Former inmate tells how he owes his life to Samaritans' Prison Listener Scheme on BBC's Victoria Derbyshire Show

A former prisoner who says he owes his life to another inmate trained in listening skills by Samaritans had the chance to thank his supporter live on BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire Show today.

Michael Irwin, who was serving time for a drugs offence in Rye Hill prison in Warwickshire in 2007, described how he had felt like ending his life on a number of occasions.

“This feeling of hopelessness comes across you and then you have so many different factors to deal with in prison, the pressures are really, really high. I’d just been sentenced and my father wasn’t very well, and I was in trouble with some officers on the wing. You lose hope, as if there’s no way out.”

Former fellow inmate Mick Horn, one of thousands of prisoners trained by Samaritans in jails across the UK and Ireland to offer emotional support, spotted Michael on a landing with his head in his hands. “He came over and said, ‘Are you ok big lad?’ And I said, ‘Well no, I’m not actually’, and we went for a cup of tea and took it from there.”

Mick Horn took up the story. “Going into prison isn’t like it looks the telly. How you have to deal with everyday life is totally different and you’re not really taught this. Prison officers haven’t got time to cope with what’s happening to each individual prisoner. I just talked to Michael basically, cracked a few jokes to break the ice, and helped him adjust. We went on to become friends.”

“Prison de-structures you, you lose your identity as a person, your identity as a man,” responded Michael. “I didn’t know how to deal with myself and Mick helped me do that. We started a writing course together and worked on prison radio together, and then when I was moved back to Northern Ireland I became a Listener myself, so I was able to pass on the knowledge and the experiences that Mick had taught me. It was so rewarding and gave my life such a purpose.”

The programme focused on Samaritans’ Listener Scheme as an example of a successful peer-led initiative improving prisoners’ mental health. The topic coincided with today’s release of figures from the Ministry of Justice showing that a record number of people killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. Self-harm and assaults also increased to record levels. The figures were described as a ‘national scandal’ by the Howard League for Penal Reform, whose Director, Frances Crook, also appeared on the programme.

Mick and Michael have kept in touch over the last four years but, despite both being released, never managed to meet up. Even today they were in separate studios, Michael in Belfast and Mick in London, but Michael had something special to say: “Mick, I’d like to take this opportunity in public just to say, ‘Thanks mate’. You turned my life around. It’s real and it’s special, you know.”

Visibly moved, Mick responded. “Cheers mate, there’s not a lot you can say about that. This is the first time we’ve really spoken about it, our early conversations, and our friendship. From my point of view it doesn’t really come from saving lives, so thanks for that.”

Whatever you’re going through, anyone can call Samaritans for free from any phone any time on 116 123 (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.

For further information, photos and interviews, please contact Samaritans’ press office on 020 8394 8300 or press@samaritans.org.

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Notes to editors:

To watch the programme go to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08bqlzc/victoria-derbyshire-26012017

  • It’s the public’s kind donations and more than 20,000 trained volunteers that mean Samaritans is always there for anyone struggling to cope.  Find out how you can support us: http://www.samaritans.org/support-us