A prisoner is coming to the end of a three and a half year sentence. He has laid the foundations to turn his life around. He has learnt that it feels good to help others. He enjoys the status he has in the group and the younger cons look up to him. I have observed him giving quiet encouragement to a fellow inmate during a training course. I do not intervene. He handles it well. I praise him in front of the group as this particular meeting will be his last. He looks chuffed as he receives applause from his peers, us and the officer.
He is clean. He is sober. He is apprehensive but the system has provided him with bail accommodation, intensive contact for the first week of his release. His fears result from poor coping strategies resulting from a life in care and then prison. But he is looking forward to giving in a lash “on the out” anyway.
The following day he is making his way to collect his breakfast when the Wing Officer pulls him aside to inform him that to get sorted out as he will be leaving today because the jail is at capacity.
He is given the address of a B and B. There is no room at the hostel for ten days. There is no one available to support him except for a cursory check. There will be no mentoring or counselling. He is on his own. The gate staff feel so bad that they have a whip round.
I am sitting in the Bus Station. He comes up to me. He is excited to see me. And Cled whom he has never met but holds legendary status in the group. But he is very drunk and holding a carrier full of Special Brew. His excitement quickly turns to shame as he relates to me the events of the last few days. He is staying with “friends”. The people who he was desperate to escape. I ask the question and yes, he is using. I tell him to ring the centre. We are here for him. I know he never will as I watch him leap onto a bus in a manner which causes a shimmer of disgust to ripple down the queue.
A bitter memory comes to me. That of the boy sitting in Belfast Central Station in February 1987 feeling completely and desolately alone. My phone beeps jolting me out of my reverie. It’s our kid. A question about sport. I look at the book in my hand. I reflect on the joyous nature of the new Muse record and how art and literature are my coping mechanisms. I look forward to picking my son up from school and going home to a loving environment. All of these things mean that that boy in Belfast was never truly alone, never really left with no support or safety net.
Not like him.
A flick of a bureaucrats pen. That’s all it took to wreck any sliver of hope.