7.00am and I’m sitting here listening to the washing machine humming away in the background and thought I’d share the events of last week. The long awaited official launch of ‘My Life Began At Forty’ finally arrived on Friday night in the London Review Bookshop 14-16 Bury Pl, Bloomsbury, London WC1A 2JL courtesy of L.R. Price Publications. Thank you so much to the staff and organisers for allowing me to be part of a great event and share my ramblings.
I arrived the night before via Gatwick which in itself was a completely surreal experience as the last time I was in the airport white powder sprayed all over my suitcase and a nice set of manacles were being slapped on my wrist. It’s a fair cop I thought. The bus from the Aeroplane to the terminal took me past the holding pen at the back of the Customs and Excise Department. I remember thinking to myself, way back then, in haze of drugs and drink, ‘I’ll never make it over that fence in these flip flops.’ I was right – wouldn’t have.
Being back in London was a bit of a culture shock as where I live in Belfast is a quiet little oasis and with my current mental health issues I found it quite terrifying being in close proximity to the rest of the human race. I took my time and waited to find space on trains and tubes and had a ready supply of medication in my pocket. Legally prescribed ones I hasten to add. Unfortunately this continued throughout my stay so even though I managed to get through the event and chat to people you’ll never really know how difficult this was for me. Don’t let the smile fool you. It’s mask.
Photograph: © Corri Chella, 2017. firstname.lastname@example.org
I dumped my bag in the hotel and decided to go and find the location of the event and after a couple of wrong turns, got there and ended up in a lovely Tapas Bar. Had some grub and few beers and ended up chatting with two lovely girls who worked in advertising. Feeling brave I decided to walk back to hotel, got lost and ended up paying £40 for a taxi home. After topping up my Oyster card, a few beers and a bit of grub that was most of my budget blown and thanks to a dear friend the next morning I was able to get a few more shackles to get me through the day.
Got to the event early and had a few beers in the bar next door, Dutch courage and medication allowed me to scrape through. It was great that a few friends turned up and that I was able to introduce Dr Andy Aresti and Faith Spear and a few others. Had a good night all in but was exhausted. I’ve included my speech at the end if you are interested.
As always, my blogs are about life after prison and during and after a few days of recouping my mental strength I’ve just been reading the new Justice Ministers ramblings in The London Evening Standard and watched the video of the sister of an IPP prisoner on The Victoria Derbyshire Show. Let’s just say ‘I’m not amused.’
The contrast between fiction and reality is palpable to me. The same old sound bites from government makes my skin crawl. The video of the young girl makes my stomach turn as I feel nothing but sadness. Our society is a disaster as are our prisons.
Someone said to me the other night ‘well at least you’ve turned your life around and are paying back to society.’
‘Really’ I said ‘and what exactly is society? A democratic one at that. If you can stand it in front of me I’ll apologise to it.’
I wonder if and when that will happen. Of course I feel guilt, shame and regret for what I’ve done. I and many others payback by speaking out, sharing our experiences by telling the truth to power. The problem is ‘power’ is infallible. Successive Governments have created this society and one of the more serious outcomes of that is our farcical prison system. The umpteenth new Justice Minister in England and Wales has suggested that if Governors and his Department decide to accept recommendations made by Prison Inspectors they will robustly follow them up within a month or explain why they are not being implemented or why it is taking so long to do so. I recall a conversation with a Governor over here when discussing the issue of Night Checks and recommendations made by the Ombudsman which would allow prisoners to receive a full nights sleep and be able to function as human beings. The arrogance of the reply still haunts me ‘They are only recommendations and not policy. We don’t have to accept any of them and well, as far as policy goes due to staffing levels it’s virtually impossible to implement them. I’ve been doing this for a long time Michael. We know what we’re doing. Politicians come and go but we remain and so does the daily running of my jail.’
I’m not really bothered about how people see me now. I’ve got a story out there now. It changed my life and my opinion of prisoners, prisons and criminal justice. Read it. It might change yours. For now I’m just going to let the dust settle on HMP – Time is all of got.
Short Speech for book launch – I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1K of Cocaine hidden in the lining of a bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. The irony of this is that it costs £11 for being a kilo overweight in access baggage. The cost of keeping me in jail for 6yrs worked at nearly a quarter of a million (the 1.1kilo of coke had a highly inflated street value of £80,000) and under current sentencing guidelines today I’d have probably got a slap on the wrist and at worst two years as drug donkey. I use the word donkey as I still feel like one for being so fucking stupid. The problem was that they thought they’d caught a Northern Irish Pablo Escobar. I mean a guy from Belfast living in Cape Town with contacts in Spain and America etc and no fixed means of income didn’t bode well for me but the customs and excise boys seemed rather excited.
At the time I was addicted to cocaine and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of cold turkey in HMP I got my half sensible head back on and started to write.
Daily prison life is one of routine and you hear the same noises as the wing comes to life keys, gates banging, phones ringing, alarms being tested and the cackles and chatter of the ever so happy prison staff starting their working day. On the morning of 29th August 2007 nothing happened and there wasn’t a peep. After a while I heard a female officer shout ‘there’s nothing I can do. I’m on my own.” About an hour later it came on the news that prison officers in England and Wales had gone on strike. I decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. My first sentence was “I cannot fucking believe what’s going on in this madhouse!” I distinctly remember thinking to myself ‘people need to know about what goes on in here and if one person gets to read it (probably my Mum) it will have been worthwhile’.
In 2011 I was mentoring a young guy in Maglligan and showed him my book. He asked me to send it to his Mum. I did just that and after only week I received a letter from this guys Mum. She said “the kids didn’t get fed, the housework didn’t get done and the dog isn’t speaking to me. I couldn’t put it down Michael. I laughed and I cried but I have to say Thank you for telling me what my son couldn’t.” It was one of the best letters I’ve ever received and it made me more determined to keep writing. I hadn’t been published but someone else had read it and I thought my work here is done.
I didn’t, at the time, really expect too much or to ever think that one day it would ever get published and over the years I simply recorded incidents, events and the constant discourse of the voices in my head. There were two stories going on constantly and throughout. One was about survival, getting through the day and trying to get letters after my name. The other was my declaration of war on the prison service. Matt seen this immediately and if you think the book is a bit long you should see what he’s cut out. This book is about Hope and the second one will be about war. Irwin V’s HMP or something like that.
Life was even harder after prison and I jumped straight into another institution in October 2013 just over three months after my release by sitting a Masters in Criminology at Queens University Belfast out of the frying pan and into the fire so to speak. It was rewarding but frightening as prison did such a number on me I found it really difficult and frightening to be in close proximity with the rest of the human race. And after four years of fear and anxiety I’ve just been diagnosed with PTSD. Thank you HMP.
Despite all this and me being a stubborn bastard I kept going and a couple of years back someone gave my number to a radio guy. Can’t remember who it was but since then I’ve done several interviews on radio and two TV talks on BBC News and The Victoria Derbyshire Show about death, suicide and self harm in prison. There’s more to and it only took me ten years to get my book published thanks to Matt and Russell. Watch this space as this boy hasn’t gone away ya know.