A Journey Into The Depths Of The Night

Alex Cavendish explores the psychological effects of imprisonment. Alex Cavendish is a former prisoner who blogs @ Prison UK: An Insider's View.

Readers of this blog often ask me about what my experience of imprisonment means to me as an ex-prisoner.

Usually they are facing a prison sentence, sometimes quite long stretches, and are trying to make sense of what is about to happen to them. Or else it could be family members who are anxious over what their loved one might be going through in jail and concerned about how incarceration might change the person they know and care about.

A very dark night
Although it’s relatively easy to describe the basics of prison in a straightforward, factual way, it be can much more difficult to deal with the psychological and emotional impact of confinement. Prison changes everyone. Often for the worse, but sometimes the experience can also provide an opportunity for personal growth and greater self-awareness.

Prison is a voyage of discovery, a journey into the depths of the night, the longest night of the human soul, and maybe it is a wicked thing to say, but it has been a blessing in the heaviest disguise.

I rediscovered these words – written by the English novelist John King – when I was searching through some prison paperwork this morning. I had read his dystopian account of confinement, The Prison House (2004), when I was banged-up in a pretty grim Victorian-era Cat-B prison and this particular sentence really stood out. In fact, it came to mean so much to me that I actually wrote it out on a spare prison envelope and pinned it to my cell notice board next to my bunk. This scrap of paper is one of the survivals from my time inside and I have it on my desk beside me as I’m typing this post.

A blast from the past
Seeing time in prison as a journey appealed to me, as did the idea of using my time inside as a journey of discovery about myself, as well as others. Almost anyone can imagine being deprived of material possessions, decent food and even sympathetic human contact, but really experiencing this for months or even years is entirely another thing. You can never really be sure about the limits of your own endurance until you have explored them.

The view of imprisonment – and human suffering – as a dark night of the soul isn’t new. The 16th century Spanish friar and poet St John of the Cross explored this in his famous poem Dark Night of the Soul. John was no stranger to imprisonment, having been jailed by a faction of his fellow friars who disapproved of his reforming zeal. During the nine months he was imprisoned in the most terrible conditions he was regularly flogged – at least once a week – as well as being nearly starved to death. Those saintly friars really knew a thing or two about dishing out Christian charity. No doubt they would be readers of the Daily Mail nowadays as they seem to have shared similar views on the best way to treat prisoners.
St John of the Cross

Eventually, John managed to break out of his cell, then climbed out of a tiny window and escaped from his torturers. He went on to become one of Spain’s most celebrated poets and religious reformers.

Fortunately, my own time in the slammer didn’t involve physical flogging, but there was a degree of emotional battery, including periods spent in solitary confinement and the realisation of what losing your liberty really means in practice. No longer having any real choices. Not being able to engage directly with family members and friends at will. Obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous or unfair or humiliating they might be. Being told off like a naughty child. Witnessing acts of extreme violence. All of these can have lasting impacts, emotional as well as psychological.

Occasionally, I still get angry about things that occurred in prison, even though I’ve now been out for two years. Not all of these incidents happened to me, but often to those around me. There were acts of gratuitous cruelty, sometimes committed by members of staff, but often between prisoners themselves. Like other closed communities, prison can offer a playground for sadists who enjoy causing pain and hurt to others, so perhaps that should come as no great surprise.

On the other hand, I have also witnessed amazing acts of kindness and selflessness. I’ve written about this phenomenon previously (read here), but it is still worth emphasising again that many prisoners demonstrate a genuine capacity for caring for those around them, especially those who are in distress or suffering from ill-health. Recognising this was also an important part of my own journey through this unfamiliar terrain that I was exploring.

Behind cell doors
Of course, I had my own ‘dark nights’ in my cell. Everyone does. There were nights after the lights had gone out that I genuinely hoped I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Or that if I did, this would all turn out to have been a very long and vivid nightmare.

At times, I was genuinely amazed at how resilient I actually became behind bars. Experiences that I’m sure would have left me crushed or devastated in my previous life could now be endured or even laughed off. I had never really taken Nietzsche’s famous comment “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” seriously before, but it was a common expression amongst prisoners. I doubt that the old German philosopher could have imagined that one of his quotes would become the motto of many prison inmates, but it really has, even if many of those who quote it have no idea of its origins.

I’m sure that testing your own limits is a strong driving force for many explorers and adventurers. Programmes about travelling to distant or inaccessible lands, or else rowing across vast oceans, have become part of the stable diet on television, particularly when some celebrity or other is dragged through the wilderness or the snow. Even US President Barak Obama recently got in on the act (backed up by an enormous retinue of secret service agents and other flunkies who mainly kept out of camera shot).

In some way or other, it is a fascinating experience to pass through some testing ordeal and emerge at the other end a stronger, better or wiser person – preferably all three. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a period of imprisonment might have a similar impact? That is an important question at the time when there is an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of prison sentences.

Read in prison
So could time in prison ever be ‘a blessing in the heaviest disguise’ as John King had his narrator state in The Prison House? Well, in some cases, I think it can be, even when it has been reduced to little more than human warehousing.

I remember men who I’ve met in prison who have overcome a lifetime of literacy with the help of volunteer mentors trained by the Shannon Trust and can now read and write for the first time. I’ve spent time with them in prison libraries while they choose books to read for themselves.

Then there are those who have lived dangerous and chaotic lives on the street who have had the time to reflect on their choices, as well as starting to confront some of their inner demons. Others have actively sought mental health support or help with their dependencies. Some embrace therapy to equip them to better manage their anger and lack of self-control. Many are all too aware of the suffering they have inflicted on others, something that can be very difficult for some people to live with.

However, progress towards rehabilitation can be intense and time-consuming which is why short prison sentences are often counter-productive. Confining people with complex personal and psychological needs to tiny shared prison cells for 23 hours a day will very rarely address any of these issues. It is rather like putting a patient in hospital and then confining them to bed all day with no treatment whatsoever or, in too many cases, without even an initial diagnosis.

No substitute for mental healthcare
If a 5-minute conversation during the reception process with a member of the healthcare team is the total extent of most prisoners’ assessments, it is unsurprising that so much mental illness goes unrecognised and untreated in our prisons, while incidents of self-harm and suicide are increasing annually. The simple truth is that the necessary resources just aren’t there to cope in this era of overcrowding and understaffing.

Exploring our prison system isn’t just about confronting one’s own fears and anxieties during the voyage of discovery. It is also about seeing how others behave and how they are treated – or else how they are warehoused and neglected prior to being released back onto the streets. If we really want people to change for the better and to cut rates of reoffending, then sentencing thousands to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show all day on TVs we rent them for 50p a week really isn’t going to make any difference.

Had I never had these experiences myself, I would never have written so much about prisons and imprisonment based upon my own journey into the depths of the longest night. John King was right. For me, it really has been a blessing, even if it was in the heaviest of disguises.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

6 comments to ''A Journey Into The Depths Of The Night"

  1. Always enjoy reading Alex's articles, but this one made me wonder. Of all the ex-prisoners on TPQ can any of you remember decent screws, ones that had any compassion in them? I know some of them would have been utter bastards but I was wondering if the opposite could also be true?

  2. Quite a few were spot on. Scumbags rare as hen's teeth funnily enough in my personal experience. Some of them were also there as much as we were lol

  3. Most were alright and some were outright decent.

    Jim Peacock (killed by loyalists for being friendly to republicans) was pretty decent: Families usually leave in food parcels (biscuits and fruit) on visiting days. If the parcel is not in your cell by 7pm change of shift you wont get it until next day and biscuits will be bag of crumbs and fruit all crushed. When I got back into my cell one day at 7pm my parcel wasn't there -I banged on the door to try and catch the screws before they went off shift. Jim Peacock came on his shift and was going around the cells doing the head count. He asked why I banged the door I said I was trying to catch the day shift before they left to get parcel -he said leave it with him -I just thought that was the end of that but around 10pm I heard a key go into my door and he opened it and handed me my parcel -I have never heard of that before so took me by surprise -the next time I saw him again was a picture of him on the news -the loyalists killed him for being friendly with republicans. He was just being decent.

    Up in Long Kesh I got 4 hours compassionate parole when my mother was dying. Some people never got it and so you couldn't complain when you did. A couple of republican prisoners were coming in through the circle and heard Governor Hepburn shouting furiously down the phone to the NIO about 4 hours being too short. He got it bumped up to 12 hours without my ever asking him to.

  4. Steve,

    like Christy I came across Jim Peacock. He never gave us hassle. Thought his death was an utter waste. Probably killed because he was available. And there was very little happening in the jails for anybody to get that upset over that they needed to kill to alleviate it.

    During the blanket protest I came across quite a few who were not in the slightest interested in brutality. In the environment in which they worked where the NIO allowed them a free hand to brutalise, those that didn't risked the wrath of their more violent colleagues.

    I'll give you one example I came across.

    During the hunger strike when we were off the no wash but still on the protest, I was coming back from a visit. This screw was there who had messed us about a bit but not too much. We didn't really like him. One of the blanketmen in another wing was in the circle and he had a pretty serious eating problem and had lost a lot of weight. The screw was giving out to him, saying that he had better eat the roast beef sandwiches he had got his wife to make especially for him that morning seeing as he couldn't eat the prison grub. He was scolding the blanketman the way a parent would a child. It has always stayed in my mind when I think back to the place: the moments of human compassion.

    It is like every walk of life: The other side whoever they are is never all bad and our own side whatever it happens to be, is not all good.

    Professor Paul Sonnino observed recently that "Life does not make sense ... Humans are much more complicated than that." Seems there is much wisdom in that.

    One problem with prison staff violence is that no one was ever held to account for it. Throughout the whole blanket protest I think there was one disciplinary action against a screw who came around drunk one night and attacked the youngest blanket man, Ciaran McGillicuddy.

    It is like the RUC torturers - how many in court? Zilch

    Funny enough some of the most humane screws I ever met were ex RUC. I never worked out why.

  5. Speaking of the RUC. My interrogators were threatening that if I don't sign a statement they would arrange for loyalists to kill a member of my family. I was being interrogated up on the second floor and this big uniform cop took me back to my cell when the interrogation was over. When we got onto the landing between the 2 flights of stairs where nobody could see he stopped me and leaned down into my face and a big finger pointing at me he he said "See all that stuff they were saying to you, I hate it when they do that, so when you see your Solicitor you make sure and tell him all that and put in a complaint about them."

  6. Thank guys.

    AM, that is particularly true. Even the most rabid bigots I grew up with ended up marrying across the divide, or just plain got over the nonsense.

    Most people just want to live and let live I suppose. I always think that the people in Ireland north and south have far more in common than divides them.

    Just look at what happens when they go on holiday, EVERYBODY'S IRISH! lol


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