By Justin

Justin was detained in the Middle East. Here, he describes his return to the UK after 3 years in prison and how he eventually found his freedom again with the assistance of Prisoners Abroad.

I was detained in a country in the Middle East and was transferred to prison five days after my arrest. It was absolutely freezing there and you could see your breath at night when you were sleeping. The food was horrendous, the fish was green and the fried chicken sometimes was as well.

There was a cafeteria available to place food orders for the week, but this was only if you could afford it. In the cells all the bunk beds were spaced so that two bunk beds were attached to each other side by side, so you always had a man sleeping in a bed attached to yours. You had no privacy or space to yourself.

It was awkward if you were next to someone you didn’t know as you were so close. If there was a fight or a problem on the block, everyone would be punished in some way.

After that I was then transferred to a federal prison. This was the most vile and disgusting place you can imagine. I stayed there for the rest of my 3 years in prison. 

For the first 8 months we lived without water.

We had to use an emergency hose at the front of the cell block – this meant there were lots of journeys back and forth to do things like flush the toilet. There was no AC so at the height of summer we lived without any cold air running through the block in scorching 50+ degree heat.

There were 20 cells, each of which had space for 10 people but were actually holding between 15 to 30. The cells all had two toilets, two sinks and metal bunk beds without a mattress. It was just heat on top of heat and there was dust, cockroaches, rats and filth everywhere.

And then one day, they woke me up at night and told me that I was going home.

The process of returning to the UK was strange. They were releasing 40 people at a time for some reason (a reason that was never explained), and I was in the first batch to be freed.

While we were waiting for our turn to be released they kept us in a solitary confinement block with the doors open. I was lucky enough to have my flight paid for me by a friend, so I was able to book a flight soon after they processed me. Everything was finalised just 4 days after my ‘initial release’. This was not the case for many.

I met my mother at the airport just before they put me on the flight where we said goodbye and she gave me a hoodie, shoes and socks.

When I got onto the plane the flight attendant asked me “what do you want to eat?” – I hadn’t had a single choice for 3 years and here I was being asked what I wanted to eat or drink. It took me a minute.

After my release, I think that the hardest part was trying to acknowledge that I was now a free man, and that things would be OK.

It’s not as simple as it sounds. I didn’t realise what I’d been carrying all those years and how much it had affected and changed me. I had matured and grown and been made stronger and more alert, but I hadn’t considered how it had affected my mental health.

Once I was back I decided to face my issues head on and see a therapist - it was hard but I knew it would be worth it in the end.

I didn’t always feel safe in prison, as I’m sure a lot of people don’t, but I have good communication skills and was able to build relationships. There were people who would offer to help me because they would see that I was the odd one out: I was the only European and I was the only black person. I was also the only English speaking prisoner and not being able to speak to anyone else was very tough.

I’m able to talk about it all now and share what I have been through as I’m in a better place and a better headspace. I finally feel that I can face the feelings now.

For me, when I returned the key was to keep pushing forward whilst at the same time not overwhelming myself.

I was conscious to take things step by step and to not to be disappointed by the reality of life after a tough prison sentence.

When I returned, at first it was hard to build friendships, but I got in touch with an old friend and was lucky that they didn’t make me feel judged. Because you often feel like that: like you’ve got something to hide. Having people around you during resettlement makes such a difference, just like it did in prison. I was blessed that I wasn’t separated from my family while I was detained. The only time that I was away from them was after my initial arrest.

My sister and mother came to visit me almost every single week and I don’t think I would have made it if it wasn’t for them. It made things so much easier for me knowing they were there caring about my welfare, thinking about my case, and bringing me food and clothes when they could.

Life on return to the UK would have been a lot harder if Prisoners Abroad had not stepped in and reached out.

They offered me some money to get me started and sent me a letter that I could use to get housing and another letter for Universal Credit. Showing these letters certainly fast tracked everything and allowed me to get the practical bits sorted out without having to personally dredge up my ordeal all the time. Prisoners Abroad also gave me papers to give to health workers, and encouraged me to seek help and get a full check up on return, which I did almost immediately and am very thankful for.

If I was to give any advice to someone who is about to return to the UK it would be to not hold any hate in your heart, because that will only eat away at you. Forgive but don’t forget. Take a moment to appreciate your life and your freedom - literally go out there and smell the flowers.

It’s amazing when you really see how free you are and then you will realise that freedom is a state of mind. You’ve always been free but you got lost for a minute. As long as you have your head and your heart you will always be free.

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?