On leaving prison: Michael Irwin’s account

My arch nemesis Governor has to sign me out. He quips, ‘Thank God you’re leaving Michael. Maybe now we can get some peace’. My retort ‘I always thought you were delusional Mr …’ he parried and said ‘yeah but I still have the power to keep you here ‘til midday’ It was 9.00am.

On the prison van to the train station I’m quizzed by the officer driving me and another guy. I told him I didn’t have to answer his questions anymore as I was now a human being/citizen of the real world. He was a hard officer. He shook my hand and wished me ‘the best of luck’ as we departed the van. This minor detail was massive. I saw him as a citizen.

I was heading straight to Queens University to take part in Criminology conference about life after prison. Professor Shadd Maruna introduced me: ‘we talk and study about life after prison. Who better to ask than Michael Irwin? He has come directly from HMP Magilligan after six years in jail’.’ The room held its breath.

For a bite to eat

For me, the emotion of leaving prison wasn’t one of euphoria. It was more a sigh of relief. I walked through Belfast City centre thinking everyone knew me. In my head I was screaming ‘do you not know who I am, where I’ve been’  To no one in particular.

I was hungry and walked into a Burger King. Walked out. Walked into a Kentucky. Walked out. Visited several more eating houses and walked out. Why? It was the freedom of having choice. I was salivating with a growling stomach, but my brain would simply not let me order anything.

I then started to think about how much one’s brain had to shut down in prison to avoid confrontation and to fit into the institutional need, and how long would it take to be normal again… if ever there was such a thing.

Criminological Concepts

Rehabilitation, Reintegration, Redemption and Desistance are all well-known words in the world of criminology and academia. So, what was it like ‘living the dream’, freedom and the phenomenology of the afore mentioned processes.

Rehabilitation – “Rehabilitated?’ That’s just a bullshit word. So, you go on and stamp your forms, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.” The inimitable words of Red in The Shawshank Redemption.

Unfortunately, I agree totally, as upon leaving prison I went on to study a Master’s at Queens University and felt no different (apart from being drug free) to how I was before I went in to jail. If anything, I was worse, a ticking time bomb who could hardly walk into a lecture never mind stay the duration. Prison made me like this, so how can I be rehabilitated from an invisible point in time that someone has made up, again, solely to fit the need of the institution.

To be ‘re’- habiltaed one must be habilitated first. Why do we believe that prison does this? Prison is designed to destructure you as a person and starts from a place of harm. It’s a moot point.

Reintegration – I used to despise (and still do) the term: adjusting in relation to leaving prison. Adjust? Adjust to what? How can I adjust to a lifetime of stigma and labelling handed down to me by a dysfunctional system in an alleged democratic society?

To forget who you are

Oscar Wilde suggests – “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.

I found it difficult crossing the road to get to a cafe. When having my first cup of coffee (still couldn’t order food) in a café I found it hard to accept that the owner called me ‘Sir’. Did he not know who I was and from where I had come? Would he have called me ‘Sir’ if he did?

I was lucky in a way, as I’d kept my relationships during my time to immediate family and few select friends. Upon leaving prison, if I hadn’t told the truth I would not have been accepted. My friends told me I was a dickhead, called me names (quite venomous at times) and then asked how they could help?

It’s by no means over and I still have eighteen months left on licence. When socialising I still walk a tightrope, how long does it take to reintegrate? Or, as Shadd Maruna suggests “When will I lose the lepers the bell.” Unclean, bring out the dead… or is it a perpetual state of being a social walking dead.

Redemption and Desistance – Of course I regret and ashamed of what I did, but the price for my crime which I did do is a term of imprisonment and a period on licence. To all intents and purposes, I have still not paid my debt to this alleged society. In fact, the more time I spend in it I must ask where it is.

Trying to get on

Stand it in front of me and I’ll apologise. I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for everything I’ve achieved since leaving prison. Getting into University was a battle as suddenly I was a danger to 20,000 students. Never mind the fact that I’d been free of drugs and further conviction for seven years.

I’d hoped by getting letters after my name that I could use my experience of the criminal justice system alongside a BA and MSc to assist in making our society a better place to live in.

All the fool me. The trouble is that the system does not want me, nor will it ever admit it needs me. They, the system, paid for my undergraduate degree in prison but will they ever let me use it? Still working on that one.

The Problem with Desistance

The Desistance theory is also a tad problematic. Admittedly, I’m lucky enough to have a roof over my head, and family and friends who support me. But why do I desist from crime when my only crime was to enjoy drugs? I desist from addiction which is what led me to crime. I and only I can control that.

One beautiful summer’s day a few years back I was standing doing the dishes in the kitchen. A wave of craving cocaine, a lust for oblivion and roar of fury consumed me and I smashed the plates, and glasses off the wall. I pounded the water screaming ‘fuck it fuck it fuck it – fuck it all, fuck everyone, fuck this.’ I sat on the sofa and cried for an hour. It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last. Only a few weeks ago I had similar meltdown. The truth is – I am the only one who allows me to desist.

The bare facts are as real as they are stark. Prison hurts, harms, destroys and kills and surviving it is a and will be a life-long battle.

This guest blog was written by Michael Irwin, who was incarcerated for six years and dedicated his time in prison to academia and rehabilitation. He wrote the excellent “My Life Began at Forty.” You can follow Michael on Twitter. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers and experts. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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