This is my experience of Maghaberry from my book ‘Life Begins at Forty’
HMP Maghaberry Northern Ireland
Holy fuck! What have I done? The reception area here is massive. Big glass rooms holding cells and loads of open space. You could house a bloody wing in here. The officer on duty, looking at my bags, says ‘we aren’t going to get through all of that today we’ll call you over before Friday to sort it out.’ Now where have I heard that before? Is it ingrained at training for officers to deny, dehumanise from first point of contact.
‘Excuse me, but I’ve been through enough receptions in the past two years to know that isn’t going to happen so just let me sort out my clothes, bedding and meds and I’ll be out of your hair.’ I’m then taken off for a strip search and shower. When I get back there are a couple of large brown paper bags sitting on the desk. Brown paper bags are indicative of NIPS.
‘What’s this?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘You can’t have this.’ ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ ‘This is Northern Ireland fella.’ ‘We don’t allow that here.’ The endless droning of the officer. He really enjoyed telling me what I couldn’t have and at the end he said ‘Take you’re earring out it looks too expensive.’ Wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction and I could tell from the off that this was not the most friendly prison environment I had come across.
I’m escorted over to the committal wing ‘Roe House’ I think I might want to consider rowing myself back out of here. All I’ve seen so far is a security team in riot gear, guard dogs and officers who take great delight in telling me what I can’t have. When I get on to the landing it’s immediate bang up. I have some dinner which is another new experience. The food is dished out from a trolley on the actual landing a couple of feet from my cell. I grab my dinner and its straight back into my cell again. An officer standing by my door the whole time, with keys in hand.
‘What no association then?’
‘Yards or lock up’ comes the reply. ‘Not for you though you’re too late.’ I receive an emergency back of biscuits tea and crisp. Tayto cheese and onion! If it hadn’t been for the fact that I received a pack that morning on the van at Manchester. I’d have been drooling. Fuckin hell this place reeks of oppressiveness. Is it only done to intimidate me or is this what its going to be like for the next four years. Fuck that. Still I’ll see my mum and dad soon. I think of them and dismiss my impending feelings of doom. I’ve experienced a few nasty bastards in England, but there seems to be a general atmosphere here. Very frightening. I shouldn’t be feeling like this. What a day. Don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
9.00am my first night was spent munching crisp and watching local TV. Good to hear the accents again. Paul Clarke is looking very grey this weather. I wonder how is brother is getting on. We used to knock about in the same crowd, many moons ago. What was last night all about? I get a torch shone in my face every hour on the hour and told to move. What a nightmare. I’m fuckin exhausted, instead of being full of the joys of spring. Came out of doze around five thirty and stayed awake no choice. I then hear an officer walk round and wake everybody up. How kind an early morning call. Maybe it’s a first night thing. As I speak I see a couple of guys walk past my window with guard dogs. ‘A’ cat prison with ‘A’ cat rules. I seem to remember ‘the troubles’ are over, aren’t they?
It’s ‘Red Nose Day’ and I’ve a visit in about an hour’s time. I’ve also got to attend a ‘fire drill induction’ at 9.15am, clean out my cell and have a shower. Sound familiar? HMP drill and routine, such is life.
I’m extremely relaxed at the minute and all the efforts of the officers to piss me off are falling on deaf ears. I’m doing a lot of breathing exercise and mucho meditating. Haven’t had any officers freaking out yet, thinking I’m dead. It just goes to show you how thoroughly they carry these checks out. Every hour on the hour, all they do is lift the flap up shine a torch in or turn the light on. Half the time they don’t even look in the cell, but as far as any camera is concerned they are seen to be carrying out their duty. Their duty of care is a constant bombardment on my senses and sense of right and wrong. They aren’t doing theses checks for my benefit they’re doing it for themselves. If anybody wants to kill themselves they will and will start as soon as the officer checks his cell. That will give the person a good fifty nine minutes to carry out the deed. So, don’t give me your bullshit about my health, you’re fucking with my health by keeping me awake and treating me lesser than a dog. Takes a bit of getting used to, this old twenty two hour lock up.
Spoke to a guy from the ‘Christian Fellowship’ yesterday and he told me that Magilligan was my best bet. I’ve put in a request for a transfer. Better to go now and get settled for my last stint rather than to up sticks again in six months or a years’ time. Four years and a bit left. I fit the criteria for Magilligan and everyone I have spoken to so far has said, ‘get out of this place as soon as you can.’
My dad came for a visit on Tuesday which was great. He looks good, but old. This is something I never thought I would say, ‘My mum is coming to visit now.’
Looking forward to seeing her. I’m sure a hug and smile will end the tension between us. Or is it only in my mind. I’m sure we’ll be fine.
I’ve just seen my mum. What tension? No tears, no anger and definitely no guilt. We had a damned good chat and I think I managed to put some of her demons to rest. I had a bit of extra time on the visit as they couldn’t find an officer to take me back. Every prisoner in here has to be escorted everywhere by an officer. ‘B cat’, ‘C cat’, ‘D cat’ remand, fine defaulter, drunk, swearing in public; makes no difference. This is a Northern Ireland we do things differently over here. Where does the money go, eh?
On the way out of the visit I had to get searched. I started to take my clothes off. The officer growled at me ‘what the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ I’m ready to let rip, but I take a deep breath. I’ve come to a conclusion in the space of a less than a week. That the NIPS have problems. I can bitch and moan about officers until the cows come home, but over here there is definitely a difference. It’s not actually what they say; it’s the manner in which they say it. They loathe having to deal with prisoners and they make their presence felt and are as menacing as possible during every interaction with an inmate. This might subside after time, but I doubt it. I can understand their mind set. They have control of the prison population again and they don’t want to give an inch. They can freely bully, intimidate and threaten prisoners because they are no longer paramilitaries involved. Well there are, but minor infringements such as bullying and bad manners won’t lead to their house being petrol bombed.
Most of the men and women I have seen so far have been fifty plus, this means they were all around during the days of the Maze, when brutality and torture where par for the course in HMP Northern Ireland. I hear all these young lads saying they’ll go on hunger strike if they don’t get what they want. A lot of good that did Bobby Sands and his brigade. The state let those men die; they were terrorists with the backing of public opinion amongst the nationalist community, the political wing Sinn Fein and a misplaced sympathetic ear of America and the coffers that backed them. Why on earth would that very same state going to listen to a car thief from Andytown who’s throwing his toys out of his pram? It’s the same hierarchy with the same politicians barking the same old rhetoric. What has changed? Less than one percent of the population still helps dictate policies and procedures for the majority who want nothing to do with them.
Being back in Northern Ireland reminds me of why I left. If I was younger and more impressionable I’d be developing an anger. An anger which could so easily been avoided if the people who’s care I’m under spoke to me as human being, talked to me with a bit respect and allowed me to keep hold of some of my dignity. I’m sure if I’m around in twenty years time I’ll be reading stories about men appearing in front of judges who will have developed their beliefs from the hatred and anger they felt of the people within the system which professes to ‘care’ about their future. They say, ‘we’re here to help’ – but for fucks sake don’t pluck up the courage to ask for any. You will experience sneers and jeers before you eventually get through to someone and for most by that stage the damage is done.
Anyway, I’m taking my clothes off and this ogre starts barking at me. He didn’t know that I’d been strip searched in and out of four different prisons in the past week, hadn’t had proper night’s sleep since I came back, just spoke with my mother whom I hadn’t seen for two years and was simply working on automatic pilot. Fuckin prick!
I’ve just had my dinner. A curried chip. Well, it was meant to be a chicken curry with chips, but you know how it is when nobody knows your face yet. It was a very pleasant change I must say and I’ll need to be careful as the old pounds won’t be long building up. I’m already well overweight. Can’t wait to get off this induction unit and onto the wings. Time is really starting to drag and if it wasn’t for the visits I’d be on serious downer.
8.15 am Went to church yesterday. John greeted me with a strong handshake and a big smile. The service didn’t last very long about half an hour and again all I see are officers and dogs everywhere. There is no let up. This place is all about officers and how they carry out their perceived public duty, but has very little to do with prisoners. They (officers) are dinosaurs of the worst kind. Dinosaurs that see change coming and can’t cope or know how to be different. It was a bit strange only seeing two black blokes at the service. I’ve spent two years where the opposite happens. Although there is a strong Chinese contingency.
Can hear the breakfast trolley being wheeled round the landing. A bowl of cereal delivered to my door. How quaint. I must emphasise that this is not an act of kindness on the part of the prison service, but a method of control which results in prisoner not even being able to communicate with another prisoner, during meal times. At Brixton I used to enjoy the chats on the way to and from the servery it was a welcome break to the monotony of twenty two hour bang up or one hour yard time. Weather permitting of course. This is Northern Ireland we do things differently over here. I’ve been to ‘the yard’ twice. Fuck that. You’re allowed to walk round a cage, within a cage, within a cage. Maximum security? Yet, on the inside your are allowed to mix freely in a big room with a TV microwave, and a few tables and chairs. There you are free to mix. There are no officers present. They apparently observe these rooms by CCTV. Again you’re in another cage and I have never felt so unsafe in all the prisons I have been in. If someone was to attack me. The damage would be done and finished long before any officer got near the trouble. I suppose they look upon it as, if they’re attacking each other then they’re leaving us alone. Didn’t go to ‘the yard’ in England, doesn’t look like I’ll be going here. Besides if you do go and end up getting bored to death by some fucked up junkie who’s always on the scrounge, you’re not allowed out and have to stay there until they say you can leave. Fuck that, more control, no freedom. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
The officers keep asking me what I’m in for. I’m sure it’s just small talk, but I was never asked by an officer in England, ever. I’ll be polite and answer them, but I don’t actually trust anyone anymore, after all I’m only a number to them so why all the interest. It is not normal for so many members of staff to be asking me why I’m here. They only have to look at my file. Are they not privy to my details and have to go searching elsewhere. Rumour and gossip is rife in these places, normally started by inmates, but alas it seems this is Northern Ireland we do things differently here.
I know everything is written down and recorded so I’ll play along, be polite and get the fuck out of dodge as soon as possible. Where have I heard that before? The only trouble is, now I’m running out of options or places to go HMP Magilligan is my last hope. If that goes tits up I’ll have to break a lot of rules and get sent back to England, but that brings with it possible extra time, stripping of status and recriminations from on high.
St Patricks Day
Moved to ‘Erne house’ yesterday. What a drama that was.
I got to the landing and the officer says ‘right you’re in here with’ such and such. He’s out at work at the minute.’
I thought to myself ‘can’t these fuckers read!’
I said ‘I take it you haven’t read my file. I won’t be doubling up.’
As per usual this minor correction is taken as a personal insult and the officer says ‘oh are you going to be a problem fucking cunt. Are you?’
As we were about to get to it an alarm bell goes off and he forces me to go into the cell.
I said ‘I’ll leave my belongings on the landing as I won’t be moving in.’
‘You’ll do as your fucking told you cunt. Now get in there before I charge you with refusing a direct order.’
The venom and ferocity with which this command is delivered has to be observed to be believed. These men and women are wound up tighter than ‘Casey’s drum.’
I’m standing, leaning against the sink. Fuming trying hard not to lose control. The breathing exercises don’t seem to be working. The guy who resides in the cell came in and says ‘aw-ite mate?’ Another fucking Englishman, that’s all I need. After a while we’re let out again and the officer is standing waiting for me.
‘Are you going to be a problem child?’ he asked
‘There wouldn’t be a problem if you read my file. I’m sorry if my circumstances offend you. Do you have my extra pillows and duvet?’
I swear, on my life. If I’d have stuck a pin in him he’d have burst. His face was purple with anger and he had to bite it. Walk to the store room and get my extra bedding. Why do these guys treat people the way they do? They expect everyone to behave and act the same and when somebody with a bit of savvy comes along they feel threatened and intimidated. What’s this then a man with an IQ? Oh my god maybe he’ll see me for what I really am.
Aye, a fucking idiot?
Who am I to judge? I’ll leave it for now, but I’m sure my card is well and truly marked.
I’m in a cell right at the far end of the landing. These landings are the worst I have ever experienced. The guy in the opposite cell is only ten feet away from me. The officers fold the doors right back, flush with the wall and you have no privacy whatsoever. In my case the two guys across from me are at the gear all the time and then their mates who are also at it come and stand in my door way smoking and chatting. I tell them to fuck off and close my door. ‘What’s his problem?’ I hear one of them say.
I’m glad my door is closed. I’d show him what a problem is.
This place is a fucking nightmare. It’s too small. It feels like a dungeon. I’m on the ground floor, but the ceiling is low and there is no daylight or windows on the landing, only in the cell. The attitude of staff and prisoners is disgusting. There is so much anger. There’s music blasting out from nearly every cell and the guy next to me must have got some seriously good shit because he hasn’t shut up for nearly two hours. The conversation, well you can’t really call it that, is about not meaning to upset someone.
‘Shut the fuck up, then you won’t be upsetting me.’
The music here too seems to be on a completely different level. Maybe we’re stuck in a time warp? I’m listening to Phil Collins ‘Another Day in Paradise’ and ‘The Fields of Athenry.’ I mean come on lads get a life. The only positive comment I can make about my current situation is at least the music is not boom, boom, boom gangsta rap crap. Get me to Magilligan.
At least they have the brand new drug free wing there. Read about it in when I was in England called over to see George and we decided that this is the place we should aim for when we get back. As soon as we get back to Northern Ireland, get to Magilligan and apply for the drug free wing. I wonder if it’ll pan out that way.
Can’t sleep in this fucking place. Not allowed to. Keep getting woke up by night staff. It’s become an intolerable nightmare and I’m going to have to do something about it. Maybe I’ll just live with it until I get to Magilligan, after all this is an ‘A cat’ jail and everyone of us is a danger to national security and public order. Fucking unbelievable Bob.
In the wee small hours I sat staring out my window. A rabbit appeared, and started digging at the mossy grass, as rabbits do, about fifteen to twenty feet from my window. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness after the glare of the light being switched on and I could see quite well. I didn’t budge, felt like a wolf ready to pounce on my prey. An ambush. I swear that rabbit could read my thoughts. It stopped foraging and scraping, looked left looked right and then looked straight at me.
‘Hello little bunny rabbit, what big ears you’ve got. Are you a hare perhaps?’
The next thing he flapped both his ears as if to answer my question. He was a rabbit, let there be no doubt. I stopped breathing, my heart beating faster, thumping in my chest. It felt like a Mexican standoff. Me and the rabbit. The rabbit and me. Don’t move a whisker or the rabbit gets it!
‘Can you really see me sitting here in the dark or can you just feel me.’
‘I wish you no harm, you’re safe.’
‘Like you, I wish I could feel the mossy grass between my toes hop of home and make love to the missus.’
‘One day soon Mr Rabbit.’
‘Four and a bit more years to go.’
‘You be safe Mr Rabbit.’
‘I’m going to try and catch some Z’s.’
The rabbit whipped its face with his paws, flapped his ears again paused; I do believe he nodded and then hopped off. Started laughing, thinking about Jimmy Stewart and Harvey the invisible rabbit. Don’t need any more imaginary friends, after the loss of Wilson I decided to bring myself back down to earth. It’s still funny though.
I’ve been moved to the other side of the landing, which houses the lifers. Think they now realise I’m no trouble and want a quiet life. Everyone is at it in here. I mean everyone. The whole fucking place is stoned. The smell of dope is a constant companion. I walk into one of my neighbours cells to ask a few questions and he and two others immediately skin up. They offer me some and I say ‘no thanks. I appreciate the offer, but my dope and booze days are over.’ They are cool and don’t force the issue. They answer my questions, but also warn me that the officers have long memories. One guy tells me he still gets shit for something he did twelve years ago. I’ll not get into the details as these guys are all probably still serving and I wish them no further harm. They treated me well and even though I wasn’t a lifer they accepted me and spoke to me quietly and politely. This is more than can be said for the others, the ones in white shirts.
‘Who does he think he is that Irwin fella?’ I over hear them outside my cell. Well to be honest they don’t do anything to quieten what is said.
‘More like Err-whine, ho, ho ho.’
I want to crush them, but I know if I spill blood on their starched white shirts there’ll be hell to pay. Keep it shut and get the fuck away from this horrible place.
The food here is great. A real shock. Remember saying ages ago that each prisons always manages to get one part of its regime correct. Well at Maghaberry it’s the food. The rest isn’t worth a flying fuck, but the food is great. Well, for me it is anyway. Maybe it’s because I’m used to English grub. Had a hot ‘Scotch egg’ the other day and can’t believe how good it tasted. I’m piggin out on ‘Tayto crisps’ and will have to watch myself. I can feel the gut expanding already. Must be all the stress of this place, the only thing that gives me pleasure is food. No wonder everyone is stoned. It’s the only way to cope. Maybe I’ll give it a go again. Only for a wee while.
Can’t get to the library. There is some sort of ‘industrial action’ going on with the ‘Prison Officers Association’ (POA). Well, they call it ‘industrial action’ because if they called it a ‘go slow’ nobody would see any change and the might have the urine extracted from them. Oh tres droll, tres droll.
Dad came up on Wednesday and he couldn’t wait to get out the door again. Can’t really blame him if this place feels oppressive to me what on earth does it feel like for someone who doesn’t experience it every day. In prison you do get used to your surroundings and the people therein. You might no like it , but you do get used to it. Wish I could make it better for him, he’s hard work sometimes, but I love him and without him I’d be a lot worse off. Not just financially, emotionally as well. Or would I? Did I really come home for my mum and dad or did I do it for me? Did I do it out of misplaced loyalties? Did I use them as an excuse to get what I want? Do I really need them in my life? Need and want are two totally different things. Do I get a big whack of whacky backy and slip into comfortable numbness?
I know I have to think of myself first, but I need my parents also. They have stood by me now. I will make the effort to be included in there lives. After all, we’re all not getting any younger.
When I was walking over to the visits all I hear is ‘Michael’, ‘Michael.’ I look up and see George squeezing his face between the metal bars in an upstairs cell. I shout ‘put your name down for church.’
Cool, he’s made it home too. I’ll see him next week or after.
Waiting for my HI-Fi to be cleared by reception. They have to take it apart, check it for bombs, drugs and things. Did I mention this is Northern Ireland and we do things differently here? Can’t believe it. One of the officers came up to me and asked me if I wanted to get over to reception to get my gear sorted out once and for all. Have to be careful when they mention ‘gear’ might think the officer is asking me if I wan t some drugs; something that never happens in prison, is it? I’d been putting requests in daily and someone has actually taken the time to ask me what ‘I’ want for a change. The officer takes me over to reception and they wheel all my stuff out. The reception guy looks totally put out, but the officer who is helping me says ‘look we get this done now; it’ll be over and done with. No more requests.’ So, they’re not actually helping me, just doing what they should have done in the first place and because I keep putting in requests someone of rank has said ‘why is this man still waiting for his belongings?’ Every item is a chore. We eventually get to my earring and the reception guy says ‘you can’t have that.’ No sooner has he said it than two prison orderlies walk past. One is wearing a thick gold hoop in his ear; just like mine. I look at the two officers and say pointing at the other prisoner what’s the difference between him and me. I can’t quite believe the reply.
‘You fucking cunts who come over from England think you know it all and can have whatever you want.’ Another one who turns a funny shade of purple. ‘Yes or no’ I say gesturing towards the earring. He manages a positive grunt. ‘Thank you very much officer.’ Big grin on my face. I’m walking back with some of my stuff and I turn to the helpful officer and ask him ‘is everyone got attitude in this nick?’
He tells me, ‘Your problem is you’ve got a brain, you’ve been in the system and you know how it works. Especially outside of Northern Ireland and people don’t like it. You could cause trouble.’
If these guys are so worried. I start to think what the hell are they doing that’s so wrong? Why are they so worried? I start to think about waves and ripple effects and paranoia sets in. No more requests, I’m officially worried. When I get back to my cell I open a box full of my education paperwork and notes. To my surprise sitting on top of the paperwork is nicely wrapped official HMP plastic bag containing my whole prison file from day one. Everything, including passport size photographs used for ID cards at ‘Rye Hill’ and ‘Highdown’ governors comments on adjudications, my security informational and comments by officers in ‘Rye Hill’ basically all the juicy bits, good and bad. I spend the whole of lunch time going through my official file and use the last twenty minutes to rip up and flush every bad or negative comment made about me.
When I’m unlocked I take my file down to the landing office and say ‘I don’t think this is meant to be in my possession.’
The SO says ‘where the fuck did you get this?’
‘Reception, just before lunch time. It was on top of the rest of my paperwork. Do you want to see what else I collected?’
He turns a funny shade of purple and escorts me back to my cell. I showed him all my stuff and mentioned my earring.
‘What’s the problem with your earring?’
‘I was told I wasn’t allowed it and it has taken me two weeks to get it back and the only reason I got it back is because another prisoner walked past ,wearing one similar, when we were discussing the issue.’
‘Ok, Michael I can see what’s been going on here. You’re waiting to go to Magilligan aren’t you?’
‘Yes please’ I replied
‘OK’ leave it with me’
‘Don’t make any job applications and I’ll get you away next week, OK?’
‘Thank you SO, I’d appreciate that. I’d like to start getting on with my life instead of being bullied.’ We nodded and off he went.
The next thing I know I’m told I’m off to Magilligan next week.