By Professor Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal became a patron of Prisoners Abroad in 2023, having previously served as a trustee between 2011 and 2014. She worked for the Crown Prosecution and in criminal defense before becoming a Magistrate, and she has also sat on adoption panels and worked as an adviser for Social Services with a focus on adoption and foster care. Kit is a published author, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and Professor and Writer in Residence at Leicester University. Below, Kit has written a brilliant account of her own experiences with the criminal justice system and its impact on family life. Read on to hear about what first drew her to trusteeship at Prisoners Abroad, and what our work means to her. 

It’s 1996 and I’m sitting next to a young woman called Sharon* in Isleworth Crown Court. She’s twenty three and she’s winding a strand of her long black hair round and round her fingers, the nails are bitten to the quick, red and sore. Her case is up next, a sentencing hearing for importing drugs into the UK. There’s no-one there to support Sharon and I don’t count because I’m working for the solicitor that represents her.

I tell her it will be okay and although she’s bound to go to prison, it will be a shorter sentence because she pleaded guilty at the first opportunity, because of her family circumstances and the brilliant pre-sentence report the probation service have written for the Court. It covers everything, her abuse by her stepfather, her growing up in the care system, her learning difficulties, a teenage pregnancy and the loss of that child to adoption and then her falling into another abusive relationship with the man she carried the drugs for. Is she ready to give his name to the Police, I ask her? It could cut down her sentence even further. No, she says: "I’d be dead in a week."

In the dock, Sharon cries when she’s sentenced to twenty months and when I see her in the cells later that day, she cries again and says, "I have no-one to visit me." We go through the motions of appealing the sentence, but we all know it’s fair and that she’ll serve only half of it if she keeps her head down and her nose clean but even ten months for a girl like Sharon, at the mercy of other prisoners and her own chronic low self-esteem will be hard going.

And she’s right. I am her only visitor. I get her to sign some papers so that I can contact the housing department so she’s not homeless when she gets out but that fails and when she’s eventually released, she goes straight back to the bad man that got her into trouble in the first place and the next I hear of Sharon, she’s in prison in Thailand. She might be there still.

I worked for the Crown Prosecution for three years and in criminal defence for fifteen more and there was always a dozen or so Sharons or Jades or Darrens or Carls in my caseload. And there was always some unnamed creep pulling strings with clean hands and a dirty conscience. If the mule was lucky, it was prison in the UK but more often than not,  it was prison in Jamaica or Colombia or Vietnam or Ecuador where people like Sharon would have to fight for food, bed space and survival in the most primitive and terrible conditions imaginable.  

I didn’t know about Prisoners Abroad when I represented Sharon. I didn’t know there was an organisation who would have helped her stay safe and written to her and sent her a Christmas card when nobody else thought of her. And when she came home, there would have been someone there with a whole system of practical, emotional, and financial advice ready and waiting to help her get on her feet. People that care, people that don’t look down on her and think that she should have made better life choices, been stronger, more resilient, just said no but who offer whatever is needed to help prisoners returning to the UK from abroad make a new life and make those better life choices in the future.

After criminal defense work, I went on to become a Magistrate. I was confident bordering on cocky when I sat on the bench that first day.  Who better to judge their peers than someone like me, born to immigrant parents in less that working class circumstances, brought up in poverty, left school at fifteen, run the gamut of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and lived to tell the tale. Someone who had been a hair’s breadth away from mental and physical collapse who eventually got themselves together and got a job working for the police and the prosecution service, then on to an inner city law firm defending burglars and rapists and then in adoption and fostering and the ugly side of family breakdown. Someone who had seen it all first, second and third hand. Oh yes, no-one would pull the wool over my eyes, I thought. I’d know every trick in the book.

But what I found sitting in judgement on other people is that it’s very hard to be fair.

It’s very hard to balance someone’s difficult upbringing with their stealing from their employer, assaulting their girlfriend, abusing their children. It’s harder than you might imagine to watch someone shaking in the dock, with their mother crying in the public gallery and know that they can’t read or write, that they were brought up like I was without enough to eat or without a book to read and that their father is in prison, their brothers and cousins have all done time and their girlfriend is pregnant.

And it’s difficult to tell them that they’re going to prison again and for a long time. It’s hard to know how much weight you give to what and to whom and how you temper punishment with mercy all the while making sure that the victim’s voice is heard and that justice is done. And importantly, by not tolerating criminal behaviour, society tells the defendant that there is another way to live and other possibilities for a productive, law abiding life, there is hope of recovery and rehabilitation after they have served their time.

In my many years working in criminal law, I also met and represented innocent people, wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and wrongly locked up, those doing the hardest time of all, some of whom never recover from the experience.  

It’s one of the things that drew me to become a Trustee of Prisoners Abroad; this blanket, non-judgemental approach to helping people. Not asking "are you deserving, what crime have you done, are you innocent, are you guilty?", but asking one simple question to everyone: "What do you need?"

Not saying, "we’ll help you if it’s an accidental car crash in Vienna but we won’t help you if you got into a fight on a stag-do in Magaluf." Prisoners Abroad don’t have the cocky approach to fairness, thinking they know all the tricks and they can read between the lines. If you are a British citizen and you are in crisis, they are there by your side and they are also here, at home, helping families, too - children, parents and partners - to stay in touch with the people they love.

Because for people left at home, having someone in prison can be shaming, isolating and a tremendous financial burden. I have seen first-hand, the impact on children when a parent is in prison, often resulting in them going into the care system temporarily or permanently and losing a connection to that parent altogether, broken bonds which can have far reaching effects for the whole family and cause an unending cycle within the criminal justice system here and abroad.

Prisoners Abroad supports and works with families to minimise that isolation and also help to finance vital prison visits whenever possible to help to keep those relationships alive because when a prisoner returns home, very often it’s those continuing family bonds that are the most healing and nurturing and can be the difference between reoffending and readmission.

Prisoners Abroad will never be everyone’s favourite charity. But for me, whenever I read the story of the young man in Magaluf who knocked out the bartender on a night out, or the middle aged driver of the car in Vienna who killed a pedestrian, or Sharon, the young girl with learning difficulties that tried to bring heroin through Heathrow for a manipulative drug dealer, I think of my children, I think of myself and the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and the possibility that one day I might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I say "There but for the Grace of God, go I."

And if the worst happens, I’ll know who to call.

*We have changed Sharon's name.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

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