Conditions in Brazil are truly hellish. John slept on a concrete floor for seven months, and when he finally did manage to get hold of a mattress it was riddled with lice and bugs. During that same period he only saw daylight for a total of three hours. The toilet arrangements were dangerously insanitary, with sewage sometimes covering the cell floors for days. Keeping clean and healthy was impossible: “In three and a half years, I never felt hot water on my skin”, said John.

Their diet was relentlessly unnourishing. Both shed weight dramatically – John, who’s six foot tall, went down to 9 stone. Derek worked out that during his sentence, he’d eaten 2,800 almost identical meals which were no more than a handful of black beans and rice. Fish was occasionally offered, but you were sick whenever you ate it. Once, when they investigated why the water supply was drying up, they discovered the cause of the blockage: a dead body in a water tower. ‘We used that for washing ourselves and our plates and we drank it,’ Derek said. The corpse came as no surprise because of the overwhelming culture of extreme violence. Gangs ruled, smashing arms or legs as punishments to ensure they were obeyed. The official guards used pistols and machine guns to maintain control.

There was no let-up in the violence or cruelty when, inevitably, you fell ill. Of the many times he was taken to hospital, Derek said, “I’d be handcuffed and often walk along with a 9mm gun held under my chin”. Once, when John was so ill that infection had spread right through his body and he was in such constant agony that he couldn’t walk, he was handcuffed and shoved into a packed prison van “like a sardine”. The stifling journey to hospital took 11 hours. “I was stuck in that van with no water and I can’t describe the pain”.

On his 59th birthday, John thought that his family had forgotten. It turned out that the cards they sent were stolen by guards looking for money. “The only card I got was the one from Prisoners Abroad, wishing me well and urging me to keep going.” Through tears John explains that it was “so wonderful that there were people out there that cared”. 

As foreign prisoners, John and Derek were never offered the jobs allowing inmates to earn small amounts of money which could help them. But we managed to get monthly allowances to them, so they could buy basic things which we at home take for granted, like water and soap. They read and re-read copies of a free newspaper that we here scan and discard without thinking. The vitamins we supplied helped them recover from illnesses.

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

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.