Three years after my release, where does life find me? I’ve attempted to break into the PhD world and received the cursory thank you but no thank you. There is never anything wrong with proposals, more to do with Michael. This has left me feeling disillusioned with the world of academia and slightly lost in my own personal head space. I’ll never give up.
Family, friends and academics have been as supportive as always and as per usual I consider myself extremely lucky. Depression and anxiety has been building over the past few months and to be honest I was getting back into bed with those old comfortable friends of boredom and hopelessness.
So, a few weeks back I started to get back into my breathing exercises and getting fit. I’ve lost 4st in the past year which makes me feel great but there’s still a bit to go. This coincided with an email from Prison Smart EU inviting me to come to London (where I’m writing this now) and attend a few events and hopefully to meet up with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of Prison Smart. This gave me the little boost I needed and I discussed my impending visit to London with senior DOJ officials. Unfortunately they could not come with me but I’ll be reporting back asap.
Last Wednesday I touch down at Heathrow and the old anxiety and panic is in full flow. I’m going to meet and stay with a friends of a friend called Sangeeta and Simon, need to dump my bag where Sangeeta works and collect it when her day is over. I arrive around 11.00am as planned and I’m greeted with a beautiful smile and hug from a complete stranger; who within five minutes is no longer a stranger. We have a quick chat and I now have four or five hours to kill/murder.
The hustle and bustle of London is mind blowing especially since one has been stuck in his own wee world and the gentle pace of Northern Ireland for the past year three years. As I’m leaving the hospital and walk below The Shard, who do I bump into but my lovely friend Gaurav Gaur (Art of Living Teacher). I mean seriously! There’s over ten million people in London and I bump into someone I know ten minutes after getting there. Is this an omen? He was jumping into a taxi and I knew he was busy sorting Sri Sri’s schedule and that I would meet him at HMP Thameside the following morning.
Yes, you heard me right, HMP Thameside but I’ll come back to that in a minute. So, off I head to Westminster and the hustle and bustle of London and stand once again on London’s bridges, watching the world and Father Thames amble by. Standing below Big Ben as he struck midday hypnotised me. A thousand memories of old and previous life invading my fragile head space. I head off down the Embankment and by sheer coincidence end up in Petty France, can’t resist a selfie and think of all the letters I’d written to this place during my time int nick.
I’m tired and hungry so I grab a couple of banana’s and head off to St James park. I find a space on the grass (there are crowds everywhere I go), lay down and fall asleep. An hour later batteries recharged I head back toward London Bridge station. I get a text from my brother telling me some fantastic news. It seems new chapters are starting for him and I – great stuff.
The night is spent with my hosts in West Norwood and we discuss life in general and my impending visit to HMP Thameside in the morning. Katrien called me late on and told me there might be two hundred people there. Could have done without knowing the number. Didn’t sleep much as nerves and doubt and fear invaded my every thought. The trains are all messed up due to industrial action and London Bridge is chaos and I have to thank the platform guard for helping me make my connection and arrive with plenty of time to spare.
Here’s me, nearly three years on heading back in to prison. Not for a visit but to deliver a talk to prisoners and staff about Prison SMART. Be careful what you wish for eh? HMP Thameside and Prison Smart had combined to hold an event in the prison at which I’d been asked to give a quick talk to the prisoners and staff on my experience of Prison Smart and how it helped me. Sri Sri will be there as guest of honour. I was so looking forward to meeting this amazing human being but still had to deal with my personal emotions of heading back inside to the prison gym.
Upon arrival I’m met by all the Prison Smart team. They all say ‘Hey Michael, how are you, it’s really great to meet you at last…’ I’m thinking how on earth do they all know me and my name. Then I remembered the video. Please watch and share this –
It was really weird being given a pass to head back into jail, no security, no dogs, no pat downs or strip searches. We were walking along in twos and I’m chatting to the lovely Sue about my ambition of getting Prison SMART into all jails in the UK and possibly doing a PhD on this one true rehabilitation course. As we approached the gym I looked up at all the cells and guys in prison garb and it hits me like ton of lead. Tears trickle down my cheeks at the enormity of it all and Sue kindly takes a moment to let me let it pass. After all this is what Prison SMART teaches you. To deal with your emotions. It passes and the gym fills up with prisoners and staff.
As I do my talk the old mouth gets a bit dry but I think I pulled it off. As my fellow Prison SMART graduate and teacher does his bit there’s a flurry of activity at the back of the gym and in comes Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The main man. The man who made it all happen and got me to where I am today. We’re sitting below the little stage and I listen intently to the questions from the prisoners and Sri Sri’s replies. All I can do is smile and any nerves or doubt I had have strangely disappeared.
As per usual it’s all over in the blink of an eye and as we’re all heading out Gaurav introduces me to Sri Sri. As we spoke all I could feel was the warmth and sincerity oozing from this wonderful human being. I told him I’d heard him sing on a tape recording (Long Kriya) in 2008 and to this day I have no idea what he is singing about but it didn’t matter as he still sings to me every day and this has allowed me to be here today.
He smiles says “Thank you. Why don’t you become a teacher?” I hear a few wow’s coming from our team.
I’m totally blown away and blurt out “Ok then.”
Sri Sri looks over at someone, I have no clue who it was, and says “Let’s do it.” The deal is done, just like that, I’m going to be trained as a Prison SMART teacher! We gather outside for a group photo where Sri Sri presents me with an orange shawl. A mark of respect/gratitude and a welcome to the family. I speak quickly and briefly with my companions and officials and thank the Governor for making it all happen. By now we’re back outside and Sri Sri is in his car saying goodbye to everyone.
I gave him a big thumbs up and say “Looking forward to seeing you in the Albert Hall on Sunday night.”
His reply rocked my world “Why don’t you come on stage with me and share your experience?”
“Oh, OK then” came out of my mouth. Don’t know how as the smile on my face was from ear to ear. Sri Sri nods at someone and says “Let’s do it.” And off he goes. Phone numbers and emails are frantically exchanged and I head off to the train station.
As I sit on the train a numbness envelopes me that is simply impossible to explain. My life, my future, my destiny, in the blink of an eye has just been decided. I phoned my Dad and then went back into my numbness. Didn’t even realise the train had stopped at London Bridge. I floated through the crowd and found myself in a Pub by HMS Belfast watching the England and Wales game. Then it hit me, a lightness, a weight being lifted off me, leaving me and floating down the Thames. Oh, my God! I’m going to be on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on my three year anniversary 19/06/2016. I will refrain from expletives but you can imagine my thoughts. On stage to a Sold Out Royal Albert Hall. I quickly googled it. 5,272 – no biggy, I can handle that. Not!
So, the next few days, with my future are spent in what can only be described as bliss. On Friday night I met up with Sacha Darke and Shaun Attwood and on Saturday I met up with some lifelong friends. Jim and Andy, I hadn’t seen for twenty four years and Danielle it had been nine years. All in all a magical few days of reminisce and laughter.
I arrive at the Albert Hall early, collect my pass, meet the organisers and shown to my dressing room. I was warned that my appearance might not happen as it was a last minute addition to an already packed schedule but to be on call from 5.00pm. I nip out to the Café to meet July and Tina. July buys me a pint as my nerves are shattered.
I head backstage and wander onto the stage and take a few pics. Wow, this is amazing and mind blowing all at the same time.
From the wings I watch Sri Sri make his entrance and listen for a while. I’m asked to go back to my room and await my call – if it happens. Time stood still from then on and I could not settle. I walked up to the wings and took a pic of Sri Sri on the stage. I was then informed that I would not be going on.
I have to be honest here and say that I was absolutely fuming. I didn’t show it. A couple of folks tried to get me to come in and watch the rest of the show and politely asked them to let me be for a while. Ten minutes later I’m sitting in a box with Nicolai smiling and laughing with the rest of the crowd. After all, isn’t this what Prison SMART teaches you. How to deal with stress, anger, frustration, disappointment and to calm down? It does and it did.
Met up with Brian after and we headed off for a few pints in South Kensington. The night was not about me, it would have been the icing on the cake, but it was about Sri Sri and what he does for people. As I sat on the train back to West Norwood I thought to myself who’d have ever thought you’d be at The Royal Albert Hall on the third anniversary of your release?
The next day I stop off for a pint in The Horns Tavern across the road from the Station. I meet Joe McGrieves and the Governor Allison White. Joe held the record for the longest serving Governor in West Norwood which is (in the coming weeks) to be surpassed by Allison. We shared Governor stories of times in pubs past and present. I told them my story and they wished me well. I hope to see them again in September.
As I touch down in Belfast I’m tired but full of smiles on the inside and out. My future has been sorted. Meeting Sri Sri has been another life changing experience. I met him in HMP Highdown in 2008 via a tape recording. He changed my life. I met him again in person at HMP Thameside on 16th June 2016; he changed my life again. I’m thinking “hey Sri Sri, we’re going to have to stop meeting like this…”
I’m now back in my Library in my home in Belfast. The world is waking and going about its business. I’m off to Dublin in the morning for a criminology conference and to hook up with some old friends. Guess what I’m going to be talking about. Thank you Katrien and the Prison SMART team for making it all happen. My deepest gratitude, of course, goes to the main man himself. Thank you Sri Sri Ravi Shankar you’ve rocked my world.