Let Them Out And Throw Away The Key by Michael Irwin

“Prisoner (22) dies at Northern Ireland Jail” – This is a minor line in The Belfast Telegraph today: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/prisoner-22-dies-at-northern-ireland-jail-37266751.html
My first reaction is choking back the tears, sadness, revulsion and anger. Who’s my anger directed it and why should I care. The word ‘care’ is highly relevant here. The sanitised bog standard reply by the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) is almost predictable as I’ve heard it so many times.

Stormont Primark
Stormont Primark

The names of the people in charge change and the names and ages of the prisoners change. Apart from that, nothing changes. A justice spokesperson states how ‘concerned’ they are that another person has died in prison.
Perhaps these so called MLA’s (Members of the Legislative Assembly) should be concerned as there has been no government in Northern Ireland for approx. 600 days and the majority of people in this country are repulsed by the whole bloody lot of them.
This is one of the reasons why the word ‘care’ is so important. Politicians are more concerned about lining their own pockets and care not a jot about prisons. I mean why should they, a few of them have been there and know how dysfunctional it is. Without political leadership there is nobody to sign what money is left to appropriate institutions.


I seriously believe that some bright young lawyer person could hold them in breach of some sort of democratic duty legislation type thing as they have to provide adequate funding to the NIPS (The Northern Ireland Prison Service) enabling them to provide a legal ‘duty of care’ to people in its care – namely living prisoners.
Duty of care, death in custody, prisons in crisis and all the politique that goes with that is not unique to our four jurisdictions of an ever so United of Kingdoms. It’s global, a global crisis but for the purpose of this blog I’ll keep it local. If such a fantastic job is being done and so many lessons have been learned from so many deaths, then why are people still killing themselves in jail?

Two things strike me from my lived experience. What happens when you’re doing time and what happens after you’ve done your time. Firstly, my biggest problem was the night checks. How can you expect a human being to function as a rational living person if they cannot get enough sleep at night?

Prison policy determines that a person should be observed within their cell, that all is well, and movement is observed (not sure about the last part but I know that staff still abide by this). This involves shining a torch into a darkened cell when someone is sleeping and obviously doing their best not to shine the torch directly in the prisoners face several times to make sure they wake up and movement can be observed.

Staff are also awarded the opportunity to switch on the light if they are ‘concerned’ and think that something ain’t right (another get out of jail free card). Failing that, staff can revert to both of the above and wrap door with keys or gently tap said door with boot.

This used to happen every hour on the hour until 2011 when I took out a Judicial Review. They did change the policy, but I was informed by a guy who just left prison last month that the staff in HMP Magahaberry are still performing checks every hour on the hour. The guy was a mess and had only done one week on remand. Take a moment to think about that.

Belfast Telegraph



Imagine having little or no sleep for years on end. What’s basically happening is that because of culpable manslaughter law a Governor of a prison cannot be held ‘culpable’ for the death of a prisoner if checks are carried out as referred to in the policy. In layman’s terms duty of care is killing the people in its care so that a Governor does not end up a permanent fixture in his own house.

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This policy in particular has caused me to now suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the medication and long term psychological therapy that goes with this type of trauma. Our society, yes that’s you, are paying for all this and prisons. This is what taxes are for. People say prison doesn’t matter and there are no votes in prison. They bloody well should because there is no doubt that government policies and lack of leadership has caused these problems and they are not going away. Or, lock em up and throw away the key.
Secondly and finally, the dreaded ‘re’ word. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched The Shawshank Redemption released in 1995. Certainly, the first few times were long before I went to prison in 2007. There was then and now one scene that reverberates through everything that I do today. The pointless futility of prison and surviving it upon release, enmeshed in politique of alleged spokespersons for a similarly dubious and somewhat un-democratic society; the cards are stacked in this game.

Ellis Boyd Redding
Ellis Boyd Redding

“Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated?


Red – Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means […] To me, it’s just a made up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job […] Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.”


Full interaction can be found at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/quotes

In 1974 the government passed the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA), a law which enables some people after a period of time not to declare their previous convictions. It was designed to protect people from discrimination, particularly when applying for employment. However, a number of factors have made this legislation practically obsolete.
The original ROA only benefits a limited number of people, and even then, only after an excessive period of time. Anyone sentenced to over 30 months can never be legally considered rehabilitated, and a person sentenced to just one day in prison would be required to be disclose their conviction for seven years. This means former prisoners, after paying their legal debt to society, will furthermore be labelled as criminal and never having a spent conviction lends itself to the term ‘social death’. The debt is never paid nor, can it be in law.

Unlock logo


After a long period of campaigning Unlock charity were able to reduce the time that a person had to declare their conviction a simple guide to be found here – hub.unlock.org.uk/knowledgebase/a-simple-guide-to-the-roa/


The most important bit for me (and many like me) is that if you serve more than four years in prisons your conviction will never be spent. Here in Northern Ireland we have still not caught up and it’s anyone serving two and a half years a conviction will never be spent.

Everything involved with prison uses the term ‘re-‘, recidivism, reintegration, redefined, repay and the most dreaded ‘rehabilitation’. The sole purpose of prison is to return a body to society ‘better’ than from whenst they came – can someone please explain to me how this is done from a place of harm.

Given what I’ve described previously, how can you expect me to come out fixed? Others whose normal habitat is from a socially deprived neighbourhood steeped in alcohol, drugs, violence and abuse, a normal way of life, a society. Let us return a person to that environment even more damaged than when they went in.
The current reports in media across the prison estate in England and Wales describes how this very same Government are having to do a complete U-turn on the decisions ‘they’ have made to reduce the cost of prison. You can’t blame Brexit on this one guys. I served in England and Wales from 2007 – 2009 and even then, staff shortages were rife, wings were being lost and suicide of prisoners was a regular occurrence.
When will we realise it’s not prison itself that’s the problem. It’s the institution of prison. Its illogical logic is in itself it’s saviour. It’s survived for a couple of hundred years within political and societal change. Many things have changed in our modern world but the core principles of the institution of prison has not. So, forgive me please when it comes to ‘that’ word – “its just a bullshit word…” and let’s face it our current political climate is a bit bullshit.
This is all ok for me to harp on but remember one thing. I followed the redemptive path. I got a degree in prison which cost the prison/you £7000. I got out and did a Masters which cost my Father £4000 Tuition fees and weekly allowance to live on and pay bills as the government does not provide fur students in full time education.
The only place I’d be suitably employed would be within the criminal justice system, yet they can’t employ me as I’ve served more than four years and will never have a spent conviction nor be rehabilitated in the eyes of the law. And so, the money making machine of crime and punishment continues. I say, “let them out and throw away the key”.

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