My Life Began At Forty

As co-Directors of HERC, we’re delighted and privileged to publish this contribution from ‘outside’ the OU. As you read this stunning piece, you will understand why it absolutely belongs here. Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs


My Life Began At Forty

Michael Irwin

On the 29th August 2007, prison officers in England and Wales went on strike. I only knew this when it was shown on BBC News as there were no staff on the wing. At the time I was on remand on HMP Lewes and decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. This has now been turned into a book called My Life Began At Forty.

I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lining of bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. At the time I was addicted to cocaine, and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of detox I got my half sensible head back on and started to write. I ended up receiving a twelve year sentence for drug trafficking, six in prison and six on licence and decided to put my ‘Time’ to good use.

I served my sentence in six different prisons starting at HMP Lewes then moving on to HMP’s Brixton, Rye Hill and Highdown in England and then transferred back home to Northern Ireland and HMPs Maghaberry and finally Magilligan. There are many prison books out there and one of the unique features of my story is that I served in two different jurisdictions and was able to compare and contrast as I progressed through the system.

It was Erwin James who once said ‘no one will fully understand the strength it takes to get through a day in prison.’ My story not only captures these struggles it also captures the battle that goes on within one’s self. It explores the mind numbing boredom of lock ups, the chaos of the wings, isolation and vulnerability compared to the endless illogical bureaucracy of a dysfunctional  prison and criminal justice system.

My book also tells of the struggle to gain an Open University Degree in prison. As a man in his forties (soon to be fifty), the education system in prison was not really set up for me. The education system is more to do with the tick box culture of getting half of the population to level one or two in basic maths and English. As far as the system goes in England and Wales, a prisoner must be serving a sentence of four years or more to even be considered for an OU degree. So, in a way I was lucky that I got a lengthy sentence.

I completed my OU openings course in HMP Rye Hill in 2008 and, due to a plethora of administration errors by the prison service (not the OU), it was only when I arrived in Northern Ireland in 2009 that I was able to start my first module, K101 (An Introduction to Health and Social Care). My book describes how on the one hand I got the most amazing support from the education department at Magilligan to the loathing of prison staff who saw me as a threat as I had half a brain.

My Life Began at Forty Cover.jpg

This of course was true in a way as the more knowledge I attained via my OU coursework the worse I got. The more I understood the angrier I got. I started to challenge and question policies and decisions designed to protect me under the alleged duty of care provided by the prison system. I became a mentor and a prison Listener which allowed me to see that my problems were not that great when compared to others. Considering the level of suicides in our prison system today my book gives a unique insight into how this develops, how it festers in the psyche and how unequipped the criminal justice system is to deal with social inadequacies in our society.

Before I went to prison I was living in Cape Town and living a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. My addiction spiralled out of control and my money dried up and ultimately led to my trip to the Caribbean. What my book also delves into is the fact that I had lost everything. It explores how a person has to deal with these harsh facts of life in a closed environment and how one lives a parallel life. Without the support of family and friends would I have made it?

These questions are asked and answered throughout the book, the goal posts continually shift over time, place and circumstance and illuminates how family ties and peer support are crucial when serving a prison sentence. I continually speak of family throughout the book and this brings the reader back into reality and perhaps thinking, could I do this, could I survive it?

It’s been ten years since I first put pen to paper. I scribbled on court benches, police cells and hospital beds. I typed it up when I had time and out of sheer tenacity I now have a finished product. My story is one of hope and how as human beings, even at the lowest of low, when there is no way out we can find the strength to dig deep, put one foot in front of the other, survive the day and get to the end. Several of the world’s top criminologists have already read the unedited version and suggested ‘for anyone studying criminology this is a must read. Get it out there Michael.’

I now have a BA (Hons) in Criminology and Psychological Studies from the Open University and an MSc in Criminology at Queens University Belfast. Next stop PhD. My message is simple ‘never, ever give up.’

As Friedrich Nietzsche stated “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage – it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”


Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs added:

My Life Began At Forty will be published at the end of April. To pre-order at a discounted rate, go to and type in Michael Irwin. Michael can be contacted at


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