Prose for the cons: How prisoners at Magilligan have launched a newspaper
From articles protesting at not being allowed to bring a pet budgie into jail to news and sports reports, inmates from across the divide have united to go to press.
They're more accustomed to making the news than writing it but now prisoners in a Northern Ireland jail are writing the headlines rather just featuring in them.
Inmates including convicted terrorists, sex offenders and drug smugglers as well as low-level criminals at Magilligan prison on the north coast have combined to produce their own newspaper with a name that's a play on the title of the Time Out publications — they're calling their’s Time In.
And it contains the ultimate in inside stories, featuring a collection of articles about life in the jail, together with poems, drawings and jokes, some of which will be seen as black humour or being in questionable taste depending on the reader's sensitivities.
The names of most of the Time In contributors won't mean a lot to the general public.
But two prominent loyalists wrote for the Magilligan magazine.
Loyalist Mark Harbinson, who was jailed for sex offences, has been freed from Magilligan since writing his article in which he reveals he is working on a book about his life.
But his article for Time In is one of several tributes from inmates to Australian Mike Moloney who was the head of the Prison Arts Foundation before he tragically died in April after an accident at his home.
Harbinson wrote of how Mike had encouraged him with his plans for a book.
He added: “Ireland is a much poorer place with Mike's sad passing. He trail-blazed through the most difficult times of our recent past, helping all who crossed his path. Mike and his team have saved lives. I should know. I was one of the lucky ones.”
The other loyalist featured in the newspaper is former DUP councillor William Wilkinson who was found guilty of rape.
The words of a song which he wrote about gambling appear in the newspaper and Wilkinson is also listed as a proof-reader for the publication.
Christy Nash, from Londonderry, who was convicted of hiding guns for dissident republicans, is credited as the newsletter's deputy editor.
Author Gavin Weston, who visits the jail to administer the Prison Arts Foundation's creative writing classes, is the man behind the newsletter and he says in an editorial that the publication was designed to provide a platform through which Magilligan inmates could share news, poems, jokes and advice.
He says that since the foundation was set up in 1996, around 20% of prisoners had enrolled in writing, drama, music, crafts, art and dance classes.
“Much of the success was due to Mike Moloney's commitment and drive to ensure that prisoners' minds are not locked up during their incarceration,” he says. Weston, who used to write on the arts for the Sunday Times, tells me he believes the initiative has been a positive one.
“I think that some good has come out of it. Many of the men are really knuckling down and enjoying it. When I first suggested the idea, some of the prisoners looked at me as if I had two heads.
“Now when I go in, they are busily working away and the place is really like a mini-newspaper office. They're taking it seriously and discussing editorial issues for the newsletter before decisions are taken on a democratic committee basis. Politics don't come into it at all.”
Weston also takes an arts class in Magilligan and the prisoners' work features in Time In.
“The standard is very, very good,” he says.
Last year, a review team recommended that Magilligan should shut and another prison should be built in a more central location.
But a few months ago Justice Minister David Ford announced a new jail would be constructed on the current site, as part of a new £200m strategy for prisons here.
The Time In newsletter is more about light-hearted and literary content than about controversial issues but in a number of articles the men on the inside answer the questions that people on the outsider might ask — particularly about perceptions that they're living on easy street.
A prisoner who conducted the interviews formulated a question thus: “We get three square meals handed to us every day, practically free TV, free electric, heating, gym etc. We get our laundry done for us and on top of that we get £20 a week for tobacco and coffee to sit around all day talking rubbish. What would you say to the ordinary members of our civil society who fund this laidback lifestyle of ours are under the impression that we are in here suffering?”
Belfastman Tony McCann (28), an accountant serving three years for hijacking, replied that prisoners deserved to be treated as human beings. He added: “The British Government spends millions on war that promotes violence. So why not spend a small percentage of the budget on rehabilitation of criminals because if they're treated normally and given proper help, there is less chance of them coming back.”
He added that his plans on getting out of jail were “to get back into work and see my daughter”.
Desy Kelly (23), who was sentenced to five years for armed robbery, said life in Magilligan wasn't as difficult as it seemed. But he added: “If you don't get visits it's hard. Your freedom is gone, no family to talk to and at the end of the day you're locked behind a door with no one but yourself, so that is jail reality.”
In an article headlined ‘Doing Bird’, another prisoner, who was identified only as PM, complained about the fact that he wasn't allowed to bring his budgie with him after he was transferred from Maghaberry prison.
He said: “I have asked a few times as to why I wasn't allowed to keep the bird but I never got a sensible answer.
“The birds are invaluable in terms of the well-being of prisoners. When you are concerned about your bird's well-being you seem to forget for a while that you are indeed in a prison yourself.”
Elsewhere in the publication another story centred on the formation of a Magilligan band called Barred. “Although still in the early stages of development, we have managed to gather together some of the most talented musicians in the prison. We also have some of the best writers, so
most of the songs we do are original,” said the article.
It also revealed that the band — tutored by the Prison Arts Foundation's Paddy Nash, who visits Magilligan on a regular basis — have recorded a song for a Prison Reform Trust writing competition.
It added that the prisoners didn't enter because of the monetary prize but “rather to prove that we, as prisoners, can do something good and worthwhile”.
The article also said the band were hoping to have an album out before the end of the year.
Two of the jokes in the newsletter are: What do you call a Ballymena sniper? Answer: Eamon Wright. And: What do you call a Dublin sniper? Answer: Ric O'Shea.
In the Time In sports section, there are discussions about football and a tongue-in-cheek column about the Magilligan sports that never were — like the cross-country, pole-vaulting and hide-and-seek teams in the prison.
“Long jump and triple jump events were also planned until it was discovered that the sand in the pit was actually originating from a tunnel which had been dug by several ingenious inmates and tunnel-digging is not a recognised individual or team event,” said the columnist.
The publication also listed a glossary of prison terms including ‘gate fever’, which was said to refer to anxiety about imminent release, and ‘heavy whacker’, which was described as a negative vibe on the wing, a nuisance.
On a more serious note, the newsletter also set out details of what was called a listener service in the jail where prisoners who have been trained by the Samaritans are available for confidential counselling for any of their fellow inmates who need help.
There are also book reviews in the Magilligan publication including one of My Father's Watch which was co-written by Carlo Gebler and Patrick Maguire, the youngest member of his family wrongly convicted of the Guildford pub bombings in England in 1974.
Prisoners are working on a second edition of the newsletter which should be published in time for Christmas.
Weston says: “The response to the first one has been tremendous and we have now got contributions from prisoners in Maghaberry as well. Some of them are on very meaty issues like drug addiction, alcoholism and recidivism.”
It's also hoped that a future issue will also feature an interview with English singer and social campaigner Billy Bragg which could be the first of many articles about people in the public eye.
It's planned to conduct the interviews via email. No face to face chats are likely.
The one thing a prison newsletter can't have, of course, is a roving reporter …
Famous inside stories
Playwright and wit Oscar Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter - De Profundis - to a friend during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol after being found guilty of gross indecency
Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years on Robben Island, chronicled his time there in prison diaries. After his release he became president of South Africa from 1994-99 and is regarded as one of the world’s greatest statesmen
Novelist Jeffrey Archer penned three books of diaries under the title of A Prison Diary during his incarceration for perjury and perverting the course of justice. He described his first prison, the high-security Belmarsh in London, as a “real hell-hole”
Jonathan Aitken was jailed for 18 months for perjury and perverting the course of justice over his dealings with the Saudi government. Since then he has written extensively about his time in jail and about the need for rehabilitation of offenders
Vicky Pryce, who was jailed for eight months for accepting speeding points on behalf of her ex-husband, the former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, released her prison diary when she was freed. She said she encountered “no animosity, sniping, bitching or negative treatment from anyone, inmates or officers” during her time inside
Belfast Telegraph Digital