Be careful what you wish for. As a few of you might already know my physical and mental health has not been all that clever over the past few months. After a recent flare up in the old bowel department and yet another course of antibiotics I decided to do nothing and take the Doctors advice and rest. To be honest I didn’t have much choice as I’ve done nothing but sleep since I came back from my book launch in London.
So, it was with great trepidation that I mustered my faculties and headed back to jail last Wednesday afternoon to do an introduction to prisoners about Prison SMART http://www.prisonsmart.eu/.
My good friend Sook picked me up and off we go on my version of a Highway to Hell. It was a bit strange approaching the entrance as the last time I’d been there was in handcuffs in the back of a prison van with little or no view. I’m lucky I’ve got these breathing techniques as I sure needed them as we approached the barriers. There’s no bother and we get lucky with a parking space just across from the reception. ‘Here we go boy. Suck it up and let’s do this. After all, this is what you’ve been wishing for for the past four years’ I mumble quietly to myself.
In the pod at reception I’m greeted by an old primary school friend and we laugh and shake hands. I’m feeling at ease already. Five minutes later I’m greeted by the guy from the Prisoner Development Unit (PDU) whom I also knew from conferences at Queens University et al.
Then the noises hit me, the alarms of gates opening and closing, the radios, the clicking of the turn styles and the memories came flooding back as we walked past one of the wings I used to frequent. Last time I was there it was still in the days of one to one officer prisoner escort. It was a bit of a surprise to see prisoners walking about freely going about their business.
The room in the PDU is a good size and starts to fill up (and on time) with prisoners who’ve expressed an interest in the course. As always, was nervous to start with but soon got into my stride. Sook finished off the last twenty minutes with an explanation about the importance of breath and a short relaxation technique. The guys seemed to enjoy it and have signed up for the actual course (sold out).
As per usual my bladder is running amuck and as I come out of the toilet I’m met by an officer I knew from HMP Magilligan. We’d spent four years together on the same wing and yes he’s in the book. He said ‘I heard Elvis was in the building and wanted to come say hello.’ We laughed and joked and laughed some more. Swapped war stories and commented on this one and that one. It saddened me to hear of his colleague who was paralysed after a motorbike accident; another one of the ‘good guys’. Was also shocked to hear that my friend was back inside! Then on the way out I bumped into a prisoner I knew from Magilligan. More sadness as I thought he’d make it this time.
More laughter with my old school buddy on the way out, big sigh and job done. But, it got me thinking. How do the staff who really care get job satisfaction after a prisoner leaves? They only really get to hear about people if someone comes back in. They never really get to hear the success stories or how they might have been instrumental in helping someone change their mindset whilst serving time with them.
I would gladly sit and have a pint with these men and women. I’d love to tell them how they helped me and I’m sure that goes for a lot of people who’ve served time in jail. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is a very different set up to the rest of the UK as staff are still being targeted by the remnants of IRA factions and dissident groups. Any type of fragile friendship inside could cost these guys their lives. So, how difficult/impossible is it to form one of the most important aspects of prison life on the road to reintegration as in – the officer prisoner relationship.
As I sat in the pub later having a pint with a few friends I still had a big grin on my face as I thought of how life could be so different if I’d met these staff members under different circumstances. Something I’ll delve deeper into in the future. Elvis has left the building for now but is still smiling at the warmth and respect given to him by his former gaolers. Hopefully I’ll be back soon and we can laugh some more. Be Careful what you wish for eh?