Prison Trauma and Coffee a Holistic Approach

My body only allows me six hours of kip at night and I’ve been lying in bed for the past hour craving a cup of coffee (it’s 6.00am). I haven’t had a cup of coffee since the spring as it seemed to trigger my anxiety/panic attacks. I’ve succumbed to the craving so forgive me if this blog ends up all over the shop.

A telephone conversation and a text last night from two ex HMP colleagues has piqued my ever-inquisitive mind/brain cell. I’ll get back to that in a minute and feel like most good ramblings one must start at the beginning. I’ve just revisited one of my first ever blogs (Michael Irwin: Suicide Vs Reintegration a few days after my release in June 2013. The reason being that I need to ask the question ‘What has changed after four and half years of freedom?’ I’ve still got one and half years to go on licence by the by.

“… 24/06/2013 A free man? 
This wave/tsunami swept over me again yesterday – on the bus on the way home from a Job Centre interview.  I jumped off the bus two stops before I was meant to and got home and under the covers as fast as I could.  I cried and screamed and shouted and slept for about two hours.  It passed.  The thing is – I know what it is – it’s a process, a frightening one yes but all the same it will pass.  I’m lucky I know it, what about those who don’t?  Think it was the questions at the Job Centre, they did nothing wrong by the way.  For me, My hypothesis is that after six years where every question asked by a prison officer can end up with one getting in the shit one becomes mentally processed to be guarded – much more than guarded, some might call it fear or the bodies way of dealing with an abnormal situation.  It’s about time somebody paid attention to this.  One minute i’m sitting with a beautiful woman signing up for ‘Tango’ classes the next i’m wanting to throw the ropes up. I never will, but I know there are those who don’t understand what’s happening to them and they end up back there or underground.
On a footnote for my next blog – left Prison a week ago with £71 discharge grant, went to Job Centre Friday £2.80 return by train. Had two Preliminary interviews Yesterday (Monday) £2.80 return by train.  Had to sign on this morning (Tuesday) £2.80 return by train.  Money gets paid into my bank (yes I already had an account) on the 11th of July today is the 25th and I think the 11th is a Bank Holiday.  Is this why guys re-offend?  I’m lucky I’ve got a house and a family to support me.  What of those who want to change but have nowt?  The reality of leaving prison is much more than the Narnia of the real world.”

The text I received was from a guy who shared a wing with me for a couple of years and he’d just read the bit in my book were the officer left my hand hanging as I’d wished the officer a Happy Christmas whilst setting up the breakfast on Christmas morning. Needless to say, he was not amused. I never told him at the time. In fact, I don’t think I told anyone at the time. Or maybe it was just a select few.

The phone call came from Angel. What he told me piqued my interest as to the long term effects of prison on a person’s psyche. Angel told me that he had suffered a head injury and had to go to hospital. He’d fell and banged his head whilst running for a train. Ironically, he was on his way to get a flight to meet me in Dublin for an event hosted by the Samaritans where we were meant to do a joint presentation. Neither of us made it that day. I couldn’t go due to two flat tyres. Nothing traumatic about that.

Since his head trauma Angel has suffered a similar experience to mine as he has had several meltdowns and has had trouble deciphering reality aka Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I listened with interest as he explained. The episodes are obviously unique to the individual, but the mental reactions bare a surprising similarity to my own experiences over the past six months. When I had my first episode I was in hospital after nearly dying from an abscess in my perforated bowel. I recorded what happened at the time and at one stage I thought hospital Dr’s and nurses were prison staff and that they were trying to kill me via my IV drip.

Angel served a couple of years more than me and got out at roughly the same time and I find it interesting that after all this time that we are both sharing similar mental problems immediately after a physical trauma and hospitalisation. Was it prison that caused this or does it go further than that. In 2011 Shadd Maruna posited the question “How much damage will another months incarceration do to this individual?” (ref Maruna, S 2011, ‘Why do they hate us? Making peace between psychology and prisoners: Making peace between prisoners and psychology’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol 55, no. 5, pp. 671-675. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X11414401) Angel despises psychiatrists but played along. I was referred to a psychiatrist but only lasted two weeks as I’ve had to be re-referred to more special specialist as the six week programme would be insufficient to attend to my needs. My Mum jokingly quipped “Is the psychiatrist OK?”

As psychology was part of my studies I fully, maybe too well, understand the process of revisiting past trauma childhood et al. Angel had a military background. I grew up in Belfast where my father had a security background and living under the threat posed to him and immediate family and friends. Did that daily way of life remain hidden until now? Did the trauma of prison enhance, lock or unlock past life events? I think it’s interesting that prison is based on the military model of care but is it connected? I don’t know the answers yet but will continue with the process and hopefully it well shed some light on the matter. As always with me, watch this space.

I’ve been following with great interest the experiences of the most amazing Michaela Booth @michaelabooth7 on twitter and blog –
The similarities by Micaela, from a female perspective, are not only enlightening but remarkably similar in context. I’ve jokingly christened Michaela my ‘Female Doppelganger’. As a single middle aged (being kind to myself coffee kicking in) without children I have no clue as to the experiences of a young mother in prison. However, if you compare and contrast our experiences of prison and the criminal justice system one will find them remarkably similar.

The fact that I have shared my experiences for the past ten years via my blog and recent book ‘My Life Began At Forty’ and it has left me exhausted and mentally broken is a stark warning to those of us who believe and hope our shared lived experience will help make a difference to our society. Professor Phil Scraton (my Masters’ supervisor) warned me of this way back in 2013. Maybe I should have payed more attention.

There is no doubt in my mind that sharing experiences, including people like Michaela, myself and many others in the so called ‘holistic’ approach to offender management (I so dislike that term) and policy making is the way forward. I’ve been barking on about it for years. How can you call it ‘holistic’ if you don’t include us? And, I don’t just mean the guest talks at criminal justice events. I mean real paid employment within criminal justice departments as part of the solution. David Cameron’s swan song speech where he states

“…But I also strongly believe that we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope, that in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.
In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.” is indeed in stark contrast to his comments on prisoners voting rights in 2012 where he felt ‘physically sick.’

I mean seriously, does anyone believe what this current Government says? They have caused the problems in our prisons. It’s the same bloody Government!!! How can you feel ‘physically sick’ about the same people you want to be seen as a ‘potential asset’? I think the onus is on the word ‘seen’ as most of criminal justice policy is focused on being ‘seen’ to be doing something – normally the bare minimum. But that’s a different conversation for a different day.

As I’m writing this my attention has just been drawn to this morning’s article by the BBC on HMP Magilligan – I’ll read the report later. Maybe ‘they’ should ‘all’ read my book to see if and how far they have really come?

Time has caught up with me as usual. As always events and experiences leave me with more questions than answers. 2017 has been a roller coaster of a year and I remain proud of the fact that I have made a small difference by enabling ‘Prison Smart’ to be piloted in Northern Ireland’s prisons –
I’ll continue with my efforts. On that cheery note I shall bid you farewell for 2017 and wish you all a Very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. God that coffee was good.



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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