By Laura Bevan

It is fitting that Alan Parker’s Oscar-winning Midnight Express is now 40 years old, sharing its birth year with Prisoners Abroad. Set in Istanbul in 1970, it features a young American, William Hayes (played by Brad Davis) who is attracted to cannabis trafficking for financial gain. He is arrested before boarding the plane, and immediately taken to court, where he doesn’t understand the language and has no interpreter to explain what’s happening. ‘Catching you shows the world Turkey is fighting the drugs trade’, comments one official, and this is a familiar political view the world over today.

Simon Callow, the actor reading Prisoners Abroad’s Radio 4 appeal later this month, said that the ‘filth, horror and ordure nearly drove [a friend imprisoned in Turkey] mad’; this is depicted by squalid bedding, searing heat, communal water butts that can’t possibly be hygienic, and Billy eventually being moved to the ‘criminally insane’ wing. After a prosecutor secures a very long sentence there is talk of a transfer to the USA or an amnesty, neither of which materialise. He calls the loneliness ‘a physical pain you feel all over’ and only receives sparse, distressing visits from his father and girlfriend, either under guard supervision or behind glass – a common situation four decades later. Life in the prison is slow and bleak, interspersed with brutal violence and punishment beatings, from which there is little respite other than yoga exercises – certainly no Prisoners Abroad Medical Fund or newsletter to sustain Billy.

Prisoners Abroad is currently supporting 27 British prisoners in Turkey, and it was a letter from Robert, a man in a Turkish prison, which started off our organisation all those years ago. Sadly, not much has changed in prisons around the world and many issues remain today: people still deserve to have their human rights protected and to feel they have not been forgotten; they can suffer boredom and violence in equal measure; families need our help to visit their loved ones; and without Prisoners Abroad’s dictionaries and translators many people still would not understand what is happening around them.

Interested in reading more? Amber's blog is about prison films too