9.30am 19/06/2013 Me and Davey are sitting in the prison van, being driven to the railway station. The officer driving, an old notorious hand, quips about my return. Davey (going on his first home leave) chirps “aye he’ll be comin back all right but not how you think.” My eyes widen. Mr Notorious gets quite irate, refers to me and demands to know what Davey means by this. “You know what Mr Notorious. My name is Michael Irwin ‘citizen’, that is none of your business and I don’t have to answer your questions anymore.” Mr Notorious replies “You know what Michael. You’re right. I can’t take you back but I can take you back Davey so wipe that effin smile off your face.” We all laughed for different reasons.
Over the years many people have asked me what it was like to get out after six years of imprisonment. My response has always been the same, “Relief. Pure unadulterated relief. I literally could not have done another minute.” Surviving prison has more to do with surviving one’s self, not getting one into hostile situations with the natives and negotiating the petty bureaucratic nightmare that is the prison system. That was then, this is now.
On this, my second anniversary of freedom, I have to ask my good self the question, “How do I feel today after exactly two years of freedom?”
My response, “Tired, confused and swimming in treacle.” I’m sitting here and all I can hear is the gentle hum of my laptop and the odd plane in the distance. On my one year anniversary blog “One Year Down” I used some of the words behind Criminological Theory as subheadings. Think I’ll do the same now, however the subheadings might be different. You must remember I never plan my blogs or structure them. There is no format, agenda or structure. I simply sit down and write what comes into my head.
Lethargy – “the quality or state of being drowsy and dull, listless and unenergetic, or indifferent and lazy; apathetic or sluggish inactivity.” In my humble opinion this is a direct result of taking my foot off the gas. There’s a psychological warfare of types going on here. Damned if you do damned if you don’t. The trouble is I need time to be me, to laugh, be around like minded friends, enjoy life, let the hair down or get it cut. I came straight out of one institution (prison) and directly into another (university) where I found it difficult to control my desire to bring my personal experiences to the fore of my work. There is a fine line to tread and it’s only now that I recognise all of this. My lethargy during my time in prison was overcome by work ethic, discipline and routine but this didn’t leave much time for me. This then leads to the state of one’s mind.
Hope – At this particular moment in time I have lost hope. Haven’t given up but, have been knocked down. Dustin myself off should be second nature; after all I did survive prison. How did I do that? Kept myself busy trying to get a degree, that’s how. Oh, and making complaints and requesting Judicial Reviews about prison policy. So, why have I lost hope now? I think it’s more to do with mojo rather than hope. I’ve been flat out for nearly six years now and after my temporary failure to gain PhD Scholarships, decided to spend a bit of time on Michael. This involves going out for long walks, a drink when I can and once the money is spent – vegetating, binge watching TV Series like ’24’, ‘Dexter’ et al that I’d missed over the years. The trouble with this is, one slips into being on the dole mode which involves surviving from one giro to the next. Oh, that’s right, nearly forgot. I am on the dole. I know this feeling and remember it from all those years ago. The trouble, for me, now is that I simply can’t walk into the dole office and apply for any job. Three things hold me back. One – I’ve got a criminal record. Two – I’ve got a BA and MSSc! Three – I’m forty eight years old. Overqualified, Overage and Unemployable!
Education – Finished my dissertation on ‘Convict Criminology’ in September 2014 and graduated on the 12th December 2014. It was indeed one of the proudest days of my life. My Mum and Dad, sat side by side after thirty years apart only to watch their son walk across a stage at Queens University Belfast. The ritual (I’ll revisit ritual later) of pomp and ceremony was not lost on me. However, throughout the whole process a wee voice kept telling me, “you could have done so much better.” On the plus side, I’ve been invited to do several talks, a couple of lectures since, but I have to say that the most rewarding was when I delivered two talks (about Criminology and Prison) at my old High School. I suppose that really is what one calls ‘coming full circle’. Especially, when I realised I was talking to fifteen and sixteen year olds about being their age and realised that I was in one of my old classrooms. Saw myself sitting in one of the chairs looking back up at me. Very freaky indeed and rather mind blowing. So, education continues and I learn it’s not all that academic.
Mental Health – My mind is still a minefield and the more I seem to let go the more other stuff comes to the fore. Unleashing involves unravelling and it’s sometimes and more often than not impossible to separate the two. I’ve exploded on several occasions but it’s always been internally and never toward anyone or any one thing. I’m lucky that I have my ‘Art of Living Foundation’ family, the stress busting breathing techniques and mediations that come with that. In fact, without these tools I would not be in this position today. As difficult as it is for me mentally, I keep doing my techniques and in turn this allows me to settle and keep my feet on the ground.
Desistance – is easy to explain. Today I will not do anything that will jeopardise my freedom. The reason why I desist from crime is that I will die if I go back to jail. There is no quarter, no theory that will stop me from committing a crime or reduce my craving for the numbness that accompanies drug addiction. The only theory that stops me is that I don’t want to die.
Ritual – I’ve recently taken a wee bit of time to revisit and read up on ritual and the rites of passage in the world of Criminology. I’m not quoting as this is a blog but as many of you are aware I’ve followed and studied much of Shadd Maruna’s work over the years. I’ve been through the degradation inflicted upon the self by society in the name of society, the dehabilitating affects of relabeling and stigma attached to a spell of imprisonment and the fear that accompanies this constant negotiation of a newly acquired social stagnation and self loathing. I’d have loved to have a party on the night of my release like they have in the movies. Instead I met my Mum and Prof. Maruna in a bar in Belfast and I was drinking mineral water. It was nice and what the Dr (not Shadd) ordered at the time. What ritual is next for me?
Well, ironically enough I’m going to meet my friend in a couple of hours in the same Bar and we are going to drink alcoholic beverages together and I am going to declare a self fulfilling and habilitating ritual of my own. It’s not that grand. It’s about time, place and circumstance and drawing a line in the sand between past and present. The first year out was heavy going due to the brain damage one’s psyche undergoes as a direct result of the duty of care provided by the prison service. The second year was more to do with negotiating stigma and labelling; the harshest of critics being one’s self. I’ve learned a lot and got rid of many demons. The old one’s still lurk in the background but I embrace them and accept that they will always be there. I’ve found love in the strangest of places and met some lovely people along the way.
Mandela wrote about “The Long Walk To Freedom”, for me, these past two years have been “The Long Walk Of Freedom”. It’s not over by a long shot, every day is different and those who walk it with you have their own battle’s of your experience to deal with. More often than not, their visions of the horrors that you went through are worse than the actual experience. Don’t think I can keep going if I continually use my past to influence my future. The labels will never go away. Others will always use them but for me I’m letting go of my past. This will entail several things, once the summer is over (if it ever arrives). I’m throwing myself completely into the world of writing, creatively and academically this will mean the end of this blog… Two years on I’ve decided enough is enough, time to move on and go back to the drawing board. The End… or is it?