A family member recently shared her story with us after receiving one of our supporter emails inviting people to tell us how they got involved with Prisoners Abroad. Her daughter was imprisoned in the Caribbean twenty years ago and her account is an honest and moving reflection of the incredibly tough decisions family members must make when a loved one is imprisoned overseas. We would like to give huge thanks to both of them for sharing their experience.

I first found out about Prisoners Abroad two Christmases ago, in 2021, when our daughter passed on information regarding their Christmas card scheme. With past experience in mind, I had no hesitation contributing.

Recently I received a supporter email from Prisoners Abroad sharing the first of their ‘staff stories’. At the end of the message, recipients were invited to say why we support Prisoners Abroad, and I thought I might respond. So here goes…

My own experience with overseas imprisonment was twenty years ago and began with an after-midnight call (always worrying), informing me and my husband that our daughter, who should have been on a flight back to the UK after a holiday in the Caribbean with her boyfriend, had been arrested and therefore had not made it onto her flight. Unbeknown to her, her boyfriend had attempted to smuggle drugs and the packets had burst in his stomach, killing him. The call was the worst ever.

Despite the fact that I found the idea of travelling alone, without a word of Spanish, really terrifying, and on the advice of the local honorary consulate and the holiday rep, I decided to go to the Caribbean - it was a no-brainer.

We were not a wealthy family, but only months before we had had an annuity mature so there was some spare money in the pot. At Gatwick I exchanged as much money as was permitted and, 36 hours after the call, I was landing at an airport from where it was just a few hours by road to where our daughter was being held.  Naively I assumed that, because she was innocent, I would get her released and bring her back home within the week. I had only packed enough clothes to see me through that long, ignorant at that point of the fact that this was to be the start of a very demanding four-month ordeal.

The first lawyer whose details were provided by the British Consulate was corrupt, as was the second, whom I found.  It took a while for me to understand that the longer they kept her there and the further up the legal system they pushed her, the richer they got, despite not having a shred of evidence against her.  She was looking at up to twenty years in prison.

After hearing our plight, Fair Trials (then known as Fair Trials Abroad) agreed to help us with some legal assistance. [1] We found an honest lawyer and set up a meeting with the Attorney General, putting us, at last, on an upward trajectory.  But there were still major problems with the system, and, as a result, several costly hearings had to be abandoned.  There was even a threat of jail for me for breaking a contract. Happily, we did have the constant support of the honorary consul and a very big-hearted interpreter.

The holding cells and prisons where our daughter was kept were dire; she was often sleeping on concrete floors, they were unsanitary, with no bath or shower facilities, and they provided her with nothing, at least for the first three months.  So, I became a veritable bag lady, in and out on a daily basis providing for all her needs (and for those of any penniless cellmates) - food, drinking water, bedding, toiletries, sanitary needs, loo rolls and cigarettes. American prisoners, those from The Netherlands and some other countries were provided with monthly government aid.  The UK government provided nothing. [2] 

I experienced prison life in a different way to my daughter, because I could walk out, but nevertheless I experienced it: often dehumanised, terrified, isolated and out of my comfort zone. By chance I had travelled in a summer skirt, which was fortunate as women were not allowed to wear trousers when entering prisons because of the need to be strip-searched. I wish I could say that dropping my knickers and squatting while someone looked underneath (with an audience) was an event I grew accustomed to, but I never did. 

The sun was piercingly hot on the rough unshaded ground, where we had to queue outside the main prison until they decided we could go in. I was sometimes subject to discrimination, as the only white person there; on one occasion a guard with his rifle cocked attempted to force me to move to the back of the queue, despite having reached the front. With the upraised flat of my hand and a few choice words I stood my ground and, to the astonishment of the other women around me, the guard retreated.  It was also commonplace for the recorder of visitors, sitting at his rickety wooden table, to take minutes to copy my driving licence number onto his list.

 I was determined that my daughter would get her freedom because she was innocent and not because I paid a bribe, although there were others (often under the guise of being supportive) who tried to convince me otherwise.

Our daughter made copious notes of her experiences, so notepads and pens were often on her shopping lists for me to buy.  My very rundown and cockroach-infested apartment (which had electricity for only a few hours daily because the holiday complex could not afford to pay its electricity bills), at least sometimes provided me with the use of a telephone and fax machine, so legal documents could be sent and received, as well as letters to friends and family. Lap-tops and smart phones were a thing of the future.  Over the four months, a few visitors made it across bringing clothes, books, magazines, gifts, CDs, and cards, which kept us going. Towards the end of our time there, stricter visiting was imposed, but I had managed to smuggle a cell phone in and could provide her with pre-paid credit, so we could still keep in touch. 

For me, most things were a challenge.  When the electricity in the complex was off and an important call had to be made, I would get a taxi to the main post office where there were coin-in-the-slot phone booths. Clothes-washing had to be done in my bathwater, early, before the power cut out, and was rung out by rolling and twisting the wet items in towels.  Wire hangers slotted through the louvred cupboard doors supported them whilst they dried - necessity being the mother of invention.  Fresh food had to be bought daily, because the fridge was only available part-time. Being located on the top floor, when it rained (like stair-rods!) the noise on the corrugated roof was horrendous. Worse still the holes in the roof allowed the water in, which I collected in bowls and mopped up with cheap beach towels. But occasionally I could take a walk along the white beach just outside the complex and there was a pool, so there were some brighter moments for me – but certainly not like the holiday experience some were enjoying nearby.

But, after 16 weeks our new lawyer managed to get all the necessary papers to the Court of Appeal and our hearing was set. Nobody destroyed or hid any served papers, as had been the case in the past, and our daughter was allowed to leave the prison for the city where the hearing was to be held. The courthouse was full, with lots of students who wanted to witness the first case of Habeas Corpus [3] to be heard. Of course, there was an inevitable delay, not because of our sacked lawyers’ threat to wreck the proceedings, but because only four judges arrived.  A fifth was located and brought in from her sickbed by our lawyer.  Witnesses were called, the prosecution joined forces with the defence, and she was released. Well, to be truthful, she did have to return to prison immediately after, but at least not handcuffed, because the secretaries had already left the building by the time the case finished, and the necessary paperwork could not be produced till the following day. You couldn’t make it up! 

The police had confiscated our daughter’s passport at the time of her arrest and, when she was freed, adding insult to injury, they failed to release it unless we bought it back. Of course, we refused and bought a temporary replacement from the honorary consul, who then drove us to the airport safely, despite being chased half of the way. We still keep in touch.

On our return, our daughter had her family, friends, and colleagues around her, but even then, recovery was slow. My workplace welcomed me back and I appreciated the relative ease of living back in the UK.

My daughter was lucky - not lucky that her boyfriend deceived her, that he died, and that she found herself in that situation - but she was more fortunate than most who find themselves in foreign jails. She didn’t have any children left at home. She had support, a good lawyer, the honorary consul, and a trusted interpreter. She had me to provide for her daily needs, and loyal friends and family. And, despite her grief, her terror, and the whole trauma of the four months, she sometimes had hope. And, on her release she had a home and a career to which to return. 

All through the sorry and costly episode, we were both acutely aware of how much more difficult it must be for those incarcerated, away from the UK, who don’t have that level of support and, in many cases, are imprisoned for very much longer.  No daily bag-lady. Nobody fighting their corner. Nobody to help them rebuild their lives after their release. 

But thankfully there are still good people around with consciences and a commitment. What Prisoners Abroad does is awe-inspiring. You are life-savers – we have absolutely no doubt about that. 

With very kind regards and the best of luck with all your endeavours,

An anonymous supporter.

[1] Please note that Fair Trials no longer provide individual legal assistance.  

[2] The British government does not give funds directly to British prisoners overseas, but this is where Prisoners Abroad (a charity part-funded by the government) can step in and provide grants for food, water and medical care when needed.

[3] Habeas Corpus requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court.

Creating a safe, non-judgemental space for shared experiences.

Prisoners Abroad helps family members affected by a loved one’s imprisonment by providing one to one support as well as hosting family support groups around the country and arranging overseas visits.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?