Friday the 13th I’m invited to an ancient building in the heart of Queens University Belfast Campus, not for a spooky clichéd accident prone day but more a informed gathering of the great and the good. Although for me it did turn out to be bit like a Nightmare on University Street.
The seminar was the Economic and Social Research Centre s (ESRC) ‘‘Devolution and penal policy – Evidence, Influences, Practices” with the theme of “Where are we now.” My mind flitted between the seriousness of the event and Spike Milligan in the ‘Q’ serious saying “what are we gonna do now, what are we gonna do now…” I’m full of the cold and have been for a few weeks now but this is no excuse for my behaviour and what follows. The event was kicked off by the new head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS)and as always Mrs McAllister spoke with verve, determination and honesty which always wins me over. Not that I’m a sceptic or non-believer more that I’ve been on the receiving end of policy verve, determination and honesty for X amount of years both here and England and Wales (they are not the same anymore in some people’s eyes). The usual discourse of “Holistic” and “Offender at the heart of rehabilitation”, now par for the course and used by the previous two DG’s and the Justice Minister fills one full of glee and optimism. The best part of Mr’s McAllister’s talk, for me, was when she tactfully negotiated the Prison Officer’s Association (POA Norn Iron). Now there’s an organisation an half; there are several paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and it’s about time that people here recognised that this “ARMED” Trade Union are a deadly force to be reckoned with. Just ask the previous Governor of Maghaberry and the plethora of officialdom who entered the NIPS with an idea of making a difference found out to their detriment. My own experiences cannot be published for fear of… Well, let’s just say it’s not wise to speak one’s mind when it comes to this little lot. The talk was a great enlightenment to the leaps and bounds and transparent intention being made in Northern Ireland and I seriously believe that good things can come of it but, there’s always the but; but that will have to wait for another day.
The newly appointed Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman Mr Tom McConigle was next and Tom again honed in on the positives and the betterment to society of returning us lunatics back to it not as lunatics anymore. Tom also works with the Criminal Justice Inspectorate for Northern Ireland (CJINI) and it was in this capacity that I first met Tom in 2010. Myself and five others serving prisoners had a meeting with Tom and his colleagues to discuss the state of Education in Prison. A little birdie told me that in a follow up with certain department heads Tom iterated that the meeting he had with us was one of the most productive and informative experiences with prisoners – ever. Again, the words “holistic and offender rehabilitation were used and I could see where the theme from officialdom was heading – the discourse of policy and sticking to the mantra. This is not my criticism by the way, I actually support these words but as the day moved on at a lightening pace I got sicker, not just physically.
The Scotland and Wales contingents informed and enlightened on their particular Nations, and it was all going swimmingly until Robert Jones (Cardiff University) delivered his paper “Penal Policy in England and Wales: A Tale Through English Eyes.” Indeed there was a sting in the tale as Robert spoke most critically and candidly about what was and wasn’t being done and this caused a lovely stir in the room, shifting in seats, wide eyes, stares at the ceiling and from what little knowledge I have of these events a bit of lip biting also. I caught the eye of my fellow ex-prisoner – who happened to be sitting next to the DG – who simply beamed back at me and I thought to myself, “now this is more like it. A young man who’s grown some and decided to say what he thinks. Not what he thinks he should say.” Well done Robert, loved it.
As the day concluded I spoke to two of my heroes and made my observation. “It was all great and informative and there was much talk about Holistic and Offenders at the heart of all that we do from all devolved Nations but not once did anyone mention a policy or programme that actually uses or enables people like myself and Paul to inform and work with policy makers.” There’s even a law in Northern Ireland that disallows anyone who has served more than five years from becoming a Government adviser. Yet there are several members of the Government who served much longer than me for much more horrific crimes. I also mentioned that during my studies I came across a story about the “Evelina Children’s Hospital” in London. They were building a new hospital for sick children and the Architects and Government asked each other how they would go about it. They decided to form a “Children’s Parliament” made up of sick and terminally ill service users and local school children between the ages of ten and twelve. The result was one of the most vibrant open plan hospitals that delivered the most “HOLISTIC” patient care to its users. They even made the internal lifts in the shape of big red rocket ships. Check it out it’s an amazing concept. So, my point is if the government can do that with children, why can’t they do it with adults and actually make the whole process more “HOLISTIC.” So home to bed full of the cold.
Saturday morning finds me in the Crescent Arts Centre at the Introductory Course by the “ART of LIVING FOUNDATION.” In attendance three of the people who had been at the previous day’s events and promised to come along and have a look and keep an open mind. I also persuaded via Facebook three more friends to come along, one of whom was an ex-girlfriend I haven’t seen for thirty years. AS I’m now a veteran of this I didn’t have to go through the process but was there more as an observer and question answerer, support, shoulder to lean on , safety net … Is this not what a Mentor does? At one particular juncture there is breathing exercise followed by a short period of relaxation/meditation. I sat quietly and watched each and every person in that room (seventeen in total), no matter what their background, take themselves to a place that is hidden deep within one’s psyche. I felt a sudden surge of raw emotion as I realised that all these people, from different walks of life, were all experiencing a harmony of inner life, inner peace and inner safety that can only come via an open mind. I had to get the tissues out and it wasn’t to blow my nose. After the event all the people I invited promised to do the level one course. You know who you are, so no excuses please. I arrived home last night purring like the proverbial cat that got the cream. This is where we are now. This is how we make a difference. We listen, we talk, we agree, we disagree, we invite people into our lives, we share our experiences and we share our humanity. The only label I saw in that room was “SOCIETY.” Such is the Yin and Yang of my life.