My bones start to warm and with shaky hand I iron my top for the day. My mind flits to the mornings of previous home leaves and a wee knot arrives in the pit of the stomach. It’s a lovely crisp clear morning and I’m now feeling quite excited as I shuffle through the leaves on the way to the train station. Back to HMP Magilligan for an afternoon visit with my old mate Jim (real name retracted as he’s still a serving prisoner).
I’ve arranged to meet one of my fellow visitors in a coffee shop by the Europa Hotel. As I collect my coffee another ex colleague appears at my elbow. I tell him where I’m going and he laughs “that’ll be fun. They’ll love the site of you walking back in – or not” he says. About ten minutes later Steve arrives and we sit and chat about the possible outcomes of bumping into old enemies again.
Walking down the platform Steve beats me to it and says exactly what I’m thinking “Fuck! I used to hate walking down here after home leaves. I mean… Who in their right minds willingly volunteers to go back to jail to be punished?” Thankfully we are well versed on what the punishment for crime is and that particular conversation remains a short one.
At Mossley West station the third member of our merry band arrives and we have a good old natter and catch up. Three old amigos together. Heading back to prison to see our mate who has just came back from England. This is a tale in itself so i’ll keep it short.
I met Jim in Rye Hill in 2008 and we both requested a transfer at the same time; our goal to end up on the brand new drug free – restorative based wing at HMP Magilligan. We achieved this in 2009. Jim was unhappy as we all are with the home leave situation here in Northern Ireland. You get twelve days in your last year unless you get to Foyleview and get every other weekend in your last year. Foyleview is a dictatorship called the land of Narnia by prisoners. Can’t dwell I’d be here all day.
Just before I left last June Jim put in a request to be sent back to England as he should be ‘D’ cat and sent straight to an open prison where he is entitled to five days home leave at each month. Normally this is taken in a block at the end of each calendar month. He gets back to England and they lose his paperwork, he’s sent back to Rye Hill from whence he came and they deny him everything as he’s now deemed a bad boy. the reason being that most people who come back form a transfer have not complied with the regime and or rules of Northern Ireland. One of the terms of the transfer.
Jim ends up in Shepton Mallet and puts in a request to go back to Northern Ireland again. Granted! Trust me. That was the very short version. I get a phone call two weeks ago with visiting numbers and go through the process of booking for myself Steve and Paul. Jim phoned me on Monday to confirm and as I sat here in my warm cosy living room I listened to the shouts, roars and bangs of a prison wing going on in the background. I knew where he was standing. I knew the position of the officers and for a brief moment I thought could smell the wing. It was then that it dawned on me how natural all of this was to me but how horrible must it be for families who don’t know.
We arrive at the train station which is completely out in the sticks at the bottom of Benvenagh mountain. The mountain I stared at from my cell every single day. It felt weird standing at the foot of it now. The familiar silver prison van (there’s more than one) with fourteen seats beckons. Hold the bus. There’s more than fourteen people waiting to get on it. being the kind decent citizens that we are we let women, children babies and prams on first and are left standing in the car park with two young women who didn’t make the cut either.
The girls are a going to visit their dad and are a bit worried. We reassure them the van will be back and that there is plenty of time as it’s only twenty past one and the visits don’t start until two. About ten minutes later the van arrives back and off we go.
And there it is in all its splendour. The Wall. I’ve drove past it once before but not in a prison van. “Hello darlin” I roar inwardly to myself. Out we get and head into the little visitors centre run by the Quakers. All I hear is ‘Holy Fuck’ from a familiar and sadly missed voice. My old mate John (again name retracted).
“Why’d you not write?” he says.
“I did. Three times. And sent you an email” I replied.
“I got the email but not the letters and there was no return address on the email” he chirps back.
We both role our eyes at the ceiling and both know that the letters had been withheld by the prison staff. In fact everyone in the room knew. I have often tried to explain the vindictive nature of the prison service. I won’t bother now. Don’t need to. We all know it happens yet nobody does a thing about it. I’ll be emailing and writing straight after this. Now he knows a letter is coming and if it doesn’t arrive there will be merry hell to pay.
We dutifully queue up at the gate at 1.45 as instructed by Northern Ireland Prison Service. Visits begin at 2.00pm. At five past two that all too familiar electronic warning that plagued my every day comes back to haunt me.
Steve looks at me and says “Oh, here come the knots in the stomach.”
As he says it, mine arrive too. I’m not going to go into the details of the visits booking in process, getting sniffed in the nuts by a dog and watching children get frisked. We walk into the hall about twenty past two and the we know the officer behind the counter. He exclaims “Holy Fuck” three times as we appear one by one. Paul chirps up “aye, It’s a raid.” The officer is cool, one of the good guys and is genuinely pleased to see us. We get to our table just as Jim walks through the door at the other end of the hall.
It’s one of those moments that you see yourself looking back in on your self. Very strange. Very surreal. Jim looks great and tells me I’ve lost a weight and we all have big hugs and greetings. The visit goes great and we listen and laugh. Boy do we laugh. I thought they were going to come and tell us to keep it down at one stage. I get the true story of what happened to Jim and he’s also able to tell me about the changes in regimes since I left.
Of course, I can’t help myself and ask him if they’re still doing the night checks. he shakes his head and say “are they ever! A fucking nightmare.” The Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison service promised me that this was something on their list of about fifty changes they were dealing with – with urgency. That was a year ago. Again, I won’t dwell if you want to know what it’s all about follow this link.
Judicial review –
It’s now twenty past three and we must leave in order to catch the train. As Jim walks through the door my heart breaks as I know he’s now putting his game face back on. And the lonely walk back up the phase to the wing can be a happy one but more often than not it’s sheer and utter internal despondency.
If we miss this one the next one is in another two hours. Did I mention we are out in the sticks? Now, this is just an observation. The guy driving the van knows that he had to do two pickups. Does he tell anyone? Do the visits people know that there are nineteen people who have to leave forty minutes early in order to catch the train? Do they lay on another bus? The guy lets us all pile in and the three amigos stand doubled over and crushed in the gaps between the seats. The van is now totally overloaded and the guy chirps up “I hope we don’t get stopped by the police.”
The two young women start chatting to us and we all sit together on the journey home. One of the young women says “all this fucking travelling for an hour’s visit. I thought we had two hours?” Myself and Steve (Paul has got a lift to Coleraine to see a man about a dog) spend the whole of the journey back to Belfast answering the girls questions and giving them advice on all things pertaining to prison.
These two young women are the general public. They represent the innocence of not knowing how systems really work. They represent the average man and women in society and they were nearly in tears when we told them the truth about what to expect and not expect. When we parted company at Great Victoria Street Station it was with smiles and laughter.
Steve grabs a quick fag and I walk into Robinsons and order a pint of Tennants and a bottle of Magners with ice. Steve joins me and we clink glasses and say cheers. We are quiet for a while.
“My heart broke for Jim as he walked through that door” he says. And so the post mortem began.
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