Former prisoner Michael Irwin asks ‘Will I ever lose the leper’s bell?

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Northern Ireland man Michael Irwin, who served six years of a 12-year prison sentence for cocaine importation, argues that he has served his sentence to society but poses the question will society ever forgive and forget his criminal conviction?

By Michael Irwin

My conjured image is not one of a tattily shrouded, crouched and hooded leper hobbling along misty cobbled streets toting his bell but more Peter Sellers’ ludicrous Quasimodo disguise in the 1976 film The Pink Panther Strikes Again and the scene where the hump inflates and the ever unfortunate Clouseau floats over the rooftops of Paris lamenting ‘ahh, the bells, the bells’. I often use images like this as a type of coping mechanism when I find myself in challenging situations, after all, mental health is no laughing matter.

In May 2017 I found myself in The Royal Victoria Hospital with an abscess on a perforated bowel caused by diverticulitis. Three days into the treatment I’m on the mend physically but what I wasn’t prepared for was the complete mental breakdown/psychotic episode caused by a night nurse accidentally shining a torch in my face. Nothing bad about that you might think but the trouble for me was that it sent my mind back to prison. Whilst serving four years of my 12-year prison sentence I had the pleasure of staying in HMP’s Maghaberry and Magilligan where the night staff shone a torch in one’s face or turned the light on and made verbal requests for a body to move – every hour on the hour.

After three referrals and four assessments it has been suggested that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and I started therapist sessions using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in August 2018. As much as I welcome the treatment, my experience demonstrates how overstretched the NHS is and how another state-funded institution (prisons) can cause these mental health issues.

The institution of prison is based on a mixed method of military and medical care. I use the term ‘care’ loosely as how can you be cared for when being punished. How can good come from harm?

I spent the first two years of my sentence in four different prisons in England and Wales. They seldom did these checks and in practice only if a prisoner was vulnerable.

I pleaded with the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) that this intrusion at night was, in reality, making me and others ‘vulnerable’, creating ideations of suicide and self-harm and causing me mental health problems.

Admittedly, in recent years, there has been a noticeable shift and realisation that more needs to be done when returning prisoners back to society and I welcome and applaud that.

I was fortunate enough to complete an Open University degree in Criminology and Psychological Studies at a cost of approximately £8000 to the NIPS. I went on to complete a Master’s and yet, ironically, I can’t get a job in criminal justice. My safe space in prison was education and I take some solace in the fact that I can share my experience of prisons and academia voluntarily with the great and the good. I’m still suffering from mental health issues despite being out of prison for five years and four months.

Mental health issues are often exacerbated by prisons and for me, the military model of care doesn’t exactly help. Upon entering prison, you are stripped, showered and given an institutional number that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Prison, a bit like the army, is meant to break one down to fit its specific need and then rebuild. The problem is prison forgets to rebuild. Ironically, many former Army personnel end up in prison as they too are left on the scrap heap once they’ve done their time. Prison only really comes into the psyche if it happens to someone you know.

The playwright Oscar Wilde in the letter De Profundis (which he wrote during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol), says: “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.”

And, what Wilde says is even more relevant today due to technology and social media. There is nowhere to hide or disappear and one must continually carry this stigma of criminal, the label of ‘the prisoner’ and a perceived threat to society. It’s a lifelong sentence. There is no such thing as paying one’s debt as society continues to punish you, long after completion of the sentence handed down by society via the courts.

In Northern Ireland, if you serve more than two and a half years in prison your conviction will never be spent.

My friend and I went to a job fair in The Europa Hotel in Belfast two years ago. We approached various employers and asked what their policy was on employing former prisoners. Most didn’t know and those who did would only entertain an application after a declaration of a spent conviction and then depending on the crime itself.

Therefore, social death is a reality for most people who leave prison. Mental health is only one of the many harms inflicted upon Northern Ireland’s returning citizens. Is it any wonder I feel as if I’ll never lose the leper’s bell.

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