On the morning of the 16th June 2007 I sat in a Hotel room in Trinidad dying the death of a thousand camels and deciding whether I should accept the plane ticket to London just emailed to me or use the money my Dad had wired to get me the hell out of dodge, catch first flight to Costa Rica, then Florida and finally home to some serious explaining of what I’d been up to. Whatever choices we make in life lead to consequences and over the six years I spent in UK jails I often shuddered at the thought of Costa Rica and Florida. I had 1.1kilos (originally suggested as 2 kilos) of 47% purity cocaine stitched into the lining of my bag. To this day I still believe the .1 of a kilo was the weight of the masking tape of the packaging. Enough to warrant the 12yr prison sentence for drug trafficking and not taking into consideration the fact that ‘I’ was the first case for the prosecuting HMRC officer, who’s back up and support (two experienced officers and legal team) later admitted they went on a little fishing trip re ‘me’. Justice was delivered and my debt to society was paid. Seven years later – six inside and one on the out – I find myself sitting in the sunshine, listening to the birds that surround my ample council estate garden. If I was to bring you here by blindfold and take it off with a glass of wine by your side you’d never know you where in a South Belfast housing estate. I sometimes drift to a thousand different places.
What a difference a year makes! Or does it?
What a year that was. Not of the annus horriblus kind but more of the head still spinning variety. In an effort to explain where I’m at I’ll use some core words of Criminology Theories as sub headings. This is purely as a guide to stop me rambling incoherently about who, what, why, where and when. Therefore, I’ve chosen just a few off the top of my head desistance, education, friends, family, employment, mental health, and last by know means least society.
I’m not going to dress this up or skirt around any issues as at this particular time of my life I have adopted a mantra force fed me over the past year from friends, family and those of power ‘nobody gives a fuck about you or what you say’. Being a given that we learn from our peers and our environment it might be safe to assume that I then, in turn, have inherited the attitude of ‘I don’t give a fcku.’ I don’t mean I don’t care. I do. I simply don’t mind what other people think any more. Fortunately, I’ve managed to make it to this one year anniversary with the support of the afore mentioned so therein lies the conundrum. My trouble is I’ve found peace in my heart with my ‘self’. I’ve tried to get angry. Tried to get mad. Tried to get even/revengeful but at the end of the day what they say is partly true as nothing really matters. As long as you have peace that is. If your not at peace then every single word or phrase matters a lot. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar taught me the Art of Living via Sudashran Kriya and this is something that we should all invest a little time in. It really does work and there are no catches.
Education – The whole way through the last four years of my prison sentence I was focused on getting a degree. It started off being about something to keep myself busy, leading by example and hopefully help others to achieve something similar along the way. The enthusiasm of the Education Department at Magilligan was amazing and the interest of staff was tentative at first but supportive. However, the more I studied the more I became aware of the injustice of justice and the paradox of the institution of prison. The term ‘Duty of care’ simply cannot and should not sit in or alongside the notion of a penal institution specifically denied to remove, deny and cause human suffering. I embarked on a few legal challenges which got right up the managements proverbial noses and I found myself at the centre of maelstrom of bureaucratic shenanigans only fit for a fiction novel. My book of such shenanigans is now typed up, thanks to two dear friends, and will be hitting the publishing houses soon. I’ll not go into the ins and outs of what’s denied a prisoner during study at degree level. I’d rather focus on what it is they don’t tell you. During one’s degree one is encouraged and supported by each and every one to get you through that module and onto the next. The closer you get to the end one starts to think ‘what will I do next? Is a degree enough?’ The mantra from all ‘sure we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’ My trouble is I crossed the bridge two months after my release and lost all benefits. I was initially on Job-seekers but moved to Carer’s allowance and received Housing Benefit as my Carer’s was propped up by Income Support. Once I started my Master’s I lost everything and am now in debt because I am overpaid and in rent arrears as I’ve no income. My Father paid for my fee’s and gives me a weekly allowance to eat and keep warm out of his pension and savings. I will of course give it back once I get some employment. These issues have been discussed at the highest level namely the Minister for Employment and Learning and all the other relative stakeholders who assist with the reintegration of people who have been to prison. The trouble is one can’t get to PhD without a Master’s so I use a hint of warning to the new so called ‘secure college’ brigade and the students who will obviously be rehabilitated via an education revolution. It will stop once you finish your degree unless you have a great Dad. The state will provide you with nothing and the University has thousands of students across the UK applying for one or two bursaries and or grants, and lets face it, if you don’t have coming from Oxford or Cambridge in your application the University isn’t going to pick a person who has been to prison; are they? I start my Master’s dissertation this week and have been turned down to do a PhD at Queens. Again, exceptionally high competition from the Oxbridge brigade who have all achieved distinctions. I achieved a distinction at level 2 Criminology on the inside. I wonder how many of those bright young things could even have survived what I’ve gone through never mind attired to a 2:1. So much for exceptional circumstances eh! This may sound like sour grapes but just remember. It’s important to share how one feels in order to let others who come behind what to expect. Anyway, I’m looking forward to writing my dissertation on ‘Convict Criminology’ and what is the point – if any. I’ll finish off by stating the obvious paradox. I should have stayed in prison for another year.
Mental Health – The trials and tribulations of having to deal with responsibility and ‘normal’ daily scenarios has been one of the most frightening and surprising outcomes of imprisonment. I’m afraid six days home leave, six weeks, six months won’t even cut it. Only last Friday I was at a big Restorative Justice dinner in the Europa. I was in the company of a beautiful woman from Italy and a Tango Dancer (at least he said he was). Really lovely people. I had to go to the loo and when I came back everyone had moved to the dinner. As I joined the throng heading up to the banquet I felt it in the pit of my stomach. This indescribable numb ache that causes the heart to beat faster and breathes to get shorter. Now, I know how to control this with my breathing exercises and previous training as a Listener. So, I think I’ve got it licked. As the presentations start, it mugs me and I flee to the toilet to try and get my breathe back. Sweats, panic, anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness all hit me in a couple of minutes and I get to the front of the Hotel and try to catch my breath. As, I stand there taking in deep Uijjai breathes my phone beeps. Its an old colleague from Magilligan “Come and join me for a pint – look across the road.” I go over and join him and his girl and I have a Spritzer. Within two minutes I’m safe I’m relaxed and I’m relieved as I tell him what was happening. “I still get them too he says.” That’s when I realise I’m truly safe as this guy is the only person in the vicinity who can understand me. The panic attack has left me exhausted and the wine gone to my head so I jump in a taxi and head home. The next few hours are filled with complete despondence and I wake in the morning feeling cheated of a great night out. This is only the tip of the iceberg but something we all need to hold on to. Prison does not rehabilitate it cause harm, as it is designed to and this harm last for a long a time. Therefore, is society made safe by prison in the long term?
Employment – I have to be in full time employment to fund full time education! I don’t think I need to explain the ins and outs of declaring a conviction. I have made numerous applications in this field to and with organisations who say they represent people like me. Northern Ireland is a wee place and I think I may have put too many noses out of joint for any organisation who works with Criminal Justice to employ me. The trouble is people don’t like the truth. Therefore, I’m in the process of adjusting my desired field. Street sweeper and toilet cleaner are starting to look promising as I must pay off these debts. Not only for personal reasons but because I don’t want to get sent back to jail for defaulting on any fines that might occur from non payment of bills. As I speak the letter box clatters with the post and a feeling of dread hits my stomach. Expunging convictions needs to be addressed. Debt to society is prison. In Law the second part of a prison sentence is to provide the person with the tools to live purposefully in society. Declaration of offence and Rehabilitation of Offenders Act denies this. Prison is an economic life sentence if you do over four years. Your sentence will never be spent therefore you will never be rehabilitated so what’s the point of anything being delivered to anyone who serves over four years or ‘social death’ as someone once put it. Is this then perhaps another paradox of Criminal Justice. My four years of study got me a job as a litter picker in the resettlement unit at Magilligan. At least I got the experience of that on any future street cleaning jobs. All that tax payers money put to good use. Hooray Prison works. Oh, yeagh that’s right. I’m a tax payer now. Or would be if a I had a job.
Desistance – is inextricably linked to education, friends, family, employment, mental health, and social acceptance. It is fought on a daily basis. For me it’s easy to turn my mind from it as I have some great tools at my disposal. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to my one and only venture into serious crime. I mean after all it has cost nearly half a million pounds to keep me over the years. And all for a bit of masking tape and the ego of a Criminal Justice Department. I could get involved with people who do this sort of thing in ten minutes time. I only have to walk round the corner or pick up the phone. There’s the old cliche of ‘never say never’. I don’t believe in all that balix. I believe I learnt my lesson. I did my time. Paid my price. Prison worked for me because I got something out of it and it opened up a whole new train of thought regarding what we do to our society in the name of political pish and the marginalisation of the poor. Prison has also worked, despite my training and tools, I die before I go back there. Prison works but for all the wrong reasons. I desist because I want to. I could be homeless tomorrow living on the streets and my only thought would be of food and warmth and getting work. Why does everyone assume I want to commit crime to live?
Society – during my Open University Graduation Ceremony at the Waterfront Hall a few weeks back our Justice Minsiter Mr David Ford got up from his seat and shook my hand as I headed back to mine. Last Wednesday we had a brief chat about stalking and I reminded him it was ‘he’ who was at ‘my’ graduation not the other way round. We had a laugh about a few other topics and the idea of me joining the political arena was mentioned flippantly. We both were rather surprised and expressions turned serious when I said “your not the first person who has said that. Maybe I will.” During the past year I have had several discussions with taxi drivers. Taxi Drivers in all cities are at the epicentre of all things societal. After all they drive it and talk to it all day every day. Once I tell them where I was for six years (so that they don’t try to rip me off for being a tourist) they get a bit wary “You didn’t kill anyone did you?” is normally the response. When it tell them a short version of what happened they normally ask me what I did when I was inside. This is when the whole dynamic changes from one of wariness to one of sheer delight. When I say I got a degree in Criminology and Psychology, am now at Queens doing a Masters and working with people in Criminal Justice in order to make Northern Ireland a safer place is when societal perception changes. “Do you know that’s great to hear. Well done you. Bloody brilliant and stick it to the man.” Are some of the more frequent and polite responses. I’ve mentioned this before. If a third of people leaving prison could do something like what I have. Or even got GCSE’s or purposeful employment immediately after prison as a direct result of prison education how long would it be before the conversations in our pubs change and people who have been to prison are not socially dead despite the best efforts of the political criminal justice system.
Social acceptance is in this picture
and my life has really only just begun. I’ve had a horrible time recently with the near death of my Father. The experience allowed me to re-evaluate what I give a fcku about. Today is what matters. Living in the moment – not like a lunatic as if there’s no tomorrow – but enjoying the good things in and with people, not clinging to the negative, knowing that when the chips are down friends and family and new friends will appear as if by magic. Life is shit sometimes but it does not compare to the horror of prison and wanting to be dead because of it. The birds chirp incessantly, the sun has been shining for three days solid, my Dad comes home on Friday. A bit like my coming home last year. He’s done his bird and survived. We have all survived to be in this lovely day. I’ll not give up on me. I’ll not surrender my values. I look forward to enjoying this day, with my Dad, a meeting with my Professor to discuss my dissertation and then a beer with a few friends later on (text me if you want to come along). Prison is fading, the memory of it not as harsh. I spent four hours with one of my old Governors the other night in several Belfast watering holes. There wasn’t a raised voice or a word said in anger. It’s a sure sign that at the end of the day ‘Nothing really matters…”