By Chris

Chris was sentenced to 30 years in prison in the USA. When he was released and deported back to the UK, he was faced with the very real threat of homelessness. But, with the help of Prisoners Abroad, he has been able to start a new life and look to the future.

When I first went into prison, it was scary and unreal. I got given a life sentence, without parole. I couldn’t fathom that I would be there for the rest of my life. When I got to prison, I couldn’t believe it. I was in denial. It didn’t hit me for a couple of weeks, and it took over a year for me to start registering things and to finally realise that I wasn’t getting out of this place. My whole demeanor changed. The reality hit me – they found me guilty. I was looking and thinking about everyone in a negative way.

Once I had come to terms with it, I had to work myself out. I had options: I’d be the prey or the wolf. People are looking at you and every day you must assess. You must be consistent to survive so that people know what to expect from you. I made the decision, and then I had to be a tough guy for 30 years. 

In the morning, you get up, and you don’t know what’s going on yet or what will happen; things can change almost immediately. Interestingly, every gang represents a state. Where you are from determines which gang you are in when in prison – NYC, Florida, DC - and then they assess how tough you are. It’s a war every day.

You can be put into segregation which is hard. It’s difficult to explain the reality of what it’s like really – many people’s reference points for prison are from what they see on TV – but it’s not like that. Unless you’ve actually been there and experienced it you will never know what it’s like. It was crazy. I wasn’t going to let anyone take advantage. That’s one scenario. You had to choose your own scenario. 

The food situation was hard – I was eating just beans and plain rice. I had to eat what I could. I could buy stuff from commissary. I really trained myself on a diet, trained myself on a lot of things really. I was eating once a day. I’ve been through a lot, looking back, but I made it as comfortable as I could and I just dealt with it. 

You feel like an animal being in a cell every day. You’re living in a cage really – there is no way out. I might not have come out at all, and I think of that often. When you’re in there, you can’t see the street or cars, nothing of the real world really. All you see is guards and prisoners. And if you’re imprisoned far away, it’s hard for family to visit you. But they design it that way – to take you away from society. You have to adjust in a matter of seconds; you’ve got to do it and you don’t have a choice. 

I stayed in touch with family as much as possible. They say they want to help unite you, but it seemed to me that they try and break that bond as much as possible. As a first punishment they withdraw visits from family and friends and deny you the ability to make phone calls, which seems to go directly against their aims for maintaining family relationships. What kind of connection can you retain when you have no way to contact them? It seems like they want families to forget prisoners.

The punishment is prison, but you should be able to contact people and see a life beyond prison. 

Something particularly difficult is that anything can happen in prison at any time – which can affect everything. If family are on their way – booking flights, spending money  – and then the prison locks down, there is nothing you can do, you can’t warn them or tell them, and then it’s a wasted trip. It’s even harder because you don’t know when you’ll see them again and you’ve got to watch them leave. It’s crazy – it could be years until you see them again.

The strength that your family have to have is immense – prison makes life hard on everyone involved. Everyone is enduring it, there are endless difficulties and a real chain reaction. 

Arriving back in the UK was really tough. I don’t have any family here, I didn't know anyone. But at least I was going to be free. I left the UK when I was a year old, so I was born here but have no reference at all. Coming to a new country, coming as a black man, I was uncertain about the future that lay ahead of me. If it wasn’t for the Embassy contacting people I don’t know where I would have been, and I didn’t want to be in immigration for year – like so many others.

I was asking everyone I could what the situation would be when I got there. Was I going to be on the streets?

Someone told me that I’d be taken care of, but I didn’t know whether to believe him. I got there, got off the plane, and to my surprise there was somebody there waiting for me. They gave me a phone and said I could call my family. It was assumed that I knew how to use it – but I didn’t know how to use any technology. I had been in prison all this time and hadn’t been taught anything about this kind of thing. I’m looking at this random item, I had to be shown how to turn it on. It seems like a small thing but it was all alien to me. 

That’s where Prisoners Abroad come in. It transpired that it was their partner organization Heathrow Travelcare that met me at the airport, and Prisoners Abroad had made sure I had access to a phone and information. It is down to them that I had a roof over my head and some level of certainty during those first moments of disillusion. I got to the hotel that Prisoners Abroad had organized for me and I stayed there for two weeks. 

Then there is my resettlement officer - the world needs more people like her. She has such a passion for her work and made me feel so comfortable here. What she has done for me is what no one has ever done for me. It feels like more than a job to her as she genuinely cares, and she pushed to get me support.

There was still a lot on me, and I had to take responsibility, but she made it easier. She helped get me set up with benefits which has helped me get so far. She also showed me how to use a phone, and was patient with me. She called me out when I was wrong and helped me see the world in a different way to help me live in it and become a part of society. She’s got passion in her heart and kept it real. She also told me everything was going to be alright. And she proved me right. We had a plan and we worked through lots of things. Prisoners Abroad worked so hard to get me into an apartment.

My resettlement officer kept telling me that I was somebody and that I deserved things. A lot of people were not fighting for me, but she was. I’m now in a nice place and I feel like a human again. It’s been a long time. 

When I first got on the bus, I didn’t know how to use my travelcard. People kept saying use the card, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know that you had to tap it – I was just showing it. I was illiterate at basic things in a lot of ways. People would look at me like I was stupid. I just didn’t know how the simple things worked! I got a bank card sorted and was trying to work out how to use it at the supermarket. I scanned the food, then just stared at the machine, I had to say ‘Hey, how do I pay for this?’ and they had to show me. I’m still learning stuff now, like that you shouldn’t show your passwords or codes to anyone.

I’m pretty digitally illiterate but I’m getting better. I haven’t had to use this stuff for 30 years.

I attended the Work Preparation Programme and the coach gave me things to read and think about. I’m trying to move things forward but it’s hard to get going. The Job Centre isn’t giving me grants to support my own business which is what I’m working towards. I have a business mind and I’m proud of that. I started making clothes, and I’m planning to make videos of me doing that. I know I need to do the groundwork and can only take it from there. I understand that it will take me time. It’s an activity that is keeping me going - focusing my mind with creativity and helping me deal with it all. I’m still in touch with my resettlement officer, and she’s helping with the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty.

There are still things that I don’t know so it’s useful to touch base. I know that Prisoners Abroad are there if I need them which is such a relief.

Prisoners Abroad deserve all the money in the world. They treat British citizens with such respect. It would have been rough, and I probably would have ended up back in jail without them. Coming back to England has been good for me, even if I didn’t want it at first. I do finally feel safe, and it feels good that I am free. I also feel I can be productive now; I’m accepting what I’m given and trying to make something of myself and finally trying to give back to society too. A logo for my new fashion label is the British flag…

I recently got to go to Central America to see my mum for the first time in 30 years. How did it make me feel? Well. I can’t even try to say, she is everything to me. It was indescribable, the best day I’ve ever experienced – to see her so happy, to see relief on her face, to see her life start again. I know that I took a lot away from her. We talk 4-5 times a day. She's 82 now and I know that one of these days she’s going to leave this earth.

I know what freedom is now and I can see how much I’ve missed, it’s really kicked in, I’ve missed a lot, but am living in the moment. Travelling around with my Oyster Card, I’m going everywhere – I went to see the London Eye, went to see the fireworks, went to Liverpool Street Station. I get the bus (now I know how to use it) and check out loads of different areas. I know all the underground lines by now. I’m loving England - it’s where I want to live, it’s where I’m happy to be. 

Offering a guiding hand

Prisoners Abroad supports people who return 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.

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