By Luke

Luke was in prison in the Czech Republic. He has previously  shared a moving account of how our 'Keeping in touch with your children' resources helped him maintain a bond with his two daughters. This time, now released from prison, he reflects back on his experience of the Czech prison system and how he adapted to an alien environment.

"It always seems impossible, until it's done." - Nelson Mandela.

That's exactly how I would have categorised my position in 2019, when I was arrested in the Czech Republic. For me, the circumstances, the stress, the alien and foreign nature of it all made things look impossible. More than three and a half years later it's all ‘done’. My sentence was finished more than six months ago and I have been allowed to remain in the Czech Republic.

The impossibility of it all was largely overcome due to the work of Prisoners Abroad and, of course, the support of my family. However, I also had to quickly learn how to manage my new world inside the Czech prison system. How to firstly understand and then negotiate the daily or weekly procedures and secondly, how to keep myself safe - physically and mentally.

In the Czech Republic, once you are arrested it is more than likely that, as a foreign national, you are to be kept in custody and to appear in court the following day to assess if further detention is required. I was taken to an overnight custody facility that is part of Pankrác prison in Prague.

I was remanded in custody, and I asked my lawyer (who had been automatically provided by the Czech authorities) how long I would be remanded for. To my surprise, he said it was likely to be at least three months. At the time of writing, the Czech judicial system must assess the requirement of continued detention every three months.

The British Embassy were informed of my arrest and visited me within the first few weeks. Two lovely people, who along with giving me a book, some paper and pens, gave me crucial information on the Czech judicial process and a list of lawyers who spoke English. I selected a lawyer from that list, who worked for me throughout my case and helped me with some personal issues. Only a few weeks ago, we were able to meet for a coffee in Prague. The embassy also sent my details to Prisoners Abroad and the valuable support they provided was given right until the end!

While in custody awaiting trial, there is no ability to work for payment. However, in order to get out of my cell for some time, I offered to clean the showers, other cells that had recently been vacated, and the hallway. Otherwise, you just end up sitting in a cell for a minimum 23 hours every day. I was detained pending trial for one complete year.

The mental gymnastics you have to go through to keep a good level of mental health is extraordinary.

To sit between four walls in a space no larger than two double beds (some smaller) for an entire year takes a lot of perseverance. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that even perseverance is an achievement. However, to persevere in the Czech system, you need to work with it.

The custody and prison staff are generally called ‘supervisor’ and I always made sure to refer to them as 'Sir' or 'Madam'. To be polite and respectful in this situation was very important. I now know, upon reflection, that I was placed in a different category from others; someone who was respectful and was therefore trusted to do other things. This also included the times I had visits from family or received food and hygiene packages.

During the time I was in custody, and later prison, I was allowed to receive a parcel of no more than 5kg in weight. The weight is strictly controlled and if the parcel is heavier, you may be allowed to take some items out, or in the worst case scenario, the prison will deny you the parcel and you will be made to pay for postage to send it back to the sender.

The worst thing for me, among many horrible things in this system, were transfers. When I had court every three months to reassess my custody status, or when I eventually had my court date to decide my fate, I would be transferred to the required locations. At the time of my custody, transfers only took place on a Tuesday and Thursday. So, if court was on Monday, I would be transferred on the Thursday prior to that day, and not return until the following Tuesday.

During transfers, you must pack all belongings and carry them with you - no one will help you. It’s amazing how many things you collect in a short space of time and the weight of bags was sometimes unbearable.

This was made worse by the fact I was handcuffed throughout the transfer, and sometimes placed in ankle restraints. On one transfer, struggling with my bags while handcuffed, my wrists became raw and cut.

Coming back to my custody facility from one of these transfers, I thought I’d missed one of the twice weekly showers. However, I saw the kind face of one of the guards who treated me well. He said to me straight away, 'quickly, get your towel and have a shower’. That simple gesture took a lot of stress away that day.

I was in custody just before the start of the COVID pandemic. One of the first things to stop were visits. As a foreign national, with family in the UK however, this didn't make much of an impact. Indeed, the prison service decided to put Skype video calls in its place, which meant my family didn't need to travel to see me, so - under certain circumstances - I could speak to them every week for 20 minutes.

The three years in the Czech prison system sometimes feels like three months, and at other times a lot more.

There are many more experiences, both happy and sad that I could write about – but it’s important to reflect that every individual's experience of prison is different. However, this time will end. And as I quoted at the beginning – it will always seem impossible, until that day when you overcome everything that's put in front of you.

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.

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