Jimmy Boyle wrote 2 extraordinary books ‘A Sense of Freedom’ about his violent past in Glasgow and imprisonments in different Scottish prisons – including in the infamous ‘cages’ in Inverness prison; and ‘The Pain of Confinement’ based on his time in the Special Unit set up at Barlinnie (an experimental regime that despite – or becasue of its success was inevitably closed by the prison deprtament) where he began to understand his past more and the way he had responded to the abuse and neglect that he had experienced. After his 15 year sentence he left – a sculptor and a writer.
He now lives in the South of France and Morocco. Photos are of the young JB and a more recent image.
These extracts are from the second book – his reflections on freedom, creativity and feelings.
‘What about my yearning to be free? I visualize walking in the country, seeing green fields, birds singing, the horizons far in the distance – as far as the eye can see. Oh to walk the streets full of people … These are the dreams of the incarcerated. I want so much to taste freedom because for the first time in my life I will be able to appreciate it. I desire the world beyond the walls.
And what about the expressions of my soul? The hammer and chisel that sculpts the stone from the tenement buildings of my past into a new form for the future. A transformation that is comparative to my own. The ingrained pollution that covers the stone is shorn. I take it in this filth covered condition, devote the time to it and give it another life. When it is complete I leave it with a bright future. The part that I envy in this unfeeling, inanimate object is that its transformation is widely accepted and not questioned.
And the writing. I need it as a testament to my experience. To reflect, in some small measure what I feel. To help me see, like the sculpture, the natural development of me – the human being. Threads of life brought to the surface. Painful though it is there has to be an understanding of what we are doing … What do the days ahead hold for me? Can I pick myself up from the floor, scooping up the millions of scattered pieces and face the nothingness of tomorrow? …
Feelings. Those parts that we all try to hide from each other. The shame, the jealousy, the guilt and insecurity. Our inferiority. Who can put up the most convincing mask to hide the inner turmoil? It’s all about chasing illusions that don’t really exist. It’s like hating some bastard yet when he dies we realize he wasn’t so bad after all.’
Jimmy Boyle The Pain of Confinement, Prison Diaries.
Two extracts from Ingrid Betancourt’s ‘Even Silence Has an End’
In the first it is still early days in her captivity – which lasted over six years and included much sadism and deprivation from the FARC guerrillas.
At one point she asked for and was eventually given an encyclopaedic dictionary which she studied:
‘My solitude became a sort of liberation… I could order my life according to the needs of my heart.’ She read the dictionary in the morning and tried to follow physical exercises in the afternoon – in the evening she tried to meditate:
‘[the] meditation had nothing religious about it but invariably led to an awareness of the presence of God. He was there, everywhere, too big, too strong. I did not know what he could expect of me and even less what I was allowed to ask of him. I thought of begging him to get me out of my prison, but I immediately found that my prayer was too trivial, too petty, too focused on my little self, as if thinking of my own well-being or requesting his kindness was a bad thing …’ She reads Romans in the Bible and only wants the Holy Spirit to give her freedom, from captivity then comes to see how at that point ‘I was missing the essential point, that there was probably something else, greater than freedom … something that for the time being I did not know how to appreciate.’ Full of questions but no answers she finds that through the circular thinking that went on every day she began to shift from action to introspection: ‘I wanted to build a stronger, more solid self … I needed another form of intelligence, another sort of courage and greater endurance. But I did not know how to go about building those. It had taken over a year of captivity for me to just begin to question my own self’.
Three years later Ingrid Betancourt following an attempted escape is kept with a chain around her neck and tethered to a tree. She was isolated from other hostages and spends time ‘huddled in my hammock, clinging to a silence with no end’ She hears on a radio a preacher analysing ‘And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness … for when I am weak, then am I strong.’ She writes that this should be read as a poem, without any preconceived ideas. ‘I thought it was universal and could be used by anyone seeking for a meaning in suffering.’
Ingrid Betancourt was a Columbian presidential candidate when she was captured by guerrillas and held in the jungle for over six years. ‘Even Silence has an End’ is her extraordinary account of this captivity.
In a TED talk given three years ago Betancourt movingly talks about the relationship between fear and religious faith.
‘Faith isn’t rational or emotional it is an exercise of the will – the discipline of the will. It’s what allows us to transform everything that we are, our weaknesses, our frailties into strength and power. It’s really a transformation. It’s what gives us the strength to stand up in the face of fear and to look beyond it. We all need to connect with that strength we have inside of us – for the time when there’s a storm raging around our boat.’
‘Fear is part of the human condition as well as being necessary for survival. But above all it is the guide by which each of us builds our identity, our personality. It was my decision what to do with that fear … you can survive crawling along fearful but you can also rise above the fear, rise up spread your wings and soar, fly high, high, high, high until you reach the stars where all of us want to go.’
She describes when the Columbian army rescued her and fourteen other hostages:
‘The shriek that came out of all of us when we regained our freedom continues to vibrate in me to this day’.
Also of interest is Ingrid Betancourt in 2020 on how to survive lockdown!
Brian Keenan speaking to prisoners at Magilligan prison in December 2019:
He said he lost all sense of who he was during the long periods of isolation.
“It was the worst of all possible prisons,” he said.
“You didn’t get any visitors, you didn’t get any letters, you didn’t get any TV and you didn’t get any radio. You got out to the toilet once for 10 minutes, and you came back to the cell blindfolded and the lights turned out.”
He added: “What I want these guys [the prisoners in Magilligan] to take away is that you know there is a fire inside that will warm the soul and which will boil the imagination and will set you free. Prison bars do not a prison make… there are prisons we make for ourselves and we have got to get out of those … and there are ways e can do that.”