After six months I’m back in jail
Before you start having heart attacks it’s voluntary. I find myself involved in a Radio play about a day in the life of a prisoner and the venue for recording is the Crumlin Road Gaol Belfast. This is the second time I’ve been to ‘The Crum’ since my release six months ago and the titillation of going back into gaol has definitely worn off. We’re recording in the unpolished part of the museum; the un-sanitised bit. It’s no different from any other Victorian nick in London or the UK for that matter. Northern Ireland seems to have a way of personalising everything. I hear other fella’s say “aye, I was in ‘The Crum’ now that was a gaol.” It may well have been tough but it is no different from any of the five other gaols I’ve been on the mainland. All Victorian, all penopticon, all Jeremy Bentham all cold and dark and oppressive with the iron railings and stairwells that reek of the industrialisation of that time and place. So there I am sitting in the bowels of ‘The Crum’ talking to two girls from Slovenia and an ex-con from Belfast who’d been through the American system. “I bet you six months ago you’d never have thought you’d be sitting in here freezing yer nuts off Mick?”
Six months already, six down and life to go but where does this six months free of incarceration find me?
Truthfully, I’m at peace at last; broke/skint but at peace; comfortable in my own skin. When I left that place six months ago I was a raging mess of hatred, resentment and bitterness and suffering from six years of the Care, Dignity, Humanity and Respect administered by the state and its public servants. I use the word Dignity, Respect, Humanity and Care often, at different times and not always in the same order as they are the Mantra of officialdom, authority and government yet they are often used in the same sentences and paragraphs alongside words such as suicide, vulnerable, self-harm, depression and mental illness. How can that be? I went in there sane but came out a raving lunatic who couldn’t breathe for fear, panic and anxiety attacks. Couldn’t even buy groceries at the start as there was too much choice. It was easier just to look, salivate and get into a fluster, hurtle out the door without spending a penny, go home and order a take away.
I lay in my bed this morning with the curtains wide staring up at the stars waiting for the sky to change colour and let me know it would soon be time to get up. Exactly six months ago it was something similar only then I couldn’t see stars because the rows of wire mesh fencing obliterate the sky from ground level. Plus the spotlights in the yard destroy any chance of night vision. Then as now the radiators kicked in around five thirty and I lay there warm and cosy. Then I was a gibbering wreck and I can’t deny I wasn’t excited but I do recall that the feeling that swept over me was one of relief. Relief that I was leaving the funny farm and that I had survived it without doing serious harm to myself or others.
So where does six months down the line find me?
Financially I’m in the doo doo but for my family I would be homeless and back in jail. I do not receive benefits as I’m in fulltime education paid for by my father. He, my Dad, has been my hero and has supported me fully throughout all of this. We now laugh a lot more, even though it’s tough, we now use our minds before we open are gobs and do the father son thing and tear lumps out of each other. Time has cured that bitter pill and it feels great. I’ve applied for a few jobs that I felt were purposeful and meaningful but the lack of acknowledgment of my existence seems not to bode well for the immediate future. I attended a meeting yesterday about debt management and insurance for people who have been to prison. It seems that a term of prison does not end at the gate. The hurdles I have experienced are a common theme and there are worse off than me. The debt to society for a conviction is loss of liberty for a period of time but it seems that employers, government, authority, the state all seem to want to make one pay for the rest of one’s life. What startled me the most was that if I had moved in with my Father after prison ‘He’ would have lost his house insurance because a criminal was in the house. There are more shocks in store but to be honest everyone is getting it tough these days and I see our so called democratic society for what it is. It’s not at all healthy and the people in charge, elected by less than a third of the population are taking us all for a merry ride down the proverbial Swanny.
I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting last week where I was given a document that listed ‘All’ of implementations of the Good Friday agreement that have not been implemented. It makes for some very raised eyebrows indeed. It clearly states in lack in white we will do such and such by such and such a date but these dates have long gone and nothing is even mentioned about it anymore. There is hope though but it involves legal fighting and politics and to be honest I’m a wee bit sick of the whole lot of it. As soon as I hear the word assurance I normally switch off because what comes after is normally complete bullshit. I had six years of being ‘assured’ by prison officials and left feeling very unsure.
Last week was a mad week. I met my old governor in Royal Avenue half an hour after rehearsing my part as the Governor in the radio play. I met our old head of learning and skills who fled the Northern Ireland Prison Service after two years as this persons head was sore from banging it off a wall. This person looked about ten years younger. In fact, most of the people I meet who have retired or left custody look about ten years younger. The most remarkable encounter was when I went into a Cafe for a coffee and recline in the nice big soft seats before one particular meeting about mental illness in prison. I had sat down and started to sprinkle the sugar in my ‘Grande Latte’ when I glanced up to see a fellow quickly put his head down. He too had just sat down so must have been standing behind me in the queue. I took one of those double take moments and I sat there thinking. I know I know that person but where on earth is it from. This only took a second or two in real time. It was one of my duty of carers from up the road; a right horrible bastard to boot who give me a very rough ride on numerous occasions. As I looked to make sure I was correct this person picked up their phone (it hadn’t rang or buzzed as I’d have heard it on the wooden table) and said “Yes. Right. I’m coming now. I’m on my way. Leaving right now.” And off they went scuttling out the door with head bowed leaving a full untouched cup of coffee and paper behind. Pretending that someone is on the other end of the phone is another old trick used by prison officers in order to let on they are helping you and that someone else has said “No.” I sat there for a moment contemplating drinking the coffee and taking the newspaper as this particular person used to make me wait for my newspaper. I couldn’t have the paper I bought and paid for until this person had read it first. I actually asked for it one day and the person said “You’ll get it when I’m done with it now go away (polite version).” As I stared at the coffee and the paper a big smile slowly spread across my coupon as I realised the unrealisable. The power had shifted. The walls or a white shirt could not protect this coward now. My presence was enough to make them flee. This filled me with glee for a moment and then I got sad because I realised that this person meant nothing to me. If they had treated me with so much Humanity Care, Dignity and Respect over the years then they could have sat beside me and shared a laugh and a chat and a coffee like many others do. It was this person who had the guilty conscience. Not me. It was this person who fled. I was no threat and am no threat. So why run? Maybe they had watched the movie ‘Sleepers’ recently? Anyway, it left me with mixed emotions but the most overwhelming one was that I was right all along. Many of these so called public servants are simply cowards and bullies. To prove my point I met another ex- duty of carer yesterday at a bus stop and this man threw his arms round me and gave me a hug and said how glad he was to see me back in the world and looking great. The trouble is the good guys are much fewer than the bad.
Six months and six years ago I sat in cell in Gatwick Airport, dying the death of a thousand camels and wanting to tear my heart from my body. Now I’ve just finished a bit of meditation and am half way through my Master’s in Criminology at Queens University Belfast. I’ve got my family back and I’ve got a few friends who pop in and out of my life as friends do. I’ve lost my panic and fear of people and am starting to enjoy being ain a crowd. Sometimes I feel alone in a crowd. My biggest buzz of late (and there are many) was listening to myself on the radio, on the headphones, on my phone, on the train, on my way into Belfast. I had been recorded in my cell six months previous. So I was listening to myself in a prison cell as a free man. Free is what I am and free is how I’ll stay all I gotta do is get up in the morning, breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Maybe I’ll bump into you one day and we can have coffee and you won’t feel the need to run.