Michael writes about how much has changed in 31 years

I am 67 years of age, and I have been back home in the UK for 13 months following 31 years’ incarceration in the Texas prison system. I have already had one article published in the newsletter, describing my initial homecoming and first 6 months in the UK. I have another one pending, which gives an account of the stroke that I suffered in December 2014 while still imprisoned, and how I made a determined effort to achieve a full recovery, which I am happy to say I achieved; I wrote that one with the intention of providing encouragement to anyone out there unfortunate enough to have the same happen to them. I had intended to write a third article describing my first year back in the UK but was recently ‘persuaded’ by resettlement officer Nadine to alter the format and compare the differences I now find in the ‘free-world’ with what life was like prior to when I was first imprisoned in 1986.

As you all know, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Prisoners Abroad and I’m probably one of its oldest clients (in terms of time as a client, not just in terms of age!). Within 2 weeks of my arrest in March 1986, the British Consulate in Houston had put me in touch with the National Council for the Welfare of Prisoners Abroad, (which is a bit of a mouthful and is what Prisoners Abroad was called before its name-change). I was in regular contact with Joe Parham, one of the founders, and have maintained contact with Prisoners Abroad to this day. I am currently volunteering at Prisoners Abroad every other Friday, putting newspapers and magazines into envelopes for mailing to their clients world-wide. So if you are the recipient of any of these items, changes are that I packaged them for you. Enjoy!

Prior to my going to the United States in 1983, I served in the military for 10 years, and then worked on a contract in Oman for 3 years. During all those years I often visited London on leave, and this is where I have noticed the biggest changes. Between 1983 and my arrival back in London in April 2017, the population has increased dramatically. I now find the streets overcrowded with people walking around with their faces buried in their mobile phones, not paying attention to where they are going, which leaves it up to me to avoid collisions! Mobile phones – in 1983 they weighed about 2 pounds and were the size of a house-brick with a rubber antenna on the top; now they will fit in the palm of your hand or your shirt pocket. Back then, the cost was prohibitive and very few people owned one but now EVERYBODY seems to have one! Social conversations now seem to be a thing of the past; I can look around at the customers in a pub or a restaurant and see that most of them are engrossed in their mobile phones instead of engaging in friendly banter with their companions. I find that very strange, but it seems to be the norm these days and I must admit that now I do it too; if you can’t beat them, join them!

I recently bought a car and have found that driving on UK roads is a lot different from what I remember, especially in and around London. The volume of traffic has increased ten-fold and can be a bit intimidating, and everyone seems to be in a hurry. Unless you know the roads and know exactly where you are going, it can actually be rather stressful. I find that I must keep one eye open for the road-signs, and the other on surrounding traffic to make sure I don’t hit anything! I find myself being forced into the wrong lanes and going around in circles a lot, which takes away the enjoyment that I used to get from driving all those years ago; maybe I need to get a SatNav or someone to sit next to me and call out directions! The cost of petrol and insurance has also increased by leaps and bounds since the 80’s; back then petrol cost about £1.20 per gallon, and I could insure a 2-seat sportscar for £120 fully comprehensive. Petrol is now four times as expensive, and insurance about ten times as much! And what is this crazy ‘congestion charge’ that now exists in certain areas of London? I refuse to drive anywhere close to that area in case I advertently enter it without realising it, which would result in a hefty fine if I failed to pay the charge on time. All of the fun has been taken out of driving now, but perhaps my opinion of that will change when I figure out how to stop going around in circles and get out of London onto some country roads to do some exploring! One thing is for certain though, I will NOT be drinking and driving. Prisoners Abroad has started me off on the right path to enjoy my second chance at life, and there is no way I am going to mess that up by doing something stupid and avoidable. I am completely legal now and intend to keep it that way; taxi’s home are a lot cheaper compared to the hassle of being arrested for DWI.

Living alone means that when I am not doing the rounds of the local pubs and clubs, (remember I was incarcerated for 31 years, so I have a lot of catching-up to do!), I tend to watch a lot of TV. That is something that has changed a lot since the 80’s. There are now so many different channels to choose rom that I can spend 5 minutes surfing through them before I find something to watch, which means that I miss the start of whatever it is when I eventually decide what to watch. I still remember the days when we only had BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Oh well, such is progress.

Grocery shopping is more expensive than I remember, but it is relatively easy to stay within a limited budget by sticking with store brands as opposed to name brands. There are chain-stores all over the place such as ASDA and Sainsbury’s, so one does not have to go far to find one. Fast-food places have also multiplied over the years, and I can now buy any type of food that takes my fancy, which is usually not good for the waistline! American franchises such as Burger King and McDonalds are now very prevalent, and sometimes I feel like I am still in the US!

I mentioned earlier that I live alone; I was fortunate enough to be given the tenancy of a 1-bedroom council bungalow, which suits me just fine. Being on a pension, it was a challenge at first planning a budget for utilities, groceries etc of a fixed-income after not having done so for the length of my incarceration, but now I have it organised so that I am not spending more than I have coming in. I made a spreadsheet programme on my laptop in which I keep track of my expenditure, and it is actually fun to keep it updated and watch the numbers change. I know, big kid!

In closing, let me give you all a warning. Sorry to say but crime has increased a lot since I was last in the UK, and a few weeks ago I became a crime victim myself. Whilst using an ATM outside of a Sainsbury’s store, a stranger ran up to me shouting that the machine wasn’t working and was taking cards. Before I could stop him, he pushed in front of me and entered some numbers on the keypad. What I didn’t not realise at the time was that he had removed my card while he was blocking the view of the machine. The transaction stopped and he walked away, leaving me to believe that my card was still inside the ATM. Thirty minutes later I was at my bank cancelling the card. However, during that 30 minutes he had used the card to withdraw cash from my account, which fortunately the bank refunded me. So, please be vigilant when using ATM machines, especially if they are located outside as opposed to inside a store or a bank.

All-in-all, a lot of noticeable changes since I was last in the UK, but I am taking them in my stride one day at a time, which is really all I can do. The bottom line is that this is England, and I’m finally home again, and living life to the full on my second go-around; the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full, the glass is REFILLABLE. The one thing that has remained constant over the past 34 years has been the support I have received from Prisoners Abroad. Any changes I encountered with that support was always for the better and have been with me all the way and still remain part of my life.

Preventing homelessness is crucial.

Prisoners Abroad supports people who return back to the UK after prison; we find them somewhere to stay, provide grants for food and travel, and help them take the vital steps to a new life.