Here I am standing in central Manchester, with the tower of HM Prison Manchester in the distance behind me. I was in Manchester last week to sell honey at the annual Muslim Lifestyle Expo event.
During the 11 years that I spent in 10 different prisons in two countries, the worst prison that I was held in was… HMP Manchester.
People are shocked when I tell them this. “Manchester?! Was it even worse than complete isolation in a US Supermax prison?”
Yes, I tell them.
I was held in HMP Manchester for a total of one year. Ten months in 2006-07 and three months in 2010.
HMP Manchester’s regime was good from a prisoner’s point of view. The cells at HMP Manchester were spacious, the food was excellent and we were out of our cells for an average of 11 hours a day.
But what made it worse than even the worst American prisons that I went to was the officers. Racist psychopaths who would torment me from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to sleep.
I will spare you the details but for example, when my brother-in-law came to see me a week after he got married to my sister, the prison did not allow him to visit me.
So my newly married sister had to meet me by herself while her husband, who had visited me many times before, waited in the car park. The reason? “Security.” The answer you give when you don’t have any other answers.
By way of contrast, in the US Supermax that I was held in for two years, I was locked in my cell for 23-24 hours a day, not allowed contact with any other prisoner and shackled and strip-searched every time I left my cell, even to use the shower.
But the American officers in that prison were by and large OK with me. There were a few psychopathic officers who probably had their torture training in HMP Manchester, but the majority were OK with me.
Most of them would not try to punish me in addition to the tough prison regime.
Yet what got me through that time in HMP Manchester was the good people who I had the honour to meet there.
I met many prisoners during my time there, some of whom have since become lifelong friends.
I have already written about my friendship with boxing coach Peter Fury, whom I lived with for 10 months in HMP Manchester in 2007. There is a link to my article on him at the end of this post.
There were families in Manchester who opened their homes and hearts to my family to stay in whenever they came to visit me.
And there were even a few decent prison officers who were exceptionally good to me, despite their colleagues tormenting me.
I have found this principle to be true everywhere I have been in my life: good people exist even in the worst of places.
So returning to the last weekend that I spent in Manchester, it was an inspiring trip for me. I had the honour of meeting many good people.
I met many men and women who had written to me, supported me and campaigned for me over the years I was in prison.
I met pharmacist and community activist Ghulam Esposito Haydar. People told me that if it wasn’t for his years helping the homeless and elderly with The Myriad Foundation, then the backlash that Manchester’s Muslims faced after this year’s Manchester Arena bombing would have been far worse.
I met Islam Momani, who set up the first Free Babar Ahmad Facebook group and then selflessly gave control of it to my family.
Sometimes people create campaigns to help others but then they are unable to let go. It becomes more about them than those they are supposed to be helping. Not so Islam Momani.
I met people who had come all the way from Blackburn, Bradford and Huddersfield just to meet me.
And I met Dr Ibrar Majid, the surgeon at Manchester Children’s Hospital who worked through the night to save children who were maimed in the Manchester Arena bombing.
And before all of the above, I was hosted in the Manchester home of the same family who had hosted my family ten years ago when I was detained in HMP Manchester.
Two university students from Manchester, Maaria and Farah, helped me tirelessly on my stall all weekend, one of them even lost her voice in the process.
“We’re not all like that.” This is what Maaria said when I told her that Manchester was the worst prison I was held in during my 11 years in custody.
Indeed. My tormentors at HMP Manchester only speak for themselves and their gang of racist psychopaths.
They don’t speak for the people of Manchester and they certainly don’t speak for all the good people I met during my visit there last week.
So thank you to the people of Manchester for your love and support and for welcoming me to your city. And for showing everyone that there are still more good people in the world than bad.
If there are places in the world that hold bad memories for us we always have the choice of returning to those places in order to create new, good memories that wipe out those bad memories.
As I left Manchester last week I saw a tower in the distance. I stopped my car to take a photograph of it.
It was only a bad memory that has since been erased by a new memory.
You can read here the story of my friendship with boxing coach Peter Fury, whom I spent 10 months with HMP Manchester in 2007.
You can read my story of why I was in prison here.
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