Sean* was in prison in the Caribbean for fifteen years, and during that time he was forced to exist in life-threatening conditions. He received support from Prisoners Abroad, which helped him to stay hopeful for the future. Sean is now thankfully back in the UK, but we are supporting many others just like him in 100 countries. Sean's story featured in our 2023 BBC Radio 4 Appeal, read by our patron Dame Harriet Walter.

I was arrested at the airport whilst going through security. They took me to a prison 30 miles away and threw me in a cell. There was a foreigner who was talking to me, but I was in a state of shock so I can’t remember how I was acting. Every new person who came into the cell that night was asked if they had money, if they didn’t, they were beaten up. At the time I was none the wiser, but that was the way of life that stood ahead of me. 

I went to court the next day and was remanded, then they took me to prison. They gave me access to a phone and I called my girlfriend. She looked up the prison I was in and said it was supposed to be the worst in the country. She was crying over the phone. Two hundred and fifty people had died in a fire at the prison not long before I was detained. This terrified her. It terrified me. Things were starting to sink in.

A woman from the British Embassy came to visit me and told me about Prisoners Abroad. She gave me some forms to fill out and said they’d be able to help with a few things and that we could take it from there. She gave me some money from them then and there, about £50 I think it was, which was a great help as I had no other money – everything had been taken from me.

Over 3,000 people were held in the prison, which had been built for 250. We were head to toe on the floor. The place was crawling with cockroaches and ants. It was absolutely filthy.

I was held there for three months, and was then moved to another prison. This place was like a village – it housed 13,000 prisoners and the whole prison worked on bribes. It cost 700 pesos a week for somewhere to sleep, which was about a tenner in 2010. You had to buy your food, otherwise it was a two-hour queue and there was no food left by the time you got to the front.

The cultural difference was a real challenge. There were a lot of people from Haiti there so I started to try and learn Spanish; I had a book of basic English so started learning it in reverse. Very few people spoke English, so when I asked questions no one understood so it was really difficult and frustrating. Sometimes there was shouting in Spanish and everyone started grabbing their things and moving and I didn’t know what was going on. After trying to learn Spanish for a while people said I could speak it well, but it was still hard to understand people.

I would rather be alone as it was so frustrating not understanding what people were saying. It distanced me from everyone in a way, but it was an easier way to help me cope. There were a couple of English guys that came in 2012 for 5 months. We spent time together, but then they were released and I stayed where I was.

One of the prison inspectors spoke to me and explained to me what the deal was – if I wanted to move, he could organize it, so I went with it. It was 300 miles to the other prison. I went with one guard, he took me to Porto Plata, we got on a motorbike, and he took me up to the prison. When I got to this new prison, I obviously didn’t know what to expect, but I was hoping that the conditions would be a bit better. The place was filthy. And so violent – people were being stabbed every day. It was a central prison, kind of like an American penitentiary. They try to rehabilitate and help, so it was a good system in comparison to the previous place.

I was still with my girlfriend at the start, we’d been together for 13 years. She came and visited in 2008 for a week and then again in 2009, but she moved on. I wanted her to carry on with her life. I actually found out that she died whilst I was in prison, so that was particularly sad news – you realise how cut off you are from the world.

The books that Prisoners Abroad sent me kept me sane. Reading was the only thing that helped me, it was the one thing that kept me from going mad, it helped me cope in a very dark place.

They also sent me reading glasses, paid for medical fees, they helped me contact members of my family and forwarded letters they had written. They sent me magazines every three months – this was all brought in via the Embassy – and they also sent me yoga materials, useful information about how to cope with the situation I was in and translation books which really helped.

It was assumed that everyone who is white was rich, which can cause problems in itself and you have to work hard not to be taken advantage of. I was held in the central jail there for 13 and a half years. The prisoners stole the sugar and milk for the porridge at breakfast and for lunch there was beans and rice, that was the staple. There was meat once a week. Prisoners Abroad sent me a small amount of money so that I could buy things. The food is really processed, and the diet is poor. They had a café, the ‘economato’ where you could buy hamburgers and things like that. I lost quite a bit of weight, about 30 pounds in total. I have a disability so I’m not mobile now, but I’ve put on a lot of weight since prison.

I used the basketball court there, tried to do 60 laps a day and played with other inmates. When my health deteriorated, I couldn’t compete. I was becoming paralysed. My trainers fell apart and I had no money to replace them. At this point I started to get picked on by a bully and it really knocked me back. I felt suicidal; I thought about it a lot, but the shame it would bring to my sons would have been too much.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it at the time which compounded things and made everything harder. I feel down sometimes now, even though I’m no longer in prison, but it’s the aftereffects of the experience.

I’ve spoken to my brother about it, but he says there’s nothing he can do. When I listen to a sad song I sometimes cry. I told the doctor about my feelings, but he said if I’m generally feeling OK it’s nothing to worry about. It’s overwhelming because I suppressed emotions for so long.

My son is now 35 and he was 21 when I was sentenced. I stayed in touch with him and my brother. I have another son who was 4 at the time and I’ve managed to stay in contact with him too. I had an additional fine of 250,000 peso which equates to £5,000, so I was prepared to do more time, but my son paid the fine for me and also paid for my flight. He came out to get me and it was the first time I’d seen him in 15 years, and the first time I'd seen my grandson. I am now rebuilding these relationships.

I’m used to my own company, but now I’m back in the UK I still feel lonely sometimes. My isolation isn’t too bad, and I have some friends. I’m moving soon to be closer to where they are, so I’m not totally alone. I took a lady out for dinner recently, she was a bit of a shadow as she’d been married to an abusive policeman for so many years, so it wasn’t a good match. It made me realise that we all have our histories. It was good to get ‘out there’ though. She won’t be the first to reject me and she won’t be the last!

When I visited the doctor about my mobility, he said it was just to do with age. I then got a new doctor, and he found a hernia on my spine and was told I had arthritis – it was great to have a diagnosis. I’m off to see a neurologist here, too.

One theory is that the trauma from the last 15 years has affected my body in so many ways.

How has life been since prison? When I first got out, I was staying with my brother, but he was worried about the council increasing his rent due to me being there, so he was keen for me to move on. I managed to find somewhere to live temporarily and now I’m waiting for something a bit more permanent. Slowly and surely, I’m getting my medical things sorted. I found out I had Hepatitis C which they’ve cured now. I felt dirty having that, but it’s just a consequence of prison life and the conditions I was held in. I received a lot of helpful advice from Prisoners Abroad when I was back here too.

You’ve no idea the gratitude I have felt and feel now to Prisoners Abroad and the help I received. People from other countries couldn’t believe it – German guys, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, they couldn’t believe there was an organization helping me out. It was astounding.  

* Name has been changed to protect identity.

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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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