The problem with doing Sudarshan Kryia (breathing technique) and mediation on a daily basis is that I don’t get angry any more. A fortnight past, I spent the weekend assisting with the Art of Living Happiness Programme in Belfast. This was not the first time I’ve been an assistant. I did Prison Smart way back in 2008 in HMP Highdown and assisted there. Unfortunately my transfer came through, I was shipped out and they don’t have Prison Smart in Northern Ireland Prisons so I was unable to continue. However, this weekend brought me back to the place I most belong and the place I find true peace and happiness. It’s called the self.
To sit and watch other people experiencing happiness through a simple breathing technique is pure bliss. I just smiled as they recount how they are feeling and the transformation that’s taking place from within as I know exactly what they are going through. A parting gift for my endeavours was the book “Celebrating Silence” by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and I can’t wait to get stuck into it.
With this in mind and me not being angry, I’d like to address the events of the past few weeks. As we are all well aware, there has been a sharp rise in deaths in custody across the UK Prison Estate. There have been disturbances in several prisons, HMP Bedford the most recent, another two death in HMP Maghaberry, the prison officers strike in England and Wales, a pending strike here in Northern Ireland, Lizz Truss the Justice Secretary rehashing old rhetoric and Michael Gove’s speech at the Longford Trust last night.
The Twittersphere has gone mad since Sunday when #PrisonStorm @PrisonStorm created an open debate on the state of our prisons. What on earth do I know about prisons in England and Wales? June 2007 – March 2009, HMP’s Lewes, Brixton, Rye Hill, Highdown a nights stay in Catford nick, a night in Woodhill and a weekend in Forest Bank (last two on transfer back to NI to serve my remaining four years in Maghaberry and Magilligan). So, I’m well situated to have a phenomenological voice or epistemological privilege alongside several others who shall remain nameless at this stage (you know who you are).
I followed every link to every newspaper article, TV report and Radio Broadcast, listening to Alex Cavendish and Dr David Scott, watching Jonathan Robinson (class interruption – breaking news…) and reading Ben Gunn just to name a few. I’m not sure what triggered it but a sentence somewhere pissed me off, think it was a newsreader and went to check my memories. Oh yeagh, got it, there was an illegal prison officers strike in 2007. That was the day I started writing my book ‘Life Begins At Forty’ (Shameless Plug). I won’t share any more of it as it’s at the publishers at present and they might get miffed if I blog it all. Anyway, what struck me the most was that the staff numbers had not been reduced yet. The general consensus is that these cuts in staffing levels started six years ago. Yet, back then in 2007 – 2008 all the same things that are happening now where happening then as in: 23hr bang up, controlled unlocks, not enough staff on wings, drugs, lack of purposeful activity, rise in violence, phones and drugs… Need I go on?
I’ve always maintained prison is a sham. It serves no purpose in a modern democratic society… Ah, I think I’ll have to stop there as democratic society would entail that we actually belong to one and god forbid that I’d want to get into politics. Having said that I did follow and read most of what is being said by politicians on prisons (some of it just goes in one ear and out the other as we’ve heard it all before) and enjoyed what Michael Gove said about IPP’s, Early Release For Good Behaviour and Problem Solving Courts. Problem Solving Courts are not his idea of course as he had to go to Texas to see Judge Robert Francis in action. The good Judge started these courts way back in 2006 and I do believe that some prisons in Texas have actually closed due to lack of clientele. Just sayin like.
I’ve had a few media interviews myself about deaths in custody and the general state of our prisons and I have to say that I’m not surprised at one of the statements made on Twitter suggesting that it would all blow over soon enough. And there we have it in a nutshell. I remember talking to an old wounded and battered veteran Principal Officer way back in 2008. I asked him about some new directive or policy that had been implemented. He said ‘Mickey boy, you got a lot to learn. What we do is we sit back and wait. Another Government will come in and change it all soon enough and then we’ll all be back to normal again. It’s all a waiting game’.
Prison is a staus qou (sorry fellow rockers) the equilibrium of ‘us and them’ must be maintained. Hot potatoes will be caught and dropped and left to rot. However, what I am feeling and sensing is that there are a quite few old dogs like me who will not be going away. Who will not go away. My opening tweet #PrisonStorm was “more ex prisoners with university qualifications should be employed in prison and criminal justice?” After all, they paid for it. So, why can’t people like me get a job in it? I/we have the correct qualifications, if not more and lived experience. Prison is an industry. What Industry does not employ people with first-hand experience and knowledge of said industry? A failed one. I hear talk of a Prison Reform Task Force? I’ll certainly be putting my name forward.
I hope some of this has made sense. I must head out now and get on with life and go for a wee stroll round the park. On my way back from the shop this morning I saw Six Magpies sitting on a wall next to my house. I’ll leave you with my first ever poem funny how I’m free now yet feel as if the whole prison malarkey is still stuck in the same place. To be continued…
By Michael Irwin
HMP Highdown 2008
The sun sets behind the naked trees of winter
and a soft, hypnotic glow fills my room.
The air, cold but not quite freezing
Fills me with a quiet pleasure,
the pleasure of being alive.
I count six magpies sitting on the
Dark grey mass of the prison wall.
Like me, they are surrounded by
Barbed wire and fencing,
Yet they are free.
I think, ‘how often in your life
Do you see six magpies at the same time?’
The rhyme says ‘six for gold seven for a secret
Never to be told.’
I feel as if I have to let you into a little secret.
I have travelled half way round the world,
partying and having a ball. When I came
to prison, I wanted to die. I should have
already been dead; I was living a lie.
It is only now when I breathe in the air
I realise I was never really there.
A lady taught me how to breathe
Through Sudarshan Kriya .
I had been searching for something
To set me free most of my adult life.
Who would believe that one could
be set free in prison?
I have lost my guilt, my shame,
My pain and my angst.
My metal door has just been locked
With a resounding metallic thud and
The shouts and roars of men in prison
Fade slowly into the background.
It’s now deadly silent and I sit and smile
As the sun sets with its bright golden glow,
A glow I can feel in my heart.
I can rest my head and dream at last
Because I know this day has nearly passed.
I know it’s this glow that keeps me warm
And I know it’ll be there tomorrow