Sat in bar in Wolverhampton last night and waited for my friend to return with the drinks. Stared out the window on balmy summers night, soaked up the night and listened to one of the many voices that go on in my head. We’d been talking about suicide and the re-integration process, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and why on earth does a “Duty of Care” delivered by an institution leave so many people leaving prison with a mental illness. Avery dangerous one to boot. I’m going through it now, it comes it goes, it’s uncontrollable but i’m lucky enough to know what it is and as long as I can breath i’ll get through it. The ‘REALITY’ of prison life is, for me, undeniable. It harms, it kills and it destroys not only men and women but their families too. I here many people say. “Is that not it’s purpose, then? You go to prison to be punished, society demands it.” No it is not “LOSS OF LIberty” is the punishment in law that society is given. “I hope that bastard suffers in prison” is another famous line. They will and it migth give one some sense of satisfaction, revenge, after all is a dish best served cold. MY family members used to believe that – until it happened to me.
The Eropean Standard Minimum Rules claim that the second part of a prison sentence is to give the person the means and the tools to return to society and contribute to it in a law abiding and useful manner. This is recognised and indeed know by most people in this field but for me the word ‘minimum’ is what it’s all about. Prison provides the minimum of everything, apart from the food, the foods great. I asked an eminent professor who you all know a question along the lines of “if duty of care and professionalism is the mantra and discourse in all officila prison responses to complaints then why are their books, literature, evidence and research to suggest that most vulnerable of vulnerables are leaving prison with enhanced mental health problems and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?” He smiled an said “The best person to tell us about that Michael is you.” I smiled too. I will leave you with one of my early pices of writing that hints at why I do what I do. This piece was read by me, recorded to the music of the sung and made into a CD (along with six other) and given to first nighters on the committal wing at Rye Hill. Never got to hear it as I was ghosted about a week later.
By Michael Irwin HMP Rye Hill
‘Hello,’ I’m Michael, I’m forty one years of age and I’m from Belfast in Northern Ireland. I’ve done quite a bit of travelling and exploring in different parts of the world in the past thirty years. So, I can safely say ‘I’ve been around a bit.’ I’ve ended up in jail through nobody’s fault but my own. I made a terrible error in judgement and I’ve ended up paying the price for it, namely twelve years for drug trafficking. In a way I’m glad I got stopped in my tracks! I would probably be dead by now. I was taking three to four grams of cocaine per day accompanied by roughly half a bottle of brandy and ten to fifteen beers. I was getting into some very serious situations and it was only a matter of time before I ended up in serious trouble or a wooden box. So, when I ended up in prison it took me a month or two to get my sensible head back on. I was determined to give something back, to contribute something and to help myself by helping others.
I went back to school! I became a mentor at my first jail where I listened to other men’s stories and I witnessed some truly heartbreaking and mostly violent sights. I grew up with violence, murder and bombings; I grew up with being told to hate, murder or harm someone because they where a different religion. I listened to men of the cloth incite violence towards their fellow man, all in the name of religion! I started to speak with men and young lads from many different cultures, religions and faiths. I found a common theme in most of our conversations. It was intimidation, victimisation and bullying. Well, let me tell you, I was over the moon to hear this! I was definitely on home territory. After all, I grew up with all that crap. If anyone understood it and why people did it – it was me. I built up my confidence and I started to receive a bit of support from certain individuals within the system. Before I asked a question or sought permission about certain issues I always explained to those concerned what my intentions where.
I could see people’s eyes widen as they grasped what I was trying to achieve. With widened eyes they would let out a deep breath as ‘the penny dropped!’ I used to grin from ear to ear when I looked at a person’s face as they finally got it.
What I wanted to do was ‘TALK.’ To share my experiences with others, talk to fellow inmates both young and old about a situation or circumstance that may have been similar to any experience you had when you where growing up. By doing this, myself and others could explain why certain rules were in place within the system, that we are all in the same boat and that when you impressed upon a person that these rules did not make for a personal attack. Then nine times out of ten they would accept it. They may not agree with it, but they would accept it.
I moved from jail to jail slowly gaining the trust of others and watching people benefit from these actions.
Then the bullying started. I have found out to my cost that some people do not like change! Some people do not have the education, the understanding or the will to even listen. I was left alone, devastated and very vulnerable. I developed a fear, a fear of me, a fear of the anger that was building up inside me, a deep festering fear of what, I could and would end up doing.
I was frightened to talk to anyone in case I snapped. Inside I was a gibbering wreck who had been pushed to breaking point. I cried myself to sleep and stayed awake for days. My family was frightened, as they knew I was in a very dark place. I spoke to the chaplain – a kindly man – and he suggested that I came to his service. ‘I don’t believe in all that crap,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said ‘at least we can have a chat for five minutes after the service. ‘Aye, aye,’ I thought. Here we go, more bullying. He’ll try to brainwash me with God first, before I get my five minutes. So, off I went and for some reason or other there was a break in the service and I got chatting to a young man I had spoken to on few occasions before. He told me that he had heard about my problem and that the same thin had happened to him. Then someone else – who had overheard us – said, ‘same thing happened to me mate!’ The next thing I knew there where four or five of us sitting laughing, with wide eyes and shaking our heads in disbelief. We all had a chat afterwards and several others joined in. We all headed back to our separate wings, laughing and joking. Personally I felt about ten feet tall.
The next day I was placed in a very bad situation. I had to walk past the two bullies, only from behind. Everything was in slow motion; the venom oozing from every pore in my body was overwhelming. I could have changed the course of our lives in a matter of minutes. When I reached my cell I was shaking with adrenalin and was actually physically sick. After that, I stopped going out, I stopped talking to anyone and even stopped going to the library. The fear was back. Not the fear of the person or the people doing the bullying but the fear of what I might end up doing. I couldn’t sleep that night. I started to say the serenity prayer over and over in my head until I fell into a restless sleep.
God grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
When I awoke the next day I wrote letters to a few people explaining how bad I felt and how determined I was not to become a victim. I explained how I knew that all this pain, all this anger and all this hate would eventually go away. That’s when my penny dropped. I actually listened to my own advice. I knew that I could not give in to my fears. I knew that if I confronted my fear it would go away. I tried to talk to the bullies but they just ignored me. What a result! They actually ignored me. I started to laugh again. I then began to get replies to my letters; one person actually came to visit me. When we talked it was as if a great weight had been lifted.
I went to the church the following week and managed to speak to a few of the lads. Within minutes we were all laughing, joking, nodding and shaking our heads in disbelief, again. This was when I truly stopped being angry. I didn’t feel sorry for the bullies. I didn’t try to understand them. They simply didn’t matter anymore because I realised that they would only be in my life for a short period of time. They would always have their problem. Mine was gone and thanks to their bullying of myself and others, they will eventually be found out. I actually, eventually found safety through their bullying. I had a few more run ins with the main culprits but after a whole they just gave up. Further down the line things have changed for the better. Some of the lads have moved to different jails but we still keep in touch. It was a very dark chapter and I was in a very bad place both mentally and physically, but it’s over now.
There’s a song called ‘It’s Amazing’ by ‘Aeorosmith’.
I kept the right ones out and let the wrong ones in,
Had an angel of mercy to see me through all my sins,
There were times in my life, when I was going insane,
Trying to walkthrough, the pain.
When I lost my grip and I hit the floor,
Yeagh, I thought I could leave, but I couldn’t get out the door.
I was so sick and tired, of living a lie,
I was wishing that I, would die.
It’s amazing, within the blink of an eye you finally see the light,
It’s amazing, when the moment arrives you know that you’ll be alright,
It’s amazing, and I’m saying a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight.
That one last shot of irreverent indignation,
and how high can you fly with broken wings,
Life’s a journey, not a destination
And you just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings.
You have to learn to crawl, before you learn to walk,
And I just couldn’t listen to all that righteous talk,
I was out on the street, just tryin to survive,
Just scratchin to stay, alive.
It’s amazing, with a blink of an eye,
you finally see the light
It’s amazing, when the moment arrives,
that you know you’re gonna be all right.
Oh, it’s amazing,
And I’m saying a prayer for the desperate hearts tonight.
I sing it all the time. To me it sums up what has happened in my life and it makes me smile. I will always thank the bullies when I hear this song although I will also laugh, shake my head and grin thinking of all the desperate hearts that may be going through the same thing I went through.
Oh yeagh, did I mention the bullies where wearing uniforms?