Right Side Up: A Prison Nightmare, by Michael Irwin

In and around the 19th of June I normally write an annual blog reflecting on the previous year and how far I’ve come (or not) since my release from prison on June 19th 2013. This year was slightly different so forgive me (for those who actually give a shit) for the delay. What was so different this year? A bloke turned up with a camera!


I’d normally be doing this on my own blog, but because I am so passionate about the Injustice Film and the work that Lee is doing I’ve decided to stick it on here.

I’ve been filmed before – Prison Smart, a live broadcast on The Victoria Derbyshire Show, a few radio interviews and many talks and lectures at Universities, Government and other gatherings – namely the pub. I thought it would be a breeze. Boy did I ever get that wrong. Thanks to the interviewing skills of the director he opened me up like a tin opener. My truth and experiences were laid bare and it took me a while to get my head round it all. I hasten to add that no animal was hurt or injured during filming. A bit exhausted but not hurt.

As I said, I was building up to write my blog when I noticed via Twitter that a documentary on ‘Prison’ was coming up at the end of July on Channel 4. In my profound wisdom/laziness I thought ‘oh, I’ll wait until I see the documentary and write a bit about that and my experiences of life after prison five years after release.’ Was going to write after last weeks episode but thought I’d best wait until the second part last night. I’m glad that I did as what I’m about to delve into is only one part of an extremely difficult and complex issue. It’s only an idea but I think that anyone who has an interest in this or writes a blog should pic a topic in relation to the documentary and then someone should collate them and make a book for future students et al. I cried my eyes out at both episodes. Great documentary @Paddywivell.

Safer Custody in prison is only one of the many contentious policies in her Majesty’s Prison Service. For me, and I stress ‘me’ as everyone is different and deals with prison in a different way, it was the night checks. The reason I was drawn back to this was the bloke in the first episode who was spiked in the yard. He was pleased that he was spiked as he got a free hit and it was another day he didn’t have to live through. For all intent and purposes, he ‘escaped’.

On the surface this might seem like a logical enough statement. In fact, during my six-year stay in six different establishments I considered getting wiped for a year or two and then digging myself out of the drug-induced fugue at a later date. What is it that drives one to even consider this?  Try and think of the longest time you’ve went without a full night’s, ‘uninterrupted’ sleep. Think of how confused and disoriented you were or maybe still are. Now stick yourself in the environment you witnessed on the wings in episode one.

I’ll not waste time with all of the detail, as I spent four years researching sleep deprivation and the harmful effects it has on a human being. I eventually took a Judicial Review against the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Most of us will have minor grasp of the intricacies of law and yet my barrister told me that due to legal aid restrictions if it had not been for my own due diligence and research the case would never have made it before a judge. I took issue with a lot of opposing argument as we both used the same literature yet came to different conclusions. One part in particular the Prison service claims

“The respondent justifies the night checking policy on the basis that the vast majority of prisoners who commit suicide have not previously been identified as being at risk and are not subject enhanced supervision. And it relies upon the observation in the WHO report, exhibited at page 190, that the profile of those who do commit suicide is more ‘normal’ than that of those who will attempt suicide.

The thing is, I read the same report and the same paragraph. The manipulation of words is quite clever, here’s the whole paragraph:

“Profiles Can Change Over Time

Profiles may be useful for identifying potentially high-risk groups that may need further screening and intervention. As successful suicide prevention programmes are implemented, high-risk profiles may change over time.18 Similarly, unique local conditions may alter the traditional profile of high-risk inmates in any particular correctional setting. Therefore, profiles should be used only as an aid to identify potentially high-risk groups and situations. Whenever possible, they should be developed to reflect local conditions, and regularly updated to capture any changes that may occur. Risk factors are no fool-proof predictors and should not be used without careful clinical assessment. What is particularly confusing, when trying to screen at risk prisoners, is that the profile of those who will eventually die from suicide looks more “normal” than the profile of those who will attempt suicide.” (Department of Health and Substance Abuse World Health Organisation 2007, Preventing Suicide in Jails, WHO Press, 20 Avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland)

I’ve been reliably informed that if another prisoner took this to judicial review the outcome may be different.

Why do I care about ‘duty of care’? It’s quite simple really. Safer Custody policy is causing suicide and giving prisoners a mental illness. There is of course a very fine line that prison officials have to tread, as when someone does kill themselves there will be an investigation by police, prisoner ombudsman and coroner. There will then be the inevitable question “why was he not checked?” Without checks the authorities can be held culpable for manslaughter, so in their eyes it’s much easier to check everyone, at the risk of losing the odd night’s sleep and being a bit grumpy.

I worked as a Listener in prison and was trusted by a lot of staff and prisoners. One day a prison officer came in to my cell and asked me to go have a word with a fella who refused to come out of his cell or engage. I was the servery guy and had seen the fella come on to the wing about a week ago. He’d only came to collect his food a couple of times and was very jittery. I knocked his door and asked if I could come in for a chat. We had a cup of tea and I told him he’d nothing to worry about. Nobody would harm him on this wing. He told me that he didn’t fear others he feared what he would do to others. He lit rip with all his frustration and I just sat there hoping I didn’t get a dig in the gob. His problem was that he hadn’t had a night’s sleep since he arrived in prison two months previous and felt he was going insane. Welcome to my world, I thought, and there wasn’t really a lot I could do for him.

Around the same time back in 2011 The Tonight Programme aired ‘Inside Insomnia

The same week I had to go to a safer custody meeting. I hastily drafted a response to the night checks stating that the night checks were causing suicide and giving people a mental illness namely ‘insomnia’. I wrote to the two Professors from the programme and they kindly replied and directed me to some research. I think these two references are self-explanatory.

Chronic Insomnia is described as

disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts at least three months. Chronic insomnia disorders can have many causes. Changes in the environment, unhealthy sleep habits, shift work, other clinical disorders, and certain medications could lead to a long-term pattern of insufficient sleep. People with chronic insomnia may benefit from some form of treatment to help them get back to healthy sleep patterns. Chronic insomnia can be comorbid, meaning it is linked to another medical or psychiatric issue, although sometimes it’s difficult to understand this cause and effect relationship.” https://sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/content/what-is-insomnia

“If insomnia was hypothesized to have a causal link with the above disorders, the relationship would probably best fit into the diathesis–stress model (Monroe & Simons, 1991). In such a case, the stress created by insomnia aggravates or serves as a catalyst for the development of a predisposed disease (e.g., depression) or action (i.e., suicide). One could imagine a scenario where someone overwhelmed with the hopelessness they feel regarding nightly insomnia and spending hours awake ruminating on depressive cognitions could be pushed into a depression.  If this is the case, practitioners may be negligent when they fail to treat insomnia.  The aggressive treatment of insomnia could either delay onset or decrease severity of the resulting condition, thus reducing health costs, improving quality of life, and increasing life span” Monroe, S. M., & Simons, A. D. (1991). Diathesis-stress theories in the context of life stress research: Implications for the depressive disorders. Psychological Bulletin, 110(3), 406-425.

Of course, the chair of this meeting had to be my arch nemesis, the Deputy Governor. His pontificated response was along the lines of, that’s all very well and good Michael, but I wouldn’t believe everything you see on the TV (ho, ho, ho) and will you now please leave the meeting.

A couple of years later I had to explain to the new Governor why I was in bed with a blindfold on as I was going to be charged with not obeying a direct order from staff and not taking it off at night. It wasn’t a blindfold it was a knee strap I used for the gym, which I proceeded to demonstrate. I can only imagine what the poor Governor was thinking. They eventually moved me to another wing where headcounts at night were not carried out. Yes, that’s right. There are wings were people are not checked at night because they are deemed low risk and conform to regimes. I think the latter part was my downfall.

Upon release I attended many a gathering of the great and the good and was assured, in fact, promised, that the night check issues would be addressed and reviewed so that low risk prisoners were not made high risk due to lack of sleep.

A few weeks ago I met a guy on a train who’d just been released from prison after one week on remand. I asked him about the night checks. They are still every hour on the hour and staff still need to see movement. They shine a torch in your face and if you are not woken by this your door gets kicked and you are then shouted at in the most politest of ways to “wake the fuck up you cunt”.

I sincerely believe that the lack of sleep over a six-year period in prison has damaged me beyond repair and caused my mental health issues today. I recall the House of Lords having to do a 24-hour session and described sleep deprivation as tantamount to torture.

Knowingly inflicting a mental illness on a person in your care makes the phrase ‘duty of care’ totally defunct. Another glorious sound bite in the land of prison Narnia. The Prison documentary illuminates the hell of prison, and luckily enough there are people like me who can focus on one particular aspect of the prison regime and give the general public a bit more detail from the lived experience. Does anyone really expect a person to go to prison and not come out damaged in some shape or form? I mean seriously! The battle goes on and I will continue to fight and claw my way out of the damaged goods department and one day will end the right side up.