“How much damage will another month of incarceration do to this individual” (Maruna, S, 2011, Why Do They Hate Us So Much? : Making peace between prisoners and psychology, Online – http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X11414401).
I distinctly remember Shadd sending me this Journal Article whilst still a serving prisoner way back in 2011 and thought to myself ‘I can’t wait to ask him what he means.’ I got the chance two years later at a forensic psychology lecture at Queens University in Belfast. I’d slipped in the back and listened to the lecture and as there was much talk about ‘Duty of Care’ in prisons I eagerly awaited the Q & A. My hand shot up and Shadd spotted me straight away. I was a bit miffed and asked “How can you call what happens in prison ‘Care’ when in this same paper you refer to the damage being done to an individual”. Shadd just smiled and said “Ah Michael, the best person to answer that question is you as it is you to whom I am referring.” Not a lot you can say after that. Is there?
I’ve been trying to answer that question for the past four years. It’s possible that I may have found the answer as I’ve recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) as a direct result of the alleged ‘Duty Of Care’ provided by the Prison Service in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. After a recent mental breakdown, evaluation and assessment I now find myself signed up for counselling, self help groups and prescribed three different types of drugs to help me make it through the bad days.
Today is not a bad day thus far.
I found it rather odd answering questions about my frame of mind considering I’d been reading about, studying and living it for ten years. As time ticked by I had to escape the interview several times. It wasn’t that the questions were opening me up or causing me acute anxiety it was more to do with being confined in a space that I didn’t want to be in. The old institutional Portacabin syndrome kicked in and reminded me of the lovely accommodation I had at HMP Magilligan upon progression through the system. The trouble is, they all look, feel, sound and smell the same on the in or the out. Well, not so much the smell, as any of you who’ve ever had the pleasure of being on a prison wing or unit will know that they all smell of shit – literally. So, I think that I may have an answer to Professor Maruna’s question or in the very least a part of the cause. Confinement or being in a place one doesn’t want to be. You see, in prison I didn’t have a choice but now, in a way, I do. Even, when I go to the pub with friends I sometimes have to go for a walk and come back as I find it all a bit too much. I’ve tried to rationalise it (the fear, anxiety and sheer terror) and explain it and the only way I can describe it is being Agoraphobic in a confined space and claustrophobic in an open space.
Apart from my own personal struggles within prison I found it even harder on the out and sometimes crave to be back! This is not a normal way to be. I’ll always recall heading back to prison after my first home leave and thinking ‘who in their right mind volunteers to go to jail?’
Then, of course there are the night checks. There is some fantastic research out there by professor Colin Espie of Glasgow University and Kevin Morgan of Loughborough University on the long term effects of ‘Sleep Deprivation’. How long does it take to recover from six years of interrupted sleep (Insomnia) and the other mental illnesses attributed to this prison policy. I’ll not get into it again but the simple facts are that prison has given me not one but two mental illnesses despite prison legislation/rules stating that no person should leave prison worse than they went in.
This leads me to more recent events. Even though I’ve had to take a step back from all things prison I’ve been reading some fantastic blogs and articles by Alex Cavendish, Faith Spear, Jonathan Robinson (to name but a few) and most recently by Michaela Booth. I so admire Michaela for what she has done and is doing. Michaela reminds me a bit of what I was like when I first started all of this prison stuff. Keep it up and stay strong Michaela but be careful.
Our prisons are a sham, they do not serve the public and they are a complete assault on the sensibility of rational thinking people (or un-rational in my case having been in it). It’s a lie. Rehabilitation is a blatant misuse of a bureaucratic sound bite. The cold hard facts are that no person who serves more than four years in England and Wales and two years in Northern Ireland will ever have their convictions ‘spent’. Most employers will not entertain people who have un-spent convictions. This Government decimated prison staffing levels to save money and have now done a complete U-turn. The current ‘prison crisis’ is not new. It was there in my day and I am relieved but surprised that more deaths have not occurred. Deaths of prisoners has increased and assaults on prisoners and prison staff have escalated. Drugs are the easy way out in blame and causation but why does this happen. Is it not exasperated by Insomnia and other mental illnesses administered under ‘duty of care’ and ‘safer custody’ policies delivered by the state via this harmful institution of prison. I’ve always suggested that prison creates ‘ticking time bombs’. It took me four years to explode but how many times in those years did I nip it in the bud. Thankfully I was in hospital when I exploded a few weeks ago and got the duty of care I required. Prison not only causes harm to the people serving and working therein but families and friends also bear the brunt and my heart goes out to them all. Families and friends of prisoners and staff also serve time and more often than not they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.
In societal terms, prison is a life sentence and this country needs to wise up and smell the roses before it’s too late. People like me will continue to share our thoughts and experiences in an effort to bring some rationale to an irrational and defunct institution no matter the personal cost. People who go to or work in prison should not die or leave with lifelong mental illness. How does this help? How does this rehabilitate?
I’ll be over in London next week for my book my book launch ‘My Life Began At Forty’. I recorded my six years of imprisonment in England and Wales and Northern Ireland (six jails in total). I’m dreading it but looking forward to it at the same time. My only desire and ‘HOPE’ is that people will read it and it might change the status quo. We as a society deserve better. I’m off to a silence retreat for the next five days, no phones, no internet, just breathing meditation and quiet. Hopefully I’ll see a few of you in London in a better frame of mind.
To all those working and serving in prisons ‘Stay Safe and Be Well’ despite the odds.