When freedom is no release

In February we saw Michael Hickey, of the Bridgewater Four, celebrating his liberty. This week we were shown the unfathomable depths of his confusion and misery.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Michael Hickey stood up in court on Monday, he looked shattered. Poorly dressed, he seemed disorientated as he was charged with theft and carrying an offensive weapon. This was not a man taking pleasure in his brief freedom after 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. The scene was of a tormented individual, fraught, angry, struggling to come to terms with a terrible injustice that has stolen half his life.

It is an image that pains many who shared the joy of Michael Hickey's release from jail in February. His short walk out of Brixton into the arms of friends and family was the culmination of an extraordinary campaign to prove the innocence of the Bridgewater Four. These were the men convicted in 1979 of killing newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater, a conviction now destroyed by revelations about false and involuntary confessions.

Michael Hickey's freedom had been especially sweet. Plucked almost from childhood at the age of 16 to face nearly two decades in prison, he seemed at last to have a chance, at 35, to start his life again. But his demeanour this week showed that his recovery has barely begun. "He was released to cheers and jubilation," says his mother, Ann Whelan. "But as far as Michael was concerned he was walking into a life of misery."

Since his release, he has lived with his girlfriend Michelle Beswick, 31, in the Midlands. She has given him caring support. But coping with life outside is hard. He is, like many who have suffered a miscarriage of justice, lionised by well-wishers. "The other day we were in the supermarket," says his mother. "Three people came over and flung their arms around him and he just cried. Sometimes he has lovely days when he is very quiet. Others he is very angry. There are days when he is hyper, speaking a thousand to the dozen."

It is a picture Sarah Clarke, a Roman Catholic nun, recognises. She supported the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four through their long ordeal in jail. "The problem is," she says, "that there are all these committees on the outside who have done so much work to free the prisoner. When he gets out, they want to celebrate. But the prisoner is not used to all this. It is far better to let them go home, have counselling and settle in with their family. The Birmingham Six were brought to Ireland and America, instead of living quietly with their families. They ended up finally coming home and trying to live a deflated life." That is not easy. "Sometimes they can't sit down in a room and talk to people for more than five minutes," she says.

Problems after release occur for all prisoners, she says, "but particularly for the innocent who have been through a terrible trauma inside." At least the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were quickly declared innocent. In the Bridgewater case, Michael Hickey and the others are free but must wait until next month when the Court of Appeal is expected to quash their convictions formally. They have received no compensation.

"Michael wants someone to say sorry for what he has been through," says Mrs Whelan. "He wants the people responsible for putting him in jail brought to justice and he wants the person who actually killed Carl Bridgewater to be jailed. He does not want the police to say, as they have in other cases, that the inquiry is closed. Until that happens he cannot look to the future."

But the apology may never come. The authorities are unlikely to feel great contrition about what has happened to Michael Hickey. His family was well-known to them. His father, a petty criminal and police informer who was separated from his mother, had introduced him to the underworld during his early teenage years.

Nor has the manner of his release helped him make a fresh start. Convicts typically have months to prepare for the shock of the outside world. And they are released into at least the notional support of probation officers and social services. Michael Hickey's innocence counted against him. His release came out of the blue. None of the usual post-prison services were made available to him.

"He was listening to the radio on the Thursday and heard that the Bridgewater men could be released on Friday," says Mrs Whelan. "He thought someone was messing with the tannoy and having a joke on him. The lawyers had heard nothing. He kept listening to the radio all night checking it was true. The next day he was out." With pounds 47 in his pocket and no arrangements for the rest of his life.

"It was a wonderful day," recalls Mrs Whelan. "They could choose to walk where they liked, to look at something beyond the perimeter wall. They could choose to touch and feel what they liked. But mentally they were still in prison. They were tortured by what they had been through."

None more so than Michael Hickey. Belligerent, determined and unbending, he had refused to conform. He will be remembered for an astonishing 90- day protest on the roof of Gartree prison during the winter of 1983-84, the coldest of the decade. Huddled in bin bags, and fed by lines from sympathetic fellow-prisoners, he built a wall of his own excrement, packed in plastic, to keep the gale force winds off him. "When he finally came down," says Mrs Whelan, "his toes were frost-bitten. Army advisers brought in by the prison were amazed - when their men go on exercises they are picked up after seven days. He spent 24 hours in hospital and was passed fit. Then he was put in solitary confinement for three months, as punishment for being on Her Majesty's roof for 89 winter nights. Every morning they would come in and take his bed away, so he only had a chair."

The early days of his imprisonment were also hard. "For weeks I was only able to see him through glass," she recalls. "He had been put on the top landing as a child killer and refused to be segregated because he was innocent. Everyone, including the prison governor and the lawyers, warned him not to go into recesses. But he said he would not hide. He said that he went to the lavatory on purpose, where he was kicked and attacked. For months, he was bruised, cut and beaten."

Michael Hickey suffered three mental breakdowns during his time in prison, including a nine-year spell at Ashworth top security hospital from 1984. "At times he was like a zombie," remembers his mother. "He was pumped so full of drugs that he couldn't hold his hands still. I remember having to push a roll to his lips. All this took a terrible toll on his health. I have seen Michael's weight fall below nine stone. He's 6ft 2in - he was a walking skeleton."

Paul Foot, whose book Murder at the Farm: Who Killed Carl Bridgewater gave the freedom campaign an important fillip, says the neglect Michael Hickey has experienced since release is just the latest outrage by the authorities.

Cash is not, however, for now, a problem, because the Bridgewater campaign is still helping the freed men. But it could be a problem since Michael Hickey is not good with money. He refuses to ask for social security help on the grounds that it is not for him to grovel for help - the authorities, he believes, should be coming to him. He recently gave away pounds 2,000 in one 24-hour period to pensioners, disabled and homeless people. Like some of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, who spent, spent, spent, any compensation may not last long. And in his state of health and with his lack of training, it is unlikely that Michael Hickey will be fit for work. Apart from writing books and making films, others wrongly imprisoned have been unable to take up working lives.

But the real question, given Michael Hickey's understandable suspicion of authority and the psychiatric services, is how to restore his health. "Michael is obviously in great distress. He cries a lot," says Paul Foot. "The situation is very serious. You can see who is responsible for this. It is much harder to see what can be done"n

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