Continuing the latest in the series “He was a friend of mine”. This story comes from an old compound stalwart and certainly illustrates many of the difficulties faced by the long term prisoner upon release. Although it is testament to all those who have came through the experience relatively intact it also highlights the fact that not everyone was so lucky.
The Story of ‘Foxy’.
On first meeting Foxy anyone could be forgiven for feeling a bit apprehensive. He was tall, slightly staring eyes, a huge ragged scar running down his jaw line and wild hair. He had just served out 15 years in Long Kesh /Maze. I met Foxy when both of us where finishing our life sentences. This took place in the ‘working out’ unit of the Crumlin Road prison. Despite being in the same organisation, with the same beliefs, he was from the country and I was from Belfast. He served his time in the H Blocks while I spent my time in the compounds. I knew nothing about his background, family or whatever he was in prison for.
Contrary to appearances Foxy was a quiet, easy going, nervous type. We talked easily during our work out period. After a prolonged period of imprisonment prisoners would be released progressively and gradually back into society. The working out unit was a strange mix. Loyalists mingled with republicans. We all mixed with ordinary lifers. Some of the lifers had broken all links with their respective paramilitary groups. Foxy had left the paramilitary wings of the H Blocks and went to Maghaberry prison. However the working out unit was the last stage of a life sentence so there wasn’t going to be much hassle.
My first inkling that all wasn’t well with Foxy was when we went Xmas shopping. I couldn’t wait to get back into the real world. Xmas was a mad bustle of people, lights, noise and smells. Foxy wanted to buy a new coat so I waited for him while he queued. I was people watching when Foxy came up to me and gave me the coat and his money. ‘Please buy that for me’ he said. I got into the queue and looked at him. Sweat was visibly pouring down his face. But it was not warm. We didn’t speak about that just then. I gave him the coat and he said thanks with a big smile.
Life went on until we all passed though the months of working out. Foxy decided to stay in Belfast and not return home. We kept in casual contact. At this point he would say that things were going OK for him. But he was struggling with life on the outside. I had returned to my parents, to my friends and community, was studying at University and was soon to be married. However it soon transpired that he was in trouble again and had started drinking. My friend (another ex-prisoner) and I decided to help him out by giving whatever support we could. When it became obvious he was not coping I asked him to stay with me and my family. There was no drink in the house and I didn’t drink. It was an unspoken rule or understanding that there was to be no drink in the house nor to be under the influence. He never drank once during that whole time. I recall the big lad sitting in the kitchen having a good dinner with plenty of banter and looking better. Life was good.
One day he said to my wife that as long as he had his fags and could watch his beloved Man United he would be happy. It was my friend more so that assisted Foxy get his own terraced house and it was decorated from the top down. Eventually Foxy moved in on his own with our support. We thought things were working until I got a 5 am visit from the police looking for Foxy. I knew that spelled trouble for him. He was accused of assault, had his license revoked and was returned to prison. He later told me that he had pushed a man but he had drink taken. After a spell in prison Foxy was released again although this time under stricter supervision through the Probation service. Again Foxy complied with what was required and soon he got a flat in east Belfast. One day we got involved in a 5 a side competition. We entered as a laugh but soon found ourselves in the final. Foxy was in goal and he was brilliant. We won and I never seen Foxy happier. Little did any of us know where things would go after this?
I met Foxy one day in the city centre. He was with another known ordinary offender. They both had drink taken and Foxy could not hold my eye. I told him to come to my house on his own and sober. I was surprised when he turned up. We chatted about all things football and what was happening with him. On reflection I did preach about the perils of the demon drink. I wanted him to stay sober, get a job and stay out of trouble. I insisted that he had people with a prison background who he could rely on. We knew what he went through. However, I was told what he had down to get a life sentence. Killing anyone is bad and not pretty but there are different ways of killing someone. His was a particularly gruesome killing committed as revenge for an IRA bomb attack which killed a local woman. I feel he never came to terms with that.
Another significant incident occurred when he visited my home one evening. I wasn’t in so Foxy decided to visit a local pub. While it was a loyalist pub, they did not know this fearsome looking stranger. When confronted by local men, Foxy, a loyalist life sentence prisoner, said he was from the Falls road. Whether it was bravado, nerves or whatever I never found out. As he left the pub and made his way to my house his was set upon and ended up in hospital. I later went to the hospital. He was lying on a trolley looking pitiful. With a pained smile he looked at me and said he wasn’t drunk. On trying to get upright on the trolley he fell off. He was like the proverbial newt. After some stitching we went to his flat and I poured cups of coffee into him. He was apologetic. He said he would change.
Soon he would be found with a screwdriver hidden in his jacket. That was taken as ‘going equipped’ and so Foxy was back in prison. It would be his last time going into prison. As usual Foxy was a model prisoner. No hassle and no attitude. His case would be reviewed as per procedures and he was considered again for release. But Foxy had enough of the merry go round and decided he would take his own final decisive action. Instead of joy and relief on being told that he was to be released again Foxy took a pair of shoelaces, found a screw nail and hung himself in his cell. His death passed virtually unnoticed as outside the prison walls Belfast was burning and erupting. The soldier Lee Clegg had been found not guilty of killing a joyrider was wide scale rioting followed. That was obviously more important than a lifers end hidden behind walls.
One of the most difficult and saddest things I have ever done was to take Foxys private possessions from his flat and bring them to his family. His Probation officer and I visited his mother’s home and spoke to his family. They had been totally unaware of what was happening. They were gutted to see a beloved son returning home in a box. I attended the funeral which produced its own surprises. A man was pointed out to me, a mourner, and told that this was the father of Foxys victim. Apparently they had all known each other before the Troubles and the madness ensued. In the graveyard one of Foxys friends wanted to show me something. He took me to a headstone in the graveyard. It was Foxys victim. The two of them share the same graveyard. And it brought home the waste, the absolute waste of human life. Foxy could have been a happier person, but was the weight of what happened years ago laying heavy on his mind and heart? And against the hate and hardness of the ‘war’ was a fathers willingness to show his respect for a family, who had just lost a son just like he had so many years previous. I’ve been back to Foxys grave. He has now been joined by his mother and brother. There are no flags or symbols, a plain family plot. This holds a man who never really had a chance to live his life. A killer and a victim? He was a friend of mine.