What do you mean ‘no bail’?
“No bail” is a sentence all those who face trial dread. How can a person aged 18 years—who is appearing on first offense charges—not be granted bail until his trial? When the judge appeared for the pre-sentence hearing, the legal team had informed me to plead not guilty to the charges. They needed more time to prepare the case. Sounds easy.
Not knowing what the consequences may become, I follow their advice. I can tell by the look on the judge’s face that something isn’t quite right with the man. The charges are read out, I make the plea.
You will be remanded in custody until your trial date in four weeks.
Holy f**k!! What do I do now?
The answer is made for me. “Bailiffs, take him away.”
This is Belfast in the mid-90s when the peace process negotiations were underway. I appeared in Crumlin Road Courthouse, which is connected to the adult prison via an underground tunnel. So, the journey to the Hilton wasn’t too far! The Crumlin Road Prison (Europe’s Alcatraz) has housed some of the most dangerous and violent men over the decades. It’s now a tourist attraction. Jesus, I wish I was a tourist now.
How was an 18-year-old going to settle in these surroundings? The answer was simple. Give me all your clothes and stand there. After the humiliation, fingerprinting, and prison-issue clothes are given. I’m shown a new bedroom (cell). I never saw such a confined space. It was no bigger than a child’s Wendy house. I’m kidding, but f**k, it was small. The amenities were as follows: a bed and bible. Now, this is when I began to consider how to manage the experience.
The Basement and Bible
While awaiting sentence I was placed in what is known as the basement in Crumlin Road Prison. It’s where most remand prisoners are held while awaiting trial. There is no natural sunlight. Every day is the same as the next. Locked up for most of it, get out for 30 minutes of exercise, rinse, and repeat. If this was a factory line, you could do this with your eyes closed. The boredom was painful. A day here was like a week. However, all actions carry consequences and this was the start of mine.
The silence was deafening in this underground bunker. All I could do to balance my mind was to exercise in the cell. If there was a world championship in press-ups, I was winning them!
I was unaware of who else was sharing this basement with me, but we were served food through a hatch in the door. This is not Mc Donald’s drive-thru. As I lay awake at night, I kept replaying in my mind what would happen next. These are times when you need to get comfortable in your thoughts and headspace, or you will go to the dark side.
“Courage is knowing what not to fear” ~~Plato
The Arrival of Trial Day
I’m wide awake but don’t know what time it is. I hear the jingle of keys, it must be breakfast time. I wonder if I will get a special breakfast today, as it could be my final time in the basement. Not a chance! This is a prison. The guard opens the hatch and informs me that he will be back at 10 am to take me across to the courthouse. Decision day has arrived.
How many feelings can an 18-year-old experience in 2.5 hours? Is this fear, dread, anxiety, worry, judgment, or all of the above I’m feeling? Jesus, I didn’t even know what way I was supposed to be feeling. The fear of the unknown can be worse than the actual fear itself. Either way, I was calmer as the time approached. At least the outcome of a decision would be made. The door opens the guard asks me to follow him. I will take a shower and be given my clothes back. I pulled the prison-issue clothes off like they were on fire. Then the questions started to consume me:
- What would the judge say?
- What if he imposes a custodial sentence?
- How would I cope in a young offenders’ centre?
- How are my family and those close to me feeling? I didn’t want any of them in court, as it would only make matters worse.
Going Underground and the Courthouse
When I reflect on the men who have walked through the tunnel over the decades for some of the most vicious crimes I get a quick oh f**k moment! Yet, here I was—aged 18 years—traveling this very route, supported via old Victorian brickwork to reinforce impact from the weight of traffic above. The tunnel is dimly light, and no more than 100 meters long. The walk felt like an eternity. We reach the end, another large bolted door awaits us.
The legal team informs me to change my plea to guilty as there’s a real chance of a suspended sentence.
“Are you sure?” I asked them.
“No, but it’s your first offense, so we expect leniency,” they replied.
“That’s fine,” I agreed. “I will continue with your advice.”
I enter the dock through a stairwell underneath. The courtroom has both legal teams and the police officers who made the arrest.
The judge enters. I feel like passing out. How did I end up here? Actions have consequences.
As he reads through the three charges I plead guilty to each one.
Taking all the factors of the above, and the change of plea, the judge declared, “I now sentence you to 18 months in custody!”
Due to the 50% rule, I will serve a minimum of nine months in custody. What the f**k just happened? I was thinking about going out with friends, watching sport, and having a few beers. Change of plan.
“Take him away.”
Those three words can render you powerless.
Watch Your Step and the number
I’m taking down the stairwell and back through the tunnel. They place me in a holding cell to prepare all paperwork for the transfer. The handcuffs are placed on me, and it’s time to go. The mode of transport is what we term a horsebox. It’s a reinforced van with no windows, and 8-10 miniature boxes inside — the Smurfs would struggle in there!
You are placed in the box, and off you go. The journey across the city was a lifetime in the making, although it’s only 20 minutes. I hear the sound of large gates opening and murmured voices. We arrive at what will be my home for the next nine months. “Watch your step,” they warned as we exit the van to make our way into check-in.
This is about as serious as it gets at aged 18 years. Here we go again.
“Give me your clothes. Put these on. Stand front, and address me as sir. “
I hadn’t used the word “sir” since school. Now, I had to use it every day. After the guards communicated all the rules and regulations, they gave me a prison number. When a guard asks a question I was to say the following; surname, number, and sir. If we didn’t say “Yes sir,” we’d be put in the block, solitary confinement, for insubordination. This was how respect and discipline are to be instilled. You play the game, or you face the consequences. Let’s play ball!
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway” ~~John Wayne
Existing to a Schedule
The schedule in all the inmate houses is determined by sentenced served or good behaviour, all work to a schedule. The schedule saw me get up at 7.30 am and go to bed at 7.30 pm. The day was made up of work placements/vocational training/exercise combined with lunch and periods of shorter lock-up in your cell. The bed was to be made in pristine condition every morning so much so that now, it’s second nature. The cell was to be kept very tidy. Some of the best memories I recall were on inspection day. I never witnessed so much panic in 18-year-olds to tidy a room!
I was assigned to the bricklayer’s workstation initially. However, given a real fitness/training background in sports, I set my sights on the gym orderly position. There, you’d train in the gym or played soccer all day. Getting noticed or recommended for it was another matter. How would I get the lead officer in the house on my side? I put my hand up for everything over the next three months. If there was something that needed to be done, I was to the fore.
I just hoped all this effort wouldn’t go unnoticed. It’s a late Friday afternoon. The door knocks and the guard asks me to accompany him to the office located in the bubble, a large monitored room with reinforced glass that can see into the four landings.
What had I done?
The lead officer surprises me. “The job of gym orderly is coming up next week and I wanted to know if you would be interested?”
Excitement flows all over my body. Stay calm, don’t show enthusiasm.
“It would,” I reply.
“I will put your name forward. However, the final decision rests with the physical education staff.”
The weekend was long, even though I had a visit from the family. The visits I started to resent, as they made you imagine life outside the walls. when your focus needs to be the here and now. We take our usual positions in each work line as usual on Monday morning. I see the guard moving towards me. “You’re being moved today”. “Where to”? “The gym”. Mission complete!
Discovering a Passion
It would be hard to describe how I felt getting up every morning to work in the gym. Even though I was denied my liberty, I don’t recall feeling ungrateful for the opportunity. The physical/mental strength went to another level. How could it not? This was akin to preparing for the Olympic Games. Leaving school with no formal education, I started to get interested in studying and learning about fitness and strength training while working in the gym. Fortunately, for me, you could undertake vocational courses within the walls.
Now, the real motivation about doing something positive with your life upon release needs to start. I enrolled and completed a range of courses at levels 1 and 2 in fitness, business, and coaching. The gym provided a solid platform to put your learning into practice. I felt like a new man with all the new skills and knowledge I had acquired. How would I sustain this upon release? What courses would I do? Where will this lead?
Whoa! You need to finish your sentence first before you get too far ahead of yourself.
The End Has Arrived
What started in a basement with no sunlight, missing President Clinton’s visit to the Falls Road (West Belfast) during peace talks, missed birthdays, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, freedom for ten months, and loved ones. The day had arrived. I was going home. Strangely enough, I was less excited than I know I should have been. The walls can play tricks on you.
How different would life on the outside be? This is a thought all ex-offenders must face when leaving the walls behind. Life moves on without you. You either embrace that early or, your thoughts will take you to painful places.
After saying goodbyes to fellow inmates, gathering the brown bag of clothes, money from work earnings, and all certificates I had achieved, the gates opened. What sort of impact would this experience have on me? It was time to step back into the unknown and find out.
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