The 9th of June 2017, 3 years ago today, I was released from prison. No doubt, for most people being released, it is a joyous occasion. For me? Not so much. In fact, it was one of the scariest days of my life. I can hear some ask, “Shouldn’t that be the day you go in and not when you’re set free?” and I don’t blame you. However, this was the first time following a release that I felt I could fail, that I could let people down. Something that with 16 months still left of my sentence I almost achieved, well, actually I did achieve it but I was fortunate I was given a second chance. I should explain.
I had predetermined that this sentence would be my very last. Even I was getting bored with hearing “I promise this is the last time”. As I was being booked in when I was put on remand for this offence a few months prior to being sentenced I even went as far as speaking to the governor on duty about how serious I was and how different things will be this time. I never used to play up through my previous sentences. Not the ones as an adult anyway, nor my first time in 1985 at Her Majesty’s Detention Centre Blantyre House. Imagine as a 15-year-old pulling up to this place with 4 months to serve.
Mark Twain once remarked that he didn’t let schooling get in the way of his education. I sure learnt a lot at this place. ‘Short, Sharp, Shock’ they called it. Looking back it was more like a crash course on prison life. Entering the Youth Custody System less than two years later wasn’t as harrowing as it may have been having already dipped my toe in the waters of incarceration. Reflecting again, it was as if the children’s home was my nursery, detention centre my infants, youth custody my juniors and of course, last but not least my seniors, or even university, prison. Some kids absolutely love school. Some can’t wait for the school holiday to finish so they can get back. Environments can be a funny old thing. Certain people feel comfortable in some environments which others can feel like a fish out of water in and vice versa.
I have slightly digressed, those that know me personally won’t be surprised, but there is a point behind my digression. There came a point in my life where prison become the environment in which I thrived. And thriving in so many different areas. I was a better person in prison than I was in society. I would go as far as to say that I was a somebody in prison. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way or “I’m the daddy” kind of way. My role models were not your typical role models, not at that time anyway. It may seem strange to most but don’t forget I was in my environment. My role models were the likes of Charlie Richardson, Norman Parker, Alan Lord, Noel ‘Razor’ Smith and, especially, Mark Leech. Mark gets a special mention because through his books and writings over the years it was Mark that taught me how to play the system, not try and fcuk it. It took me a while to hone my skills. Having to learn the hard way that knowing too much or saying it the wrong way gets you a ticket on the ghost train.
However, this was the sentence where it all came together, and also where I lost everything once again. The everything had nothing to do with outside life but everything to do with my life on the inside. Within weeks I had gone from this:
I had also literally just received my D-cat when it all came crashing down. I had gone from an enhanced D-cat prisoner, although still in a C-cat, to being sent back to B-cat conditions and on basic for 5 weeks. I couldn’t help myself. I was still playing a game, a risky game. Sitting in my grubby cell, mentally I was a mess. I’d ruined everything. This was my last chance and I’ve ruined it. What’s the point? Two days after my unceremonious return, I was seen by an officer from the Safer Custody Team. Miss. S and I had a long chat. Along with a raft of feelings I was going through, one was shame. I had given it the waffle in reception on day one and here I was, still with 16 month left, sitting with my head in my hands. I had become so stuck in my old prison habits that I’d forgotten I needed to change that attitude as well. To my surprise, Miss S understood what I was saying. To cut a very long story short, this was April 2016, in November 2016 I had a re-categorisation review for my D-cat, I was still in B cat conditions, which was refused with a recommendation to review again in January 2017. Before the January review took place I wrote to the governor explaining my circumstances and that my purpose would be better served if I stayed where I was. I was halfway through my degree module, I was involved in a few projects with the education department which I wanted to finish. He accepted my comments and agreed with me, so I stayed on M wing at HMP Norwich until my release. It was as if what happened, which involved drugs, was the final lesson I needed to learn. As the saying goes the rest is history.
One of the projects I wanted to finish was one in which an English lecturer from the University of East Anglia and I were jointly involved in. JH facilitated a creative writing class. We’d meet every Wednesday afternoon on the third floor of the education block. Each week JH would bring 4 or 5 students from the university in with him to join in with the class. Creative writing is not only a good skill to learn it has the power to do so much more, directly and indirectly. During the class, I noticed that the students were asking occasional questions about prison life, especially at break time. They were genuinely interested, JH told me at the end of one class what the students say to him on the way home or to other students back at the uni. This gave me an idea. Eventually, JH and I with the help of the library and education departments created a forum that included a couple of governors, a few prisoners and a number of students from the university. It was to give students the opportunity to ask questions about their local prison and gave us the opportunity to speak directly to them. Dispelling the many myths that surround our prisons.
Creative writing also had a direct influence on my life. One that continues to do so. Combined with the skills I was picking up writing essays for my degree assignments, creative writing has enabled me to fulfil a dream. Not only that but it has also been a coping mechanism for when things get tough. When that anxiety gets too much, or when the depression gets deeper or the negative self-talk louder. Or are they voices? Rather than wallow or suffer I create.
For different reasons one of my hobbies, well, my only hobby is to research and write about organised crime, in the main historically, however, never to glorify it. Not long after being released from prison, I saw a website called the National Crime Syndicate after clicking on the link I was slightly overwhelmed. However, I took a chance, found their email address and wrote to them with an article I’d written attached saying I would love to write articles for them. In no time at all, I received an email with “you know what this ain’t too bad” and I once again refer to the saying I used earlier. The rest is history (excuse the pun).
Another well-known saying is horses for courses. Mental health sucks. Creative writing and being creative means it doesn’t suck so much.