“Take me back to jail” I said to the rather startled Taxi driver outside my front door. He looked at me rather startled like and said “sure you’ve only just go back what the Fuh”
Destroying the myth of prison and creating public awareness is what i’m all about and where better to do it from than a Gaol. The venue – The Crumlin Road Jail Belfast, Northern Ireland 02.30 p.m. on beautiful sunny day exactly three weeks after my release, again, I volunteer to go back to Prison. I’ll not torture you with the history here’s the link – http://www.crumlinroadgaol.com/index.html
I was invited to attend the tour by the Prison Arts Foundation (PAF) of which i’m a volunteer. I had to nip home to attend to some business and in the two hours between the invite my psyche went through a terrible little battle. When going through the Home Leave process the days I had to head back where the worst; I’ve always said “Who the hell in their right minds volunteers to go back to Jail.” Maybe that’s the point “rigth minds!” Upon arrival at my house I booked a Taxi for 02.00pm and by doing this I had committed but also had the opportunity to change my mind at the last minute. The driver, ironically, was a guy I knew from my youth (we were bad wee buggers) and it took him a while to tell me about being in ‘The Crum’ himself in the eighties. I’ll not get sidetracked but I’m starting to realise that nearly every person I’ve met in Belfast since my release has some story to tell about criminality, death, suicide, prison etc.
In our tour group are three ex-prisoners (two lifers and me), two ex prison officers (the tour guide and a director of the PAF) and two family members of one of the escapee’s from the Gaol. I wonder if the other twenty odd, German, French, Japanese and Norn Irish tourists in the tour knew who was amid them, would they have fled out the gate? It was very, very, very weird for me and I recall the fear and foreboding and the stories of how horrific ‘The Crum’ was and all the older cons I’d met who always, whilst shaking their heads in despair said “aye now, ‘The Crum’ that was real jail, a fekin hellhole.” When we arrived on the wings i thought what the hell were these guys on about? This is just the same as Brixton, Lewes and parts of Highdown (three of my eight jails) and the architect Charles Lanyon based the design on the at the time state of the art Gaol HMP Pentonville. I was in Pentoniville bit only for a day and it is the same. So what’s so special bout ‘The Crum’ compared to other UK Gaols? Nothing.
Even the doors are the same one’s they use today in the H-Blocks at Magilligan and the Square Houses in Maghaberry. This when I had one of my two sobs. Was taking a photo of the doors and stood there staring at it from the outside. Started a chat with the door in my overactive sponge rationalised with it. “You, ya bastard, you are the fucker who stood between me and freedom, you’re the fucker who kept the world safe from this ogre, this piece of dirt, who stands now before you ‘FREE’. Fuck you ya bastard, you can’t keep me now you unforgiving unmovable object, bastard – aagghhhhh!” Then the counter argument arrived, the rationaliser, the human being , the self the id, the Michael “Thank you door for keeping me safe, thank you door for keeping the rotten-ness out, thank you for giving me the time to meet my ‘self’ and thank you for being the three-inch thick line between sanctuary and madness, thank you, thank, thank you.” Everyone else had moved on and the tears flowed down my cheeks. The relief the anger the fear the pain the resentment leaves me in burst of tears, the pressure cooker slowly dissipating. Went outside and stood in the scorching sun and thought of the chalk pit in Robben Island and the fact that I was able to walk out of my own free will allowed more of the pressure cooker out. Phew, its leaving me now this very minute just typing this, “Do yer whack” is the wee voice in the back of my head, “dry your fucking eyes.”
When i rejoin the group the tour guide takes us into a cell with a bed (still used across the UK today. I see all the same fixtures and fittings used at the turn of the century which is still used on the blocks and can’t help but think. Where does all the money go?), table with a bible on it and big fekin cross on the wall and wardrobe. This wardrobe looks out-of-place. It is and as the tour guide tells us this is the condemned cell he slides the wardrobe open and we’re faced with the noose and trap door. WOW! Didn’t expect that and ironically neither did the fecker who was living in the room. Apparently this was done to make the hanging less of a trauma for the condemned person. we are informed Pierpont was timed during some hangings and it averaged seven seconds from the point the wardrobe was slid open.
Take a moment to think about the psychology of that.
We crammed into the hanging cell and I stood with my foot touching the pull lever and stared at the rope and mechanism, it’s not like the movies, there’s a metal bit that causes the neck to snap sideways upon the drop. Was wrestled from my trance by the tour guide saying “Michael are you going to join us in the drop room?” I was numb, and still trance like shook my head no and fled to the sanctuary of the sun. Reality hit me, we talk about death and capital punishment crime and society. Is this all we’ve got, we so-called civilised people.
We then walk down to the unmarked graves and if you look closely at the piece of sandstone in this pic you will see initials carved into it by a turnkey of the day.
HC for Harold Courtney 1933. The reasons and debate about capital punishment are to re-visited at later date. There are men and women in that piece fo ground in front of me and the words of the guide who quotes the sentencing Judge of the day; can’t remember the exact words but along the lines of – “you have been found guilty by jury of your peers and will be condemned to death by hanging” and this is the bit that nailed it for me – “whereupon your death you will be taken to an unmarked grave within the confines of the prison.”
This was the end of the tour and it was very quite. The implications of families and victims leaves me more determined to achieve my aspirations. People need to know about this and we/I am making moves to do just that. I could go on forever but I’ve got fridge coming so if you want to get involved you need to start commenting on my post and ask me questions. Public debate creates public awareness and perception and by sharing this and other ideas, emotions and opinions.
I left ‘The Crum’ a different man than when i went in. It’s the same as anywhere else we are not special we are not different but I am. I survived Jail and Gaol.
Hope you like the pics.