The Tip Of The Iceberg

Over the past few days and weeks I’ve been reading about suicide, death and chaos in UK Prisons. This obviously saddens me deeply and it’s often quite difficult to build up the strength and courage to revisit the institution of prison. I’ve just finished reading TheTartanCon and Alex Cavendish’s recent blogs on suicide in prison (there are others). They deliver more recent facts and figures and share harrowing first hand experiences so I won’t get into facts and figures now. What a want to do is look a bit deeper. I’ll attempt to do this succinctly as possible

I’ve written several blogs on suicide in and after prison as it was originally my idea to pursue a PhD on the subject. Unfortunately I lost hope and was indeed warned about what I was going to embark on. Is it a good idea for a person who experienced suicide, death and chaos to share their knowledge with the powers that be and the general public? Well, yes of course it is. This is how we gain knowledge and learn from our mistakes. Mistake is an important word here and I’ll revisit it later.

Firstly, I think it’s necessary to understand what the institution of prison is. The institution of prison is based on the medical model of care combined with the military model where human beings a stripped of identity and forced to adopt the daily needs of the prison allowing the institution to function the way it’s been designed. Prison is designed in such a way that it inevitably directly or indirectly causes hurt, harm and pain whilst at the same time providing a duty of care under law. Is this not a paradox? How many times have heard the statements ‘I hope he suffers in there’, ‘I hope he gets what he deserves inside’ and not forgetting ‘lock him up and throw away the key’.

Secondly, do we as a society seriously believe that sending someone to prison will sort them out? Growing up, I used to believe this. Even when I was arrested I thought ‘ok you’re going for your tea here Michael at least you’ll be able to get your head sorted’. Ironically, I did by diving head first into academia and studying the very thing is was living. This came at a price though as I had to fight tooth and nail against those inside the prisons who wanted to break me. I’ve been in eight different jails over a six year period and in each and every one there was a time when I contemplated ending it all. I was lucky enough to meet a Listener in HMP Rye Hill who helped me sort my head out (well nearly). The Listener’s Scheme is fantastic if used properly. I eventually became a Listener myself. At one of our monthly meetings with a PO in charge with Safer Custody they stated that we were doing something really good or really bad as we’d had no call outs in five or six weeks. After a bit of rummaging I discovered that the prison had changed its policy and didn’t take the prisoners TV off them when they were put on basic. Go figure! Towards the end of my sentence the pressure was so great, I think I was in permanent state of mental breakdown. For the life of me I don’t know how I made it and I left prison as a ticking time bomb.

Thirdly, getting back to the word ‘mistake’. In Law if someone dies (even in prison) there has to be an investigation. Admitting a mistake means (in simple terms) someone can be prosecuted. One only has to look at what Professor Phil Scraton has done with The Hillsborough Panel in proving the innocence of Liverpool fans. In the context of prison this will normally be The Number One Governor. In order to prevent prosecution of inevitable death in prison policies are created and strictly adhered to. If policy is followed to the letter The Governor cannot be prosecuted. Again, I’ll not go on about previous writings but I will focus on one simple point I may have mentioned to the policy makers of prison health. “How can you expect a person to function as a human being if they can’t get a night’s sleep?” I spent two years researching (and lived under it for four years in Northern Ireland) this so I think I’m in a position to comment. Lack of sleep drove me insane! I met and talked with numerous prisoners who were frightened to come out of their cells in case they exploded. Some often did and they were then put on a charge or an anger management coarse because of the need to maintain good order and discipline of the institution. I pleaded and begged with the powers that be and explained that this policy of waking people up to make sure they were not dead was in fact causing hopelessness, resulting in self harm or suicide. Another paradox?

Fourthly, when one puts ones head above the parapet be prepared for it to be blown off. We only have to look at what’s happening to Faith Spear to understand how the institution closes ranks and attempts to destroy the integrity of the person highlighting a problem. After all, the institution cannot and will not admit to wrongdoing as this brings back in the word ‘mistake’ and prosecution in law. My heart goes out to Faith and I will continue to support her. However, my fellow bloggers and I may say “welcome to my world!” What I’m getting at is that it takes years of practice to avoid punishment on the inside whilst trying to make a stand against the institution. The affidavits in my judicial review are testament to the lengths that the institution will go to destroy ones character thus proving them right. This is why and always will be why those who come into prison to help people become better citizens have to watch their backs. I’ve seen and been party to it in every single prison I’ve stayed in. One perfect example was of a very renowned and respected academic was asked to do some research by the prison. The findings did not shine a good light on certain aspects of the regime. The person was then told they were not welcome back. Personally, I’m regarded as a troublemaker and it has taken me years to build a rapport with officialdom. I simply state that I want to save lives.

Finally, I have to ask ‘what are we going to do about it?’ I’ve spoken privately to several of my fellow bloggers and realised I was not alone. We have all suffered and are indeed still suffering some form of mental breakdown after prison. We are all strong willed and determined individuals who don’t want to see young men and women die in prison. Individually, we contribute to Journals, research and with officials within the institution. Imagine what we could do if we all got together? There are alternatives to prison and there are alternative courses that can be delivered who treat people as individuals. My Prison SMART course being a prime example. We are only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard it said often that the institution of prison is like a massive ship, being from Belfast I have to say look what happened to the Titanic.


About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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