Resetting The Prison Clock

Never listen to a Scotsman before going to bed! Thank you @TheTartanCon for resetting my prison clock. I say this in jest of course but as usual the topic of discussion is nothing to laugh about. This blog is really a follow up to afore mentioned phenomenological and heartfelt blog. If you haven’t already read it do so now –

So, here we are at 5.00am a time that used to be my favourite time of the day. Then, like now I’d sit and listen to the pipes crackle as the morning bite was nipped from the air. I’d sit under a desk lamp and write. It might have been a poem, a bit of creative writing, a letter or a good old Open University Tutor Marked Assignment (TMA). I sometimes miss those mornings. I sat under a desk lamp with pen and paper, way back then. Now I sit in front of a laptop with access to all sorts of disreputable information. I’ve got @TheTartanCons blog open and will go through it for the fifth time and use it to add a bit more grist to the mill.

The recent white paper is complete diatribe. I remember reading another one back in the day and thought to myself what a load of tosh. With tosh in mind I draw your attention to NOMS Strategic Business Plan 2012 I don’t need to say any more on the subject but you are more than welcome to make comments to which I will gladly reply.

In November 2007 I was standing in my cell doorway having a fag when I was approached by an officer who said “Hey Mickey, you’re one of the more sensible ones. I’m putting your name down for a meeting in the Chapel next week.” I agreed to the poor delusional child. Me sensible! God, if only he knew. So, a week later I’m escorted to the Chapel to meet Captains of Industry and people from The Howard League for Penal Reform. Who the hell are they I thought to myself. I was warmly greeted at the door by a lovely lady with a an even lovelier smile. Her name was Frances. I didn’t have a clue who she was. Frances escorted me to table where a few men and women where already seated. I was introduced to Lord Carlisle and a Lady Called Pauline Campbell. Pauline asked me “why are you here?” I nonchalantly replied “Why are you here?” Pauline replied “My daughter committed suicide in prison and I’m here to make a difference.” I still feel my stomach turn as I recall this. I felt like a complete and utter bastard. However, what it did do was straighten my back and make me sit up and pay attention. I apologised immediately and after a brief intro by Lord Carlisle the discussions began. Pauline and I chatted about issues and what we could do to change lives. We kept in touch via letters and Pauline sent me a few books. I was then sentenced and moved to HMP Rye Hill. My stomach turned again, and I was physically sick as I read the headline “Prisons: A Mother’s Pain That Was Too Much To Bear” Meeting this beautiful human being changed my life forever. My arrogance was gone, this was not a game any more, this was real. Sometimes, more often than one would think, I get quite despondent about this whole prison malarkey. When I do I think of why I started to take an interest in what goes on in our prisons. I’ve written to Frances on several occasions over the years and always received a reply. This is only one pivotal moment behind why I write and share my experiences of prison.

In or around the same time I started to read a prison magazine called Inside Time. Amid the rants and raves contained therein was a monthly Blog by a guy called Ben Gunn. I looked forward with trembling anticipation to each of his monthly blogs. Here was a guy, a serving prisoner smuggling his words out of prison and sharing them on social media. What Ben did was, stir me even more to write, to share my words, my feelings, my emotions and my experiences with anyone who would listen. I used to roar with laughter and admiration as what he was producing was pure genius. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

One of Ben’s recent tweets hit home with me yet again. It hinted at the reasons why he/I/we bloggers and tweeters do what we do. It concerned the story of a young man who was not allowed out (under escort) to see his dying mum. TheTartanCon is a hundred percent correct in suggesting that each and every guy on the wing would have gladly taken a day’s lock up to enable this young man to see his mother. Like many of us who have served lengthy sentences will tell you. This is not an isolated incident. I’ve seen it in each and every prison I’ve frequented. I sat and listened to staff and prisoners vent their frustrations at the in-credulousness of the rigour that the institution of prison will maintain under these (compassionate) circumstances. Many of you have commented on this and how this young man will get over it. He won’t. He never will. Nor will I.

I simply cannot put into words how I feel about the people who make these decisions. The last experience of it was my own. Not my Mother, but a dear friend Mike Moloney (head of the Prison Arts Foundation here in Northern Ireland) died in April 2013. Two months before my release. I had used up my home leaves, had been out on temporary release for fourteen days in the previous six months yet they would still not let me attend his funeral. An officer even volunteered to come in on his day off, take me there and bring me back. Phone calls were made but to no avail. The reason being – not immediate family. Three weeks later I was in open conditions and allowed out at weekends.

Yesterday, I listened in part to a local radio show on the crisis in our prisons. One caller, alleged to be a Christian, suggested that prisoners lived a life of luxury. In all the name of what’s holy! What bloody planet do this people live on? Where is the compassion. Another caller suggested that victims of crime would be furious at tougher community sentences and that problem solving courts were a stupid idea. When I co facilitated a Victim Impact Programme in prison, to my surprise, I discovered that most victims simply do not want the same thing to happen to someone else. Restorative Justice being a perfect example of this. I have found compassion in prison like you would not believe. Some of my best friends are people with conviction. I do hope the irony is not lost here.

Conviction is what us twitterers and bloggers have. Motivation is what we have. Not only from people who have served time but others who have worked in the institution. As I started this blog I was sharing private messages with a prison officer. I’ve shared the odd pint with prison staff. Oh, no I haven’t. I think there’s some sort of rule that prison staff must report any encounter with a person who has been to prison. I keep harping on about the fact that the institution of prison is designed to keep us and them apart. Never the twain shall meet. It’s farcical. How can prison staff ever have job satisfaction in knowing that someone who used to be under their care has done well or has stayed away from trouble because of something that officer did to help them during their stay? I’ll never forget the TV Documentary where Natalie Atkinson met up with the local bobby outside a shopping centre. I think he mentioned he had wrestled her to the ground at the spot they were standing. Natalie now has a Masters degree. An inspiration to all Natalie.

We do need change and we need it now. Our so called ‘United Kingdom’ has let us down. Our system is flawed. I recall a story a Governor from here told me when he met his counterpart from Norway at a conference. They were both in agreement. They could not understand their respective countries approach to prisons and criminal justice. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe. We have the highest. We as in a civilised UK adhere to revenge and retribution. Scandinavian society adheres to understanding the individual needs of its flawed citizens. Under this government we have gone from reducing funding for prisons and staff to a complete U-turn and investing more money in prisons and staff. I mean really. Are we that bloody stupid? Why do we put up with this? I say we form our own party. People who have been to prison and people who have worked in it. Hypothetically if every prisoner had a vote 85,000 today, and at least two family members voted that’s 170,000 if my education (paid for by prison) is correct, then multiply that by every person who has served since this government took power… I know it’s only a dream. The only thing we can do is help change people’s mindsets. If we stick together and keep building, challenging, blogging, writing, talking to officials and holding people accountable we can make a difference.

It’s nearly unlock time and I’m off to the gym.

As good old Oscar Wilde said ” When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was.  It was ruinous advice.  It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind.  Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all.  I know that would be equally fatal […] To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development.  To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life.  It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

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A Waiting Game

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…

Six Magpies
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

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The Fear of Logic

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Originally posted on micsirwin:
“There were times in my life, when I was going insane, trying to get through, the pain…” Lyrics from “Amazing” by Aerosmith. My pain was not only what I’d done to myself but to those close…

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The Tip Of The Iceberg

Over the past few days and weeks I’ve been reading about suicide, death and chaos in UK Prisons. This obviously saddens me deeply and it’s often quite difficult to build up the strength and courage to revisit the institution of prison. I’ve just finished reading TheTartanCon and Alex Cavendish’s recent blogs on suicide in prison (there are others). They deliver more recent facts and figures and share harrowing first hand experiences so I won’t get into facts and figures now. What a want to do is look a bit deeper. I’ll attempt to do this succinctly as possible

I’ve written several blogs on suicide in and after prison as it was originally my idea to pursue a PhD on the subject. Unfortunately I lost hope and was indeed warned about what I was going to embark on. Is it a good idea for a person who experienced suicide, death and chaos to share their knowledge with the powers that be and the general public? Well, yes of course it is. This is how we gain knowledge and learn from our mistakes. Mistake is an important word here and I’ll revisit it later.

Firstly, I think it’s necessary to understand what the institution of prison is. The institution of prison is based on the medical model of care combined with the military model where human beings a stripped of identity and forced to adopt the daily needs of the prison allowing the institution to function the way it’s been designed. Prison is designed in such a way that it inevitably directly or indirectly causes hurt, harm and pain whilst at the same time providing a duty of care under law. Is this not a paradox? How many times have heard the statements ‘I hope he suffers in there’, ‘I hope he gets what he deserves inside’ and not forgetting ‘lock him up and throw away the key’.

Secondly, do we as a society seriously believe that sending someone to prison will sort them out? Growing up, I used to believe this. Even when I was arrested I thought ‘ok you’re going for your tea here Michael at least you’ll be able to get your head sorted’. Ironically, I did by diving head first into academia and studying the very thing is was living. This came at a price though as I had to fight tooth and nail against those inside the prisons who wanted to break me. I’ve been in eight different jails over a six year period and in each and every one there was a time when I contemplated ending it all. I was lucky enough to meet a Listener in HMP Rye Hill who helped me sort my head out (well nearly). The Listener’s Scheme is fantastic if used properly. I eventually became a Listener myself. At one of our monthly meetings with a PO in charge with Safer Custody they stated that we were doing something really good or really bad as we’d had no call outs in five or six weeks. After a bit of rummaging I discovered that the prison had changed its policy and didn’t take the prisoners TV off them when they were put on basic. Go figure! Towards the end of my sentence the pressure was so great, I think I was in permanent state of mental breakdown. For the life of me I don’t know how I made it and I left prison as a ticking time bomb.

Thirdly, getting back to the word ‘mistake’. In Law if someone dies (even in prison) there has to be an investigation. Admitting a mistake means (in simple terms) someone can be prosecuted. One only has to look at what Professor Phil Scraton has done with The Hillsborough Panel in proving the innocence of Liverpool fans. In the context of prison this will normally be The Number One Governor. In order to prevent prosecution of inevitable death in prison policies are created and strictly adhered to. If policy is followed to the letter The Governor cannot be prosecuted. Again, I’ll not go on about previous writings but I will focus on one simple point I may have mentioned to the policy makers of prison health. “How can you expect a person to function as a human being if they can’t get a night’s sleep?” I spent two years researching (and lived under it for four years in Northern Ireland) this so I think I’m in a position to comment. Lack of sleep drove me insane! I met and talked with numerous prisoners who were frightened to come out of their cells in case they exploded. Some often did and they were then put on a charge or an anger management coarse because of the need to maintain good order and discipline of the institution. I pleaded and begged with the powers that be and explained that this policy of waking people up to make sure they were not dead was in fact causing hopelessness, resulting in self harm or suicide. Another paradox?

Fourthly, when one puts ones head above the parapet be prepared for it to be blown off. We only have to look at what’s happening to Faith Spear to understand how the institution closes ranks and attempts to destroy the integrity of the person highlighting a problem. After all, the institution cannot and will not admit to wrongdoing as this brings back in the word ‘mistake’ and prosecution in law. My heart goes out to Faith and I will continue to support her. However, my fellow bloggers and I may say “welcome to my world!” What I’m getting at is that it takes years of practice to avoid punishment on the inside whilst trying to make a stand against the institution. The affidavits in my judicial review are testament to the lengths that the institution will go to destroy ones character thus proving them right. This is why and always will be why those who come into prison to help people become better citizens have to watch their backs. I’ve seen and been party to it in every single prison I’ve stayed in. One perfect example was of a very renowned and respected academic was asked to do some research by the prison. The findings did not shine a good light on certain aspects of the regime. The person was then told they were not welcome back. Personally, I’m regarded as a troublemaker and it has taken me years to build a rapport with officialdom. I simply state that I want to save lives.

Finally, I have to ask ‘what are we going to do about it?’ I’ve spoken privately to several of my fellow bloggers and realised I was not alone. We have all suffered and are indeed still suffering some form of mental breakdown after prison. We are all strong willed and determined individuals who don’t want to see young men and women die in prison. Individually, we contribute to Journals, research and with officials within the institution. Imagine what we could do if we all got together? There are alternatives to prison and there are alternative courses that can be delivered who treat people as individuals. My Prison SMART course being a prime example. We are only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard it said often that the institution of prison is like a massive ship, being from Belfast I have to say look what happened to the Titanic.

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To Oblivion and Beyond

“Panic attack – sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, or terror that occurs without apparent cause. A panic attack is diagnosed based on the occurrence of at least four physical (somatic) or psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms may include shortness of breath, palpitations or accelerated heart rate, chest pain or discomfort, choking, dizziness or faintness, trembling or shaking, sweating, nausea, abdominal distress, numbness or tingling, and hot flashes or chills. Psychological symptoms may consist of a smothering sensation, a feeling of unreality, a fear of dying, and a fear of “going crazy” or losing control. The intensity of panic attacks is variable, ranging from severe to relatively mild, and most attacks last about 10–15 minutes. There are three different types of panic attacks, known as situationally bound (expected to occur in specific situations), situationally predisposed (may or may not occur in specific situations), and unexpected. Thus, a panic attack does not necessarily precede or follow a stressful situation.”

Yesterday was beautiful day here in Northern Ireland and I was determined not to waste it. After an early morning session at the gym followed by my Kriya (breathing exercises) I headed down the coast, had a quick coffee with my Mum before heading off to the beach for a stroll and then driving down to Donaghadee to sit on the harbour wall and watch the guys fishing. I checked out a few of the local bars on the off chance that a couple of friends might be out and about. No beer was going to be involved as I was driving. No joy.

As I headed back to the car I felt the trembles start deep down and I knew what was coming next. Normally, believe it or not, driving calms me but as I hit Hollywood I was in full blown panic/anxiety mode with that old insatiable friend of seeking oblivion. I wanted to consume as much drugs and alcohol as possible and nearly stopped at the nearest bar to quench the beast that often haunts me. I fought it with all the tools that I had at my disposal and managed to get home safely.

It had not subsided and the easiest cure would have been to nip down to the off licence for a few beers. Again, I fought it. I stripped off down to my shorts and headed to my lovely secluded back garden with a blanket, pillow, phone and headphones. I spent a whole hour and half listening to meditations (two in a row) and Mantra’s/Chants via my Sattva App –

This horrible feeling of seeking oblivion left me during one of the chants and I felt my heart slow down and my breathing got back to normal. All I could think of at the time was Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’ when he got smashed in the hotel room, pouring whiskey down his neck and not knowing where he was. I know that feeling all too well and I’m determined never to cross that line again.

During my six years in prison, to combat this, I took Beta Blockers. They worked but left me in a permanent sort of fugue. In my efforts for better health over the past few years and to stop taking tablets I’ve knocked the Beta Blockers on the head and relied solely on the natural remedy of breathing. It’s not easy but it does work and doesn’t have any side effects.

I’ve tried to rationalise imprisonment and its affect on those of us who have experienced it. I’m still at a loss but what I do know is that it has nearly killed me on several occasions during and after. The stripping of identity where one becomes a ‘non person’, the pettiness and psychological warfare of the institution fuelled at every juncture by institutional need only exasperates and exposes any weakness a body may have.

My early blogs describe the trauma of release and coping with life after prison and I vividly recall the fear of the real world. As I type this now, I realise that after three years it has not left me. The thing is, I’m not alone. I’ve been, hesitantly, compiling a paper for a journal whereby I combine the blogs of previous prisoners (with my own) of life after prison and a common thread is already starting appear. Panic/anxiety attacks and depression feature heavily.

I’m also compiling a presentation about Prison SMART with the view to delivering it to universities and government. Who will listen? I’ve listened to so much crap over the years it leaves me breathless. Is this a trigger for my own anxiety? I don’t know and to be honest I’ve given up trying to figure out what the causes are. I was listening to Professor David Wilson interview Noel ‘Razor’ Smith last night and it dawned on me that there is no one answer in mainstream prison.

This might be obvious to most academics in criminology and psychology out there. The constant is prison. Prison is the one true constant that has surpassed history via global and industrial change, survived in society via endless shift in government and sits as the bedrock for nearly all human failings of an alleged civilised society. Why on earth do we believe this? What can we do to change it? The answer for me is in each and every one of us. Learning how to get rid of the desire for revenge and cause as much hurt to someone who harms us is top of the list. I know a lot of people might think it’s all airy fairy and that perhaps it’s ‘not my problem’. I’ve listened and read enough for now and I’m going to do my very best to make a difference. Is this out of self interest and getting my fifteen minutes of fame?

The answer is no. I simply do not want anyone to feel how I felt yesterday because they did something wrong, that they feel so bad that they go back to their old ways or at worse decide to get rid of the pain for once and all. I’ve got to go now as my daily exercise beckons and I’ve got a bit of running around to do with my Dad. So, even though I don’t have the answers I’ll do my best to create some and leave you with a little thought.

“If people get sick, we take them to the hospital and give them the right medicine to get better. If people’s behaviour is sick, we bring them to the prison, but we forget the medicines.” – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

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Sweetness Follows

As most of you know I don’t prepare these blogs. I just get up and write what’s in the slightly deranged head of mine. You will also know that I am in no shape or form airy fairy or the hugger of trees. Having said that, I did spend half an hour sitting under a tree on several occasions over the weekend in a forest at Blessingbourne Manor.

Even though we were on a ‘Silence Course’ a song by REM ‘Sweetness Follows’ played continuously in my head. I’m sitting listening to it now as I type this and the lyrics, like in most songs, resonate so deeply with me. Words are important to me and some of you little minxes keep alluding to the fact that I use them a bit too often.

My ‘fortunate’ problem is that I get so passionate about stuff that goes on in my life. I often have to put a cork in my thoughts and emotions as they can take off like a rocket and take me to places that I never knew existed – in me. Perhaps there’s a bit of bi-polar going on here but I like to think of it more as an avalanche affect. I spend so much time in my own little word when I end up meeting friends I want to tell them everything as God knows when I’ll see them again.

The course I’ve just been on is the Art of Living ‘Silence’ (level 2). This is the third time I’ve done it in the three years since my release. I’m not going to tell you what goes on or what happens as each and every one of us are individuals and our experiences and emotions are unique to ourselves. For me, before, this weekend I thought I’d lost direction and was feeling a little bit hopeless. This weekend allowed me to realise that I wasn’t and compared to the guy who did his first ‘Silence’ course in 2013, well, there is no comparison – it’s immeasurable.

Of course, to do level 2 you’ve got to do the ‘Happiness’ course (level 1). Now, like me, I know that most of you are always a bit skint and money is always at the fore of our procrastination and when we see anything that cost over £100 the alarm bells go off. I gave up a lot of stuff last month and this allowed me to pay the deposit. And, for those of us who have a job we can always mange to have a couple of good weekends on the beer and gin during the month and if we get the calculator out…you do the maths. There are regular courses held across the UK and Ireland just look up the art of living Website Mind you, it’s not for everyone and most of you probably don’t have what it takes to do level 1 anyway.

My level 1 was Prison SMART (Stress Management and Relaxation Technique). As I’ve said on numerous occasions ‘it unlocked my mind’. I find it amusing that one has to go deeper to be unlocked. Never, in a million years could I have dreamed that doing Prison SMART way back in 2008 that it would allow me to feel as good as I feel at this exact moment in time. As per my last blog I was lucky enough to meet Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in HMP Thameside eight years after first hearing his voice on a tape recorder in HMP Highdown. And this weekend has been spent listening to his melodic voice again via meditations and videos.

During the course a thread of thought really caught me and it’s so simple but so real if we just take the time to pay attention to it. ‘Smile and the world smiles with you.’  The importance of the context of criminal justice is extremely important. Let’s face it, we all know prison does not work, it’s a sham and falsehood parried and played with by government to a so called democratic society. Rehabilitation, is a complete and utter nonsense when it comes to prison. However, this Prison SMART is unique in that it does have an effect on people who have not done it. I’m able to say this as I’m a living embodiment of all that this course professes to do. When I’m with people, friends of old and new and they see and feel what I’ve experienced and what I’m still experiencing they take a step back and sort of go ‘wow, what’s this all about’. My smile, inner and outer allows them to feel better about me not being a threat to them as a society and this then has a ripple effect that spreads to others. So, when I’m smiling I’m thinking others are smiling with me.

I’m going to spend the rest of my life sharing my story and my experience of Prison SMART. My goal is to establish it as a fully functional course in every single prison in the UK and Ireland (start small). Please have a look at our website –

prison smart

You’ll see my big ugly coupon on the homepage. Get used to it, because, and to use a slight variation on rather infamous Northern Irish quote “It’s not going away you know.”

Sri Sri has asked me to become a teacher of Prison SMART. I know he has asked hundreds of people but this is ‘my’ invite and I seriously believe this is ‘my’ time and ‘my’ opportunity to save lives and make a difference to our society. In order to do this I am willing to change certain aspects of my life. This will mean I’ll not be so readily available for a day out on the beer and committing to a different food pattern et al. I’m preparing a presentation/lecture containing all recent research, information on Prison SMART and of course my unique experience, with the view of delivering it to Universities, Conferences and Government. I’ll be taking part in all things connected with the Art of Living in Northern Ireland and Prison SMART for the foreseeable future and I do hope that this will become my life.  I will have to attend several teaching courses and events over the coming years and I intend to do sponsored walks etc and whatever I can do to help others. I have opened a separate bank account and I intend to save every single spare penny I have and any donations will be gladly received.

I’d like to finish by saying that the past few days have unlocked me even more than before. It’s mental and I really mean ‘mental’. I don’t need to thank the organisers or Sri Sri, they already know. I’ve been reunited with some old friends and met even more new ones that I know in my heart will be there for the rest of my life. As REM said ‘it’s these little things that will pull you under, live your life with joy and wonder…” Have a bloody great day folks, I know I am.

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Three Years Out and I’m Back In.

Three years after my release, where does life find me? I’ve attempted to break into the PhD world and received the cursory thank you but no thank you. There is never anything wrong with proposals, more to do with Michael. This has left me feeling disillusioned with the world of academia and slightly lost in my own personal head space. I’ll never give up.
Family, friends and academics have been as supportive as always and as per usual I consider myself extremely lucky. Depression and anxiety has been building over the past few months and to be honest I was getting back into bed with those old comfortable friends of boredom and hopelessness.

So, a few weeks back I started to get back into my breathing exercises and getting fit. I’ve lost 4st in the past year which makes me feel great but there’s still a bit to go. This coincided with an email from Prison Smart EU inviting me to come to London (where I’m writing this now) and attend a few events and hopefully to meet up with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of Prison Smart. This gave me the little boost I needed and I discussed my impending visit to London with senior DOJ officials. Unfortunately they could not come with me but I’ll be reporting back asap.

Last Wednesday I touch down at Heathrow and the old anxiety and panic is in full flow. I’m going to meet and stay with a friends of a friend called Sangeeta and Simon, need to dump my bag where Sangeeta works and collect it when her day is over. I arrive around 11.00am as planned and I’m greeted with a beautiful smile and hug from a complete stranger; who within five minutes is no longer a stranger. We have a quick chat and I now have four or five hours to kill/murder.

The hustle and bustle of London is mind blowing especially since one has been stuck in his own wee world and the gentle pace of Northern Ireland for the past year three years. As I’m leaving the hospital and walk below The Shard, who do I bump into but my lovely friend Gaurav Gaur (Art of Living Teacher). I mean seriously! There’s over ten million people in London and I bump into someone I know ten minutes after getting there. Is this an omen? He was jumping into a taxi and I knew he was busy sorting Sri Sri’s schedule and that I would meet him at HMP Thameside the following morning.

Yes, you heard me right, HMP Thameside but I’ll come back to that in a minute. So, off I head to Westminster and the hustle and bustle of London and stand once again on London’s bridges, watching the world and Father Thames amble by. Standing below Big Ben as he struck midday hypnotised me. A thousand memories of old and previous life invading my fragile head space. I head off down the Embankment and by sheer coincidence end up in Petty France, can’t resist a selfie and think of all the letters I’d written to this place during my time int nick.


I’m tired and hungry so I grab a couple of banana’s and head off to St James park. I find a space on the grass (there are crowds everywhere I go), lay down and fall asleep. An hour later batteries recharged I head back toward London Bridge station. I get a text from my brother telling me some fantastic news. It seems new chapters are starting for him and I – great stuff.

The night is spent with my hosts in West Norwood and we discuss life in general and my impending visit to HMP Thameside in the morning. Katrien called me late on and told me there might be two hundred people there. Could have done without knowing the number. Didn’t sleep much as nerves and doubt and fear invaded my every thought.  The trains are all messed up due to industrial action and London Bridge is chaos and I have to thank the platform guard for helping me make my connection and arrive with plenty of time to spare.

Here’s me, nearly three years on heading back in to prison. Not for a visit but to deliver a talk to prisoners and staff about Prison SMART. Be careful what you wish for eh? HMP Thameside and Prison Smart had combined to hold an event in the prison at which I’d been asked to give a quick talk to the prisoners and staff on my experience of Prison Smart and how it helped me. Sri Sri will be there as guest of honour. I was so looking forward to meeting this amazing human being but still had to deal with my personal emotions of heading back inside to the prison gym.

Upon arrival I’m met by all the Prison Smart team. They all say ‘Hey Michael, how are you, it’s really great to meet you at last…’ I’m thinking how on earth do they all know me and my name. Then I remembered the video. Please watch and share this –

It was really weird being given a pass to head back into jail, no security, no dogs, no pat downs or strip searches. We were walking along in twos and I’m chatting to the lovely Sue about my ambition of getting Prison SMART into all jails in the UK and possibly doing a PhD on this one true rehabilitation course. As we approached the gym I looked up at all the cells and guys in prison garb and it hits me like ton of lead. Tears trickle down my cheeks at the enormity of it all and Sue kindly takes a moment to let me let it pass. After all this is what Prison SMART teaches you. To deal with your emotions. It passes and the gym fills up with prisoners and staff.

As I do my talk the old mouth gets a bit dry but I think I pulled it off. As my fellow Prison SMART graduate and teacher does his bit there’s a flurry of activity at the back of the gym and in comes Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The main man. The man who made it all happen and got me to where I am today. We’re sitting below the little stage and I listen intently to the questions from the prisoners and Sri Sri’s replies. All I can do is smile and any nerves or doubt I had have strangely disappeared.

As per usual it’s all over in the blink of an eye and as we’re all heading out Gaurav introduces me to Sri Sri. As we spoke all I could feel was the warmth and sincerity oozing from this wonderful human being. I told him I’d heard him sing on a tape recording (Long Kriya) in 2008 and to this day I have no idea what he is singing about but it didn’t matter as he still sings to me every day and this has allowed me to be here today.
He smiles says “Thank you. Why don’t you become a teacher?” I hear a few wow’s coming from our team.
I’m totally blown away and blurt out “Ok then.”
Sri Sri looks over at someone, I have no clue who it was, and says “Let’s do it.” The deal is done, just like that, I’m going to be trained as a Prison SMART teacher! We gather outside for a group photo where Sri Sri presents me with an orange shawl. A mark of respect/gratitude and a welcome to the family. I speak quickly and briefly with my companions and officials and thank the Governor for making it all happen. By now we’re back outside and Sri Sri is in his car saying goodbye to everyone.


I gave him a big thumbs up and say “Looking forward to seeing you in the Albert Hall on Sunday night.”
His reply rocked my world “Why don’t you come on stage with me and share your experience?”
“Oh, OK then” came out of my mouth. Don’t know how as the smile on my face was from ear to ear. Sri Sri nods at someone and says “Let’s do it.” And off he goes. Phone numbers and emails are frantically exchanged and I head off to the train station.

As I sit on the train a numbness envelopes me that is simply impossible to explain. My life, my future, my destiny, in the blink of an eye has just been decided. I phoned my Dad and then went back into my numbness. Didn’t even realise the train had stopped at London Bridge. I floated through the crowd and found myself in a Pub by HMS Belfast watching the England and Wales game. Then it hit me, a lightness, a weight being lifted off me, leaving me and floating down the Thames. Oh, my God! I’m going to be on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on my three year anniversary 19/06/2016. I will refrain from expletives but you can imagine my thoughts. On stage to a Sold Out Royal Albert Hall. I quickly googled it. 5,272 – no biggy, I can handle that. Not!

So, the next few days, with my future are spent in what can only be described as bliss. On Friday night I met up with Sacha Darke and Shaun Attwood and on Saturday I met up with some lifelong friends. Jim and Andy, I hadn’t seen for twenty four years and Danielle it had been nine years. All in all a magical few days of reminisce and laughter.

I arrive at the Albert Hall early, collect my pass, meet the organisers and shown to my dressing room. I was warned that my appearance might not happen as it was a last minute addition to an already packed schedule but to be on call from 5.00pm. I nip out to the Café to meet July and Tina. July buys me a pint as my nerves are shattered.IMG_3658

I head backstage and wander onto the stage and take a few pics. Wow, this is amazing and mind blowing all at the same time.


From the wings I watch Sri Sri make his entrance and listen for a while. I’m asked to go back to my room and await my call – if it happens. Time stood still from then on and I could not settle. I walked up to the wings and took a pic of Sri Sri on the stage. I was then informed that I would not be going on.

I have to be honest here and say that I was absolutely fuming. I didn’t show it. A couple of folks tried to get me to come in and watch the rest of the show and politely asked them to let me be for a while. Ten minutes later I’m sitting in a box with Nicolai smiling and laughing with the rest of the crowd. After all, isn’t this what Prison SMART teaches you. How to deal with stress, anger, frustration, disappointment and to calm down? It does and it did.

Met up with Brian after and we headed off for a few pints in South Kensington. The night was not about me, it would have been the icing on the cake, but it was about Sri Sri and what he does for people. As I sat on the train back to West Norwood I thought to myself who’d have ever thought you’d be at The Royal Albert Hall on the third anniversary of your release?

The next day I stop off for a pint in The Horns Tavern across the road from the Station. I meet Joe McGrieves and the Governor Allison White. Joe held the record for the longest serving Governor in West Norwood which is (in the coming weeks) to be surpassed by Allison. We shared Governor stories of times in pubs past and present. I told them my story and they wished me well. I hope to see them again in September.

As I touch down in Belfast I’m tired but full of smiles on the inside and out. My future has been sorted. Meeting Sri Sri has been another life changing experience. I met him in HMP Highdown in 2008 via a tape recording. He changed my life. I met him again in person at HMP Thameside on 16th June 2016; he changed my life again. I’m thinking “hey Sri Sri, we’re going to have to stop meeting like this…”

I’m now back in my Library in my home in Belfast. The world is waking and going about its business. I’m off to Dublin in the morning for a criminology conference and to hook up with some old friends. Guess what I’m going to be talking about. Thank you Katrien and the Prison SMART team for making it all happen. My deepest gratitude, of course, goes to the main man himself. Thank you Sri Sri Ravi Shankar you’ve rocked my world.

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