle as the morning bite was nipped from the air. I’d sit under a desk lamp and write. It might have been a poem, a bit of creative writing, a letter or a good old Open University Tutor Marked Assignment (TMA). I sometimes miss those mornings. I sat under a desk lamp with pen and paper, way back then. Now I sit in front of a laptop with access to all sorts of disreputable information. I’ve got @TheTartanCons blog open and will go through it for the fifth time and use it to add a bit more grist to the mill.

The recent white paper is complete diatribe. I remember reading another one back in the day and thought to myself what a load of tosh. With tosh in mind I draw your attention to NOMS Strategic Business Plan 2012 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128112038/http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/corporate-reports/noms/noms-business-plan-2012-2013.pdf I don’t need to say any more on the subject but you are more than welcome to make comments to which I will gladly reply.

In November 2007 I was standing in my cell doorway having a fag when I was approached by an officer who said “Hey Mickey, you’re one of the more sensible ones. I’m putting your name down for a meeting in the Chapel next week.” I agreed to the poor delusional child. Me sensible! God, if only he knew. So, a week later I’m escorted to the Chapel to meet Captains of Industry and people from The Howard League for Penal Reform. Who the hell are they I thought to myself. I was warmly greeted at the door by a lovely lady with a an even lovelier smile. Her name was Frances. I didn’t have a clue who she was. Frances escorted me to table where a few men and women where already seated. I was introduced to Lord Carlisle and a Lady Called Pauline Campbell. Pauline asked me “why are you here?” I nonchalantly replied “Why are you here?” Pauline replied “My daughter committed suicide in prison and I’m here to make a difference.” I still feel my stomach turn as I recall this. I felt like a complete and utter bastard. However, what it did do was straighten my back and make me sit up and pay attention. I apologised immediately and after a brief intro by Lord Carlisle the discussions began. Pauline and I chatted about issues and what we could do to change lives. We kept in touch via letters and Pauline sent me a few books. I was then sentenced and moved to HMP Rye Hill. My stomach turned again, and I was physically sick as I read the headline “Prisons: A Mother’s Pain That Was Too Much To Bear”http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/prisons-a-mothers-pain-that-was-too-much-to-bear-830216.html Meeting this beautiful human being changed my life forever. My arrogance was gone, this was not a game any more, this was real. Sometimes, more often than one would think, I get quite despondent about this whole prison malarkey. When I do I think of why I started to take an interest in what goes on in our prisons. I’ve written to Frances on several occasions over the years and always received a reply. This is only one pivotal moment behind why I write and share my experiences of prison.

In or around the same time I started to read a prison magazine called Inside Time. Amid the rants and raves contained therein was a monthly Blog by a guy called Ben Gunn. I looked forward with trembling anticipation to each of his monthly blogs. Here was a guy, a serving prisoner smuggling his words out of prison and sharing them on social media. What Ben did was, stir me even more to write, to share my words, my feelings, my emotions and my experiences with anyone who would listen. I used to roar with laughter and admiration as what he was producing was pure genius. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

One of Ben’s recent tweets hit home with me yet again. It hinted at the reasons why he/I/we bloggers and tweeters do what we do. It concerned the story of a young man who was not allowed out (under escort) to see his dying mum. TheTartanCon is a hundred percent correct in suggesting that each and every guy on the wing would have gladly taken a day’s lock up to enable this young man to see his mother. Like many of us who have served lengthy sentences will tell you. This is not an isolated incident. I’ve seen it in each and every prison I’ve frequented. I sat and listened to staff and prisoners vent their frustrations at the in-credulousness of the rigour that the institution of prison will maintain under these (compassionate) circumstances. Many of you have commented on this and how this young man will get over it. He won’t. He never will. Nor will I.

I simply cannot put into words how I feel about the people who make these decisions. The last experience of it was my own. Not my Mother, but a dear friend Mike Moloney (head of the Prison Arts Foundation here in Northern Ireland) died in April 2013. Two months before my release. I had used up my home leaves, had been out on temporary release for fourteen days in the previous six months yet they would still not let me attend his funeral. An officer even volunteered to come in on his day off, take me there and bring me back. Phone calls were made but to no avail. The reason being – not immediate family. Three weeks later I was in open conditions and allowed out at weekends.

Yesterday, I listened in part to a local radio show on the crisis in our prisons. One caller, alleged to be a Christian, suggested that prisoners lived a life of luxury. In all the name of what’s holy! What bloody planet do this people live on? Where is the compassion. Another caller suggested that victims of crime would be furious at tougher community sentences and that problem solving courts were a stupid idea. When I co facilitated a Victim Impact Programme in prison, to my surprise, I discovered that most victims simply do not want the same thing to happen to someone else. Restorative Justice being a perfect example of this. I have found compassion in prison like you would not believe. Some of my best friends are people with conviction. I do hope the irony is not lost here.

Conviction is what us twitterers and bloggers have. Motivation is what we have. Not only from people who have served time but others who have worked in the institution. As I started this blog I was sharing private messages with a prison officer. I’ve shared the odd pint with prison staff. Oh, no I haven’t. I think there’s some sort of rule that prison staff must report any encounter with a person who has been to prison. I keep harping on about the fact that the institution of prison is designed to keep us and them apart. Never the twain shall meet. It’s farcical. How can prison staff ever have job satisfaction in knowing that someone who used to be under their care has done well or has stayed away from trouble because of something that officer did to help them during their stay? I’ll never forget the TV Documentary where Natalie Atkinson met up with the local bobby outside a shopping centre. I think he mentioned he had wrestled her to the ground at the spot they were standing. Natalie now has a Masters degree. An inspiration to all Natalie.

We do need change and we need it now. Our so called ‘United Kingdom’ has let us down. Our system is flawed. I recall a story a Governor from here told me when he met his counterpart from Norway at a conference. They were both in agreement. They could not understand their respective countries approach to prisons and criminal justice. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe. We have the highest. We as in a civilised UK adhere to revenge and retribution. Scandinavian society adheres to understanding the individual needs of its flawed citizens. Under this government we have gone from reducing funding for prisons and staff to a complete U-turn and investing more money in prisons and staff. I mean really. Are we that bloody stupid? Why do we put up with this? I say we form our own party. People who have been to prison and people who have worked in it. Hypothetically if every prisoner had a vote 85,000 today, and at least two family members voted that’s 170,000 if my education (paid for by prison) is correct, then multiply that by every person who has served since this government took power… I know it’s only a dream. The only thing we can do is help change people’s mindsets. If we stick together and keep building, challenging, blogging, writing, talking to officials and holding people accountable we can make a difference.

It’s nearly unlock time and I’m off to the gym.

As good old Oscar Wilde said ” When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was.  It was ruinous advice.  It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind.  Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all.  I know that would be equally fatal […] To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development.  To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life.  It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

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A Waiting Game

The problem with doing Sudarshan Kryia (breathing technique) and mediation on a daily basis is that I don’t get angry any more. A fortnight past, I spent the weekend assisting with the Art of Living Happiness Programme in Belfast. This was not the first time I’ve been an assistant. I did Prison Smart way back in 2008 in HMP Highdown and assisted there. Unfortunately my transfer came through, I was shipped out and they don’t have Prison Smart in Northern Ireland Prisons so I was unable to continue. However, this weekend brought me back to the place I most belong and the place I find true peace and happiness. It’s called the self.

To sit and watch other people experiencing happiness through a simple breathing technique is pure bliss. I just smiled as they recount how they are feeling and the transformation that’s taking place from within as I know exactly what they are going through. A parting gift for my endeavours was the book “Celebrating Silence” by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and I can’t wait to get stuck into it.

With this in mind and me not being angry, I’d like to address the events of the past few weeks. As we are all well aware, there has been a sharp rise in deaths in custody across the UK Prison Estate. There have been disturbances in several prisons, HMP Bedford the most recent, another two death in HMP Maghaberry, the prison officers strike in England and Wales, a pending strike here in Northern Ireland, Lizz Truss the Justice Secretary rehashing old rhetoric and Michael Gove’s speech at the Longford Trust last night.

The Twittersphere has gone mad since Sunday when #PrisonStorm @PrisonStorm created an open debate on the state of our prisons. What on earth do I know about prisons in England and Wales? June 2007 – March 2009, HMP’s Lewes, Brixton, Rye Hill, Highdown a nights stay in Catford nick, a night in Woodhill and a weekend in Forest Bank (last two on transfer back to NI to serve my remaining four years in Maghaberry and Magilligan). So, I’m well situated to have a phenomenological voice or epistemological privilege alongside several others who shall remain nameless at this stage (you know who you are).

I followed every link to every newspaper article, TV report and Radio Broadcast, listening to Alex Cavendish and Dr David Scott, watching Jonathan Robinson (class interruption – breaking news…) and reading Ben Gunn just to name a few. I’m not sure what triggered it but a sentence somewhere pissed me off, think it was a newsreader and went to check my memories. Oh yeagh, got it, there was an illegal prison officers strike in 2007. That was the day I started writing my book ‘Life Begins At Forty’ (Shameless Plug). I won’t share any more of it as it’s at the publishers at present and they might get miffed if I blog it all. Anyway, what struck me the most was that the staff numbers had not been reduced yet. The general consensus is that these cuts in staffing levels started six years ago. Yet, back then in 2007 – 2008 all the same things that are happening now where happening then as in: 23hr bang up, controlled unlocks, not enough staff on wings, drugs, lack of purposeful activity, rise in violence, phones and drugs… Need I go on?

I’ve always maintained prison is a sham. It serves no purpose in a modern democratic society… Ah, I think I’ll have to stop there as democratic society would entail that we actually belong to one and god forbid that I’d want to get into politics. Having said that I did follow and read most of what is being said by politicians on prisons (some of it just goes in one ear and out the other as we’ve heard it all before) and enjoyed what Michael Gove said about IPP’s, Early Release For Good Behaviour and Problem Solving Courts. Problem Solving Courts are not his idea of course as he had to go to Texas to see Judge Robert Francis in action. The good Judge started these courts way back in 2006 and I do believe that some prisons in Texas have actually closed due to lack of clientele. Just sayin like.

I’ve had a few media interviews myself about deaths in custody and the general state of our prisons and I have to say that I’m not surprised at one of the statements made on Twitter suggesting that it would all blow over soon enough. And there we have it in a nutshell. I remember talking to an old wounded and battered veteran Principal Officer way back in 2008. I asked him about some new directive or policy that had been implemented. He said ‘Mickey boy, you got a lot to learn. What we do is we sit back and wait. Another Government will come in and change it all soon enough and then we’ll all be back to normal again. It’s all a waiting game’.

Prison is a staus qou (sorry fellow rockers) the equilibrium of ‘us and them’ must be maintained. Hot potatoes will be caught and dropped and left to rot. However, what I am feeling and sensing is that there are a quite few old dogs like me who will not be going away. Who will not go away. My opening tweet #PrisonStorm was “more ex prisoners with university qualifications should be employed in prison and criminal justice?” After all, they paid for it. So, why can’t people like me get a job in it? I/we have the correct qualifications, if not more and lived experience. Prison is an industry. What Industry does not employ people with first-hand experience and knowledge of said industry? A failed one. I hear talk of a Prison Reform Task Force? I’ll certainly be putting my name forward.

I hope some of this has made sense. I must head out now and get on with life and go for a wee stroll round the park. On my way back from the shop this morning I saw Six Magpies sitting on a wall next to my house. I’ll leave you with my first ever poem funny how I’m free now yet feel as if the whole prison malarkey is still stuck in the same place. To be continued…

Six Magpies
By Michael Irwin
HMP Highdown 2008

The sun sets behind the naked trees of winter
and a soft, hypnotic glow fills my room.
The air, cold but not quite freezing
Fills me with a quiet pleasure,
the pleasure of being alive.

I count six magpies sitting on the
Dark grey mass of the prison wall.
Like me, they are surrounded by
Barbed wire and fencing,
Yet they are free.

I think, ‘how often in your life
Do you see six magpies at the same time?’
The rhyme says ‘six for gold seven for a secret
Never to be told.’
I feel as if I have to let you into a little secret.

I have travelled half way round the world,
partying and having a ball. When I came
to prison, I wanted to die. I should have
already been dead; I was living a lie.
It is only now when I breathe in the air
I realise I was never really there.

A lady taught me how to breathe
Through Sudarshan Kriya .
I had been searching for something
To set me free most of my adult life.
Who would believe that one could
be set free in prison?
I have lost my guilt, my shame,
My pain and my angst.

My metal door has just been locked
With a resounding metallic thud and
The shouts and roars of men in prison
Fade slowly into the background.
It’s now deadly silent and I sit and smile
As the sun sets with its bright golden glow,
A glow I can feel in my heart.

I can rest my head and dream at last
Because I know this day has nearly passed.
I know it’s this glow that keeps me warm
And I know it’ll be there tomorrow

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