As many of you will be aware when a person is taken through the UK criminal court system and found guilty they may have occasion to be "sent down" and be sent to prison.
Prison, well first we have to decide what is a prison without stating the obvious and offending all of you before we get to the bones of this Blog post. Yes we have the physical prison with the road around it which is patrolled at night by vehicles ( HMP Belmarsh), then walls around it, then the internal fences which allow for a guard dog patrol in between them, and finally the administration and accommodation buildings.
Though there are different types of physical 'prisons' (and I don't mean HMP), there are also the 'prisons' managed by the NHS (Broadmoor) though they would say it is a hospital. Broadmoor Hospital would say "it is a specialist service that provides assessment, treatment and care in conditions of high security for men from London and the south of England. It’s one of three high-security psychiatric hospitals in England, and is internationally recognised, both for work with patients and for our extensive research activities" (some may say on people who may not have the ability to consent?). Then there are of course the privately run institutions for children called STC's such as Medway (recently in the news), and also Immigration Removal Centres where people (asylum seekers/migrants) are taken to be processed and deported despite the fact they are not all convicted criminals but many are fleeing war zones or persecution. Though now throughout Europe they are blamed for any upsurge in crime statistics or criminal events without having undergone due process such is the fear rampaging across the world of ISIS and their infiltration of Europe using the war in Syria and the subsequent refugees as camouflage for their operatives to gain entry. All a subject for another Blog post.
They are all in our opinion a form of 'prison', but there are many more and some not so obvious. The obvious aside from physical environments could be said to be the person confined to a wheelchair (though they may disagree), or a blind person (again may disagree), or someone with Alzheimer's disease, Cancer, a terminal degenerative disease, or a Mental Health condition, the list is endless as they all are human tragedies and effect millions on different levels across the world not just here in the UK so have good reasons to be included.
But I want to tell you about one prison I visited the other day, and the shame it engendered within me so much so that I was reduced to tears and resolved to refer the situation to you the public for Judgement.
It was a particularly cold wet and windy day when I drove into town just going about my business food shopping, as I live alone it allows me to buy fresh stuff daily and if you pick the right time of day you get the 'deals' in the supermarkets so I have a routine and always go in the hope I get a warm chicken every other day and it lasts me for curry, salad the next day etc. Usually I park my car in the multistorey car park get the lift and straight into the food hall on the ground floor, however this day there were limited spaces so rather than wait in the queue I parked in another car park which meant a short walk over a bridge (in the rain with my brolly) and into the shops. On crossing the bridge I couldn't help but notice a figure sitting huddled on some blankets, on the floor against the wall, knees to his chest cuddling a Jackrussell dog. The reason he was easy to see was the stream of pedestrian traffic on the bridge was on the opposite side jostling through each other obviously avoiding this person huddled by the wall. Most of us in our minds would see a 'tramp' and that's exactly what I saw, he had the stereotypical towel over his head as a scarf, tucked into what looked like a heavy military overcoat, (a technique employed in prisons on the exercise yard to keep out the wind), dark thick fleece type tracksuit bottoms, boots with huge soles on, thick socks outside with his tracksuit bottoms tucked into his socks. As I got closer I bolstered myself and thought to myself I will give him some coins in his tin poor sod.
But as I got closer I couldn't see a tin and he wasn't holding his hand out, this guy (as I could see now it was a man) was absolutely filthy, his beard made Bin Laden look like a clean shave, I mean he was filthy, his clothes were filthy with mud and grease, his face was red with cold and pockmarked skin, the hair matted - but he wasn't begging, he was whispering to his dog and feeding him what turned out to be a roll. Next to him was a military rucksack which had also clearly seen better days. As I came level he glanced up at me (probably because everyone else was avoiding him) and we had eye contact...but this guy was not broken, this guy had clear blue eyes and a straight gaze (not a user or a drinker as I've seen many of them in my day) "alright mate" I asked expecting his hand for money, "seen better days" he replied... and I stopped "so what's going on then how come your sat here in the rain"...
This isn't about me so I won't repeat the whole conversation...
I spent over 2 hours sat in the rain with this guy well into the dark, he was born in 1970 but looked 65, his dogs name was Tom, he had fought in the first gulf war and left the Army in 1995, married with a little girl. Due to his behaviour his wife left him and they divorced, he lived rough around Colchester for some years, he said initially friends helped him out with a couch or a night here a night there but eventually he moved on as he felt embarrassed! A military war veteran embarrassed! One of the hardest things I have done in a long time was walk away and leave the guy there in the rain, but I did, cold hearted I went and got my shopping, grabbed a coffee in the Costa and went home, not looking at him as I went past.
When I got home and got sorted I started to tweet and for some reason he stayed in my thoughts and eventually after an exchange with someone in New York on twitter (roisinmurphy) I decided to go back and find the guy and take him and Tom some food. I stopped at McDonald's and bought a Chicken sandwich meal and a coffee and I went into town to the bridge, he'd gone, but not too far as I could see him in the doorway of a bakery just of the bridge out of the rain now the shops had shut. He recognised me but resisted my offerings at first until I assured him he could wash my car for me on Saturday, I gave him some mince for Tom which he wolfed down sharpish, and he ate the chicken meal I had brought along. I offered to pay for a travelodge so he could clean up and he refused (he'd rather be homeless), I offered him money (only £20) and he also refused, the guy was a completely decent man, bright, articulate, but tired of everything. My guess is most of all he's tired of being taunted and tormented by his memories as he explained that he had beaten his wife, but it was the Iraq war not him, and I know this is trite but I believe him. I have heard of PTSD I don't know enough about it but from what little I have read this guy definitely has it and it is with him every moment, as is his loss and pain.
If anyone felt genuine remorse for what he had done it was him, he was punishing himself for it everyday and in my view he too is in prison! I felt so impotent and so ashamed (still do in fact), and I have problems too in my life but I was astonished at the resilience and determination he displayed, not to succeed or to progress his life, but to remain on the streets and be anonymous because that's what he "deserves" according to him.
Charities are functional tools that in some cases do deliver their aims but many are simply making money to provide inflated salaries, pay rent to 'mother' companies that gifted their office property in trust, public and self confirmation/recognition, public honours for founders etc what we need to do is mobilise as a people. If every single person in the UK gave a pound there is a fund for good. If every single person in the UK did someone else a kindness today what effect would that have. If we all took 10 minutes in town to engage with the homeless who are all around us we will grow too, we will never know the effect we may have on them, but it can only be positive, a conversation. Take them a coffee from Costa, or some food from home, gradually we can bring them back into society by showing them a simple kindness. There are clearly MH issues with many of those people, but they are suffering in many ways and they need help, we all need help now and again.
For those of you who wonder I have gone back everyday since but he has disappeared, he was hungry but proud, that is why he let me believe he would be there to wash my car. I had never seen him before and he has simply moved on, I walked the town centre all the nooks aand crannies, the doorsteps, everywhere and cannot find him. For me he is a hero and one his daughter can be proud of, I simply didn't have whatever it took to persuade him there are other ways and I regret that. The UK is a good place to live, a good place to bring children up and have a chance to build a fabulous life if you are of a mind - but it takes effort, a joint effort.
Regardless of what anyone says you cannot do it alone, care for others now because the day will surely come when you need help because life has a habit of throwing curve balls and you never know what is around the corner, so be mindful at every opportunity.
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