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 – http://thetartancon.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/what-am-i-doing.html
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 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128112038/http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/corporate-reports/noms/noms-business-plan-2012-2013.pdf 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”http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/prisons-a-mothers-pain-that-was-too-much-to-bear-830216.html 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.”