By Louis

Delays to deportations during the pandemic has led to many people being held in immigration detention facilities, as Louis was. When he was finally deported from the US to the UK, Louis risked becoming homeless. Prisoners Abroad helped organise accommodation, subsistence and work preparation support to help Louis get back on his feet.

It’s funny how you can go from one minute living a normal life to the next being led away in hand cuffs and have everything you know turned upside down. That’s precisely what happened to me. I made one fairly quick wrong decision and here I am.

I’m going to put this down to a mid-life crisis but for some reason I decided five years ago to give up my job, family and friends, sell my house (losing money) and move to the United States to marry someone who I really wasn’t a good match for; in hindsight I obviously didn’t make the best choices. 

The important thing is to accept and own what has happened, my part in it and then decide how I was going to move forward. 

Before having the joys of going through the machine that is the American justice system, I had a clean record with enhanced security clearance. Prison was all new to me and to be honest very stressful. I’m lucky enough to be a veteran so I’m used to spending months in less than pleasant conditions. 

Before I was detained, I was under the illusion that I’d get a slap on the wrist, maybe a fine, what with this being my first offence, with my prior service history, and my good standing in the community which I’d built up during my time in the country. I thought my next steps would be to get help from my friends and to travel home and rebuild my life. This was not to be. The first question I was asked in court was about my immigration status. I hadn’t been issued my green card yet at that point (that is a whole other story that you don’t need to hear) so I was ripe for the picking.

The whole experience of court was unpleasant and upsetting. Even my friends who not only visited me in prison every week, but attended the hearings as well, were dismayed at what was going on. Having someone in your corner really makes a difference. They may not be able to change the outcome, but it prevents you falling too far into despair. In the end I was offered six months in jail or immediate deportation. No prizes for guessing which option I jumped all over!

This is where the story should have ended.

I was picked up from jail by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E) and was taken to the processing centre, where I completed the paperwork and was given a call to the British Embassy. It was at this point that I first heard about Prisoners Abroad. I was asked if I would like to complete the application form as there may be help available to me when I got home. I didn’t really give it much thought as I was originally planning to go back to Belfast in a couple of weeks’ time. My friend was making arrangements to gather my stuff and have it shipped back.

I thought I was sorted and ready to just jump straight back in the saddle again, then two things happened. Firstly, my house burned down, so everything I owned was gone, apart from two changes of clothes my friend had put in a backpack for me. Next, the Covid-19 pandemic went into overdrive.

My original flight to the UK was booked for early March. It was a connecting flight straight home. I had been told there was a four-hour layover (plenty of time to get in a burger and pint I thought), then I’d be back. I arrived on the Monday morning, excited and ready to be finished with this whole experience. Then, after sitting for an hour, I was told I would be going back to into detention once again as the airports had all been closed. I won’t lie - I’d managed to pretty much hold it together during this process and when I heard that news I broke down; sometimes you need to.

Two days later I was transported to an I.C.E Processing Centre, stopping off at a couple of jails along the way due to the distance and weather. I can safely say I’ve had more fun road trips!

I was not treated well in the prison but I built up a relationship with my consular officer from the British Embassy. This was the person who could make sure everything was in place and keep reminding the I.C.E. officers that I existed. My weekly calls with my consular officer helped keep me going; hearing a familiar voice from home really picked me up. I was told that due to Covid, most of the consular officers were working from home and trying their hardest with limited resources. During my time in prison I did my best to keep occupied and stay out of the prison politics.

In prison you encounter some weird and wonderful people whose whole lives revolve around the four walls of a cell. I didn’t need any additional drama in my life, or an extra sentence. To pass the time I decided to write short stories which I have now had published. I also made marinades and sauces to try and make the food I was given a little less awful. I read anything that kept my brain ticking over - they couldn’t take that away from me.

The thought of being left out on the street when I arrived in the UK was something that was playing on my mind, after everything that had happened. 

I was assured by the British consulate that this would not be the case and they were right. When I finally got on that flight and touched down on home soil I was met by a couple of police officers who wanted to make sure that I had the right information to reach Heathrow Travel Care (a charity that Prisoners Abroad works with). This blew the minds of my I.C.E escorts who apparently hadn’t experienced such civility or humanity being displayed before. This made me smile and made me just that little bit prouder to be British. 

I was met by a representative from Heathrow Travel Care who gave me a pay as you go phone, a shopping voucher and Oyster travel card and some toiletries; these had all been supplied by Prisoners Abroad. I was also bought lunch before heading to the hotel that Prisoners Abroad has sorted for me, and I then had to quarantine. 

This is when I spoke to Nadine, my Prisoners Abroad Caseworker, who has been with me through every step of this process.

When I arrived back in the UK I found that my US bank account had been cleaned out, and my UK debit card had expired with the account being put on hold due to inactivity. Nadine helped me file for Universal Credit and Prisoners Abroad sent shopping vouchers to me every week to keep me going until I had everything sorted. If you are sensible and budget properly this is enough to keep you fed and it also allowed me to buy some sundry items.

Due to the pandemic, I realised that everyone is pretty much in the same boat, so I wasn’t under any immediate pressure to jump straight back into life again. There is also a plethora of free online training available so that I could start building up some skills. Shirley from Prisoners Abroad has been an immense help to me with the Work Preparation Programme she runs. As well as having gained some basic qualifications in digital marketing and social media, I am now investigating the possibility of attending university in the new year. 

At each step of my journey Prisoners Abroad have done everything they can to help me. I’m now set up in a studio flat, I have all the basics I need, and life is good.

Preventing homelessness is crucial.

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?