Life as a Number? Beyond the Gates and Starting Over

Published 26/07/2023
Author(s) Michael J Mc Cusker


A Series of Voices: Twenty Years on From “Making Good” – Entry 1

A sentence, for those who have spent time in prison is something they all dread. How can someone who is appearing on first offence charges (aged 18 years) 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.

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.

I’m taken 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.

Here we go again. Give me your clothes. Put these on. Stand in front and address me as sir. I hadn’t used the word, sir, since school. Now, I had to use it every day. After all the rules and regulations are communicated you are given a prison number. When a guard asks a question, you will say the following: surname, number, and sir.

I set my sights on the gym orderly position. Why? You trained in the gym or played football 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 3 months. If there was something that needed to be done, I was to the fore. 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. How would I sustain this upon release? What courses would I do? Where will this lead?

These are thoughts all former prisoners 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. Leaving the young offenders’ centre behind at aged 19, I wasn’t aware of how my criminal record would affect me. After spending 3 years in further education college the pathways to university opened.

The University application was a lot more robust to complete and as I worked my way through each page with anticipation and excitement, I almost missed the question former prisoners all fear: Do you have any criminal convictions spent or unspent? Now, here I am aged 23 years with a feeling of real dread deep in my stomach, asking myself the real question; what do I do with this box? The feelings overcame me, and I felt sick. Where do I go from here? It was clear I needed assistance. Time to book an appointment with citizen’s advice. Making this decision on my own was impossible.

In my head, I wanted to tick the box that said unspent as this was transparent. However, I knew by doing this it might also mean I wasn’t accepted, which was so hard to digest. The guidance from citizen’s advice? Leave the box blank and let the (university) decide on the outcome. I started wrestling with this advice. I felt uneasy lying on the form. But finally relented knowing the outcome was yet to come.

The BSc (Hons) Degree in Sports, Exercise, and Leisure started in September 2001, and I was having an unbelievable time, meeting new people, learning new skills, and going for the odd beer or two! Not 3 weeks into the course, I got a letter to the house requesting I attend a meeting at 2.30 pm on Friday at the University with the Admissions Panel. At that moment I felt like I was back in court with the judge passing the custodial sentence. Waiting outside the room on Friday I knew this could only go two ways: (1) you stay on the course, or (2) your days at the University are over. I opened the door and there was a panel of 4 people (fear wouldn’t cover the feelings). I sat down knowing the question they were going to ask me: Why didn’t you tick the box?

It was during this time that I reflected on what had gone before, and what a rejection would mean for my career opportunities moving forward. If they said no, how would any other University say yes? (This wasn’t Dragon Den). To this day I’m so grateful that I was accepted onto the course. So, you can start over, you just need people to believe in you.

You can follow Michael’s work on Twitter @turnaroundproj