10.30am one day last week finds me sitting in a Belfast Coffee shop sipping a large latte. Got a few butterflies knocking about in the old tummy; but I’m not off to the dentist. I’m heading back to the ‘Big House’, my old home at HMP Magilligan to see my old friend Jim. This is my second trip back only this time I’m on my lonesome. Booked the visit last week for the afternoon as it takes 1hr 50 mins to get there by train then you get picked up by a prison mini bus and taken to the prison where you get a cup of tea or coffee in the NIACRO hut. The Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners (NIACRO) is a stakeholder and Government funded body who work hand in hand with the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS). The ‘Hut’ has been there from day one and is a warm and welcoming place providing shelter from the cold, wind and rain.
My journey is a troubled one. Not because of delays, there are none, but more to do with where I’m going and who I’m going to see. My old home still haunts me during my weaker moments, still creeps up and mugs me when I least expect it and this comes in the shape of anxiety/panic attacks. I’m so lucky as I can squash them or at the very least quell with my breathing exercises. So, sit between Antrim and Ballymoney with eyes closed headphones on listening to a guided meditation by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Lovely jubbly.
My second concern is my mate Jim. We met at the start of our sentences and he’s still got just over a year to go. I’m torn between telling him all my good news and or helping him get through the last year. For me, the last year was most definitely the hardest. When I left the last time it broke my heart to see him walking back in through that wooden door knowing the daily shite that he still has to endure. As per usual I decide to play it by ear and see what arises.
Get off the train and walk to the car park to wait for the bus. Now, this station is out in the sticks and I suddenly realise I’m on my own. No other visitors. My stomach lurches as I think that I’ve got the wrong train and or visits have been cancelled. A quick call with a very helpful member of staff tells me there are no prison buses to and from the station. They only operate Wednesday and Saturday. As I’m waiting for a taxi a prison bus drives by. Taxi arrives and charges me £15 for the three mile journey. They do not charge from pick up point in the country. They charge from the depot. It’s three miles to the prison. Do the math. Good work if you can get it. I then have to get back so I book a another taxi to pick me up at 3.30pm as this will give me plenty of time to catch the 3.56pm train back to the land of the living. This will of course mean leaving the visits hall around 3.20pm to go through the process of getting out again. I tell the driver if I can get a lift I’ll call them back and cancel. That’s £26 I’ve spent so far.
The girls in the NIACRO hut greet me with the usual smiles and conversation they delivered when I sat at a table on the other side of the wall. They’ve got new uniforms and I ask them how long have they been wearing them. One girl tells me from January but is not sure how long they will actually be wearing them for. I’m then informed that NIPS is doing away with NIACRO services. I ask about the ‘Family Liaison’ team set up when I was leaving, as I assumed they would take over these duties. Apparently they all fell out with each other and there is no ‘Family Liaison’ team. It used to be one guy who did it for years but they moved him back on to the wings where he’s like a fish out of water.
I’m quite shocked by all this and I tell the girls I’ve just had to get a taxi from the station and need a cash machine to get one back. They immediately instruct me to cancel it and one of them will give me a lift. Now, I have to ask myself would prison staff do this? especially given my reputation amongst the rank and file. So, it looks like NIPS are going to keep everything ‘in house. In February 2011 Justice Minister David Ford published the interim report by the Prison Review Team led by Dame Anne Owers.
and this very report recommended the closure of Magilligan. After much huffing and puffing by local politicians and Prison Officers Association an announcement was made in November 2012 by The Justice Minister that Magilligan would not be closing and that “the final decision would require evidence that issues around rehabilitation and family links could be addressed”.
I think the Report cost about £1m.
I take me place in the small queue at the gate and all too soon I hear that horrible electronic beep of a gate opening that plagued my very soul for so many year. There’s an aul fella in the gate house. I remember him telling me he was leaving. That was three years ago approximately. Maybe more. He’s a good sort and takes a double look at me, recognises me and politely asks me how I’m doin. I get into the search area/reception all new staff apart from the dog handler and the search officers. I remember one of the Governors had told me to give him a shout next time I was up. I ask the staff. No joy. One of them recognises me and just glares. Not saying a word I stare aimlessly into his eyes and out the back of his skull. I suppose you could call that a glare too. My old anger creeps back and as the dog sniffs my nuts and ass I know all he has to do is crack the nod to the dog handler, dog will sit and there will be no visit.
Phew, all clear and off I head to the visits bit. All new staff again. I ask after the Governor. Again no joy. Totally unresponsive. I’ve been given forms by the NIACRO staff and need to get a stamp from the Senior Officer (SO). These forms where of course taken off me by the search guy and as I was not allowed to bring paper into the visits. I’m sitting at the table looking around. Not many. The girl giving me a lift heads into the play area and starts to play with the child of one of the other visitors. I have to think to myself could an officer do this? Can a member of staff play with the child of someone they despise. Should they be allowed to? But what really gets me going is the dreaded exit door for ‘Prisoners Only.’
Oh my giddy aunt. They’ve only gone and painted it like as a big tree surrounded by a a forest. Like a fairy tale. I then start to imagine the conversations obviously designed for children. Child “Oh, where’s daddy going?” Mother “Oh, he’s off to work in the forest.” Child “I thought you told me he was in prison?” I then think of adult conversation and what we called the Resettlement Unit ‘Foyleview’, affectionately known by staff and prisoners as ‘Narnia’ the land of make believe. I temporarily forget about this when Jim walks in. We hug and it’s great to see how much weight he’s lost and how healthy he looks. I bring up the door and we laugh our heads off. Jim then tells me about the petty bullshit that still persists in the institution of prison.
You see folks it is not a democracy. The life of and existence of a prison does not mirror society. The sole purpose of a prison regimen is to get people, staff and prisoner alike, with the minimum of fuss and exertion. Each and every encounter with a prison officer is recorded and mentioned during their meetings. Families members simply cannot comprehend the daily drudgery of pettiness, stifling bureaucracy and button pushing that goes on in a prison wing. Sometimes you get the odd good wing run by good staff but they are normally in the minority. There, will always be a best wing but then you have jump through even more hoops to stay on it as one slip of the tongue or momentary outburst can have you packed off to some other hell-hole from whence you came. Progression in prison is purposefully designed like that. It’s called the Incentive Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS) across the water and Progressive Regimes and Earned Privileges Scheme (Preps) over here. Everything you do or say can affect your progress through the system. Upon induction you are told that you need to get to open conditions for your resettlement and reintegration and this will allow you home leaves et al. It’s fed to you constantly so you get brainwashed into thinking that you must get to this final stage by towing the line.
This is where the psychology of prison sucks you in and before you know it. You’re in the game. The game of institution. The rules, regulations, changing goal posts and a plethora of other rehabilitating processes designed to make you become institutionalised. It is so easy for staff to control unruly or frustrated prisoners. the system is unbreakable like this. One really has to experience it to understand it.
Jim tells me all of his woes and I listen to him intently. I then tell him that not one single thing that happens to him as a result of prison staff means one iota in the real world. It does take time to get over it and through it. It does get better for most but unfortunately some never make it. Recovery from the duty of care of any prison is a long fought road and it is worth remembering how difficult it is to explain this to someone who is in it and living it. Would I have listened to me. Could I understand what was being told to me? Not sure I could.
The SO walks into the office, looks at me and glares. Head over with the forms and politely yet firmly told I’m only allowed this and that if this and that is followed. I just smile and say “Thank You.” I then enquire after the Governor. No joy and none of my bloody business either. I say “Thank You” again and walk away. This is what I tell Jim to do. Or anyone else for that matter. Just say “Thank You” and walk away.
No more drama, no more shite. I stand on the platform of the train station and feel the weight of the prison lift from my shoulders. I take a picture of what I see to remind me of how I feel. And, to remember. It’s always important to remember. The train arrives bang on time, send a couple of tweets thanking NIACRO staff and how brilliant they are and slip into a nodding head train dose that wakes me just outside Antrim.
All I can think about is that bloody door in a painting of a tree and the glare of some of the staff. I smile as I listen to my own advice “nothing that happens to you in prison matters when you get out.” Turn my phone back on and arrange to meet another prison escapee in a bar by the station in Gt Victoria St. Big happy breathes and I spy four men standing in front of me. Recognise two of them and put my finger up to my lips to say ‘shush’. I hope I’ve recognised the third. I tap him on the shoulder as the other three walk away to get a different train. Can smell the drink and look into his cloudy eyes. “Michael! What the hell? How you doing? When did you get out?” he asks. “Nearly two years ago” says I. “Ah, wondered why I hadn’t seen you about” says he. We roared with laughter and banter and badger and I tell him I’m just back from a visit and going for a pint. He tells me he’s love to join me but he’s already had enough. He clasps my hands and asks me what I’m doing. His eyes fill up when I tell him. He looks at me and smiles “I’m so pleased for you soon” and with that he heads off to get the same train back that I just came in on.
As I sit in the bar supping a nice cold bottle of Magners I think how much I would have enjoyed being in the company of those prison officers. The one I held my ‘shush’ too knew me well enough but the guy I spoke to knew me better. He was right hard nasty bastard when we first met. I was lucky enough to call him a dickhead one day at something he’s done. It was common ground as he called me a wanker back. From that day forward dickhead and wanker respected each other and liked each other’s company. The only thing that stood in the way of them being friends was the uniform. I thought to myself, as I finished my first pint, how sad is that for the men and women who find themselves in the institution of prison.
My mate came with arrived with another mate and we sat and got merry slagging the world of prison off and putting it all to rights. When I got home there had been half a ton of coal delivered to my door. Can’t shift that now, better do it first thing. I did and am enjoying it now as I write this. Funny ole world eh!