It really is true that with, for example, drugs, you might get a caution, a fine or a suspended sentence in the UK, but a ten-year prison sentence abroad. If you can, try to get your sentence down to four years or less; I will explain the reasons for this later.
We have all heard reports of ridiculous foreign prison sentences, though sometimes they're not entirely accurate. When the story breaks and the media goes wild, all talk tends to be about the death penalty and life imprisonment. In some cases, this is true. But in many, it’s not.
Often, as the months and years pass and you become less newsworthy (which might be a good thing), the sentence works out in the single figures. This may be of no consolation to you, but it could have been worse.
Prison life is hell. You won’t need me to tell you that. If you're abroad – unless it’s Norway or some such liberal democracy – it can be worse than hell.
When you consider prison overcrowding, medieval conditions, pretrial detention, the failed war on drugs and a globally rising prison population, it’s all bad. The authorities often realise their prison systems aren't working, but don’t have the courage to do much about it. Prison reform isn’t generally a vote winner.
If you have to do the time, then learn their system, their language, their culture, their ‘everything’. Inside or out, you may find there is a local Florence Nightingale: this person is usually a woman who visits the prisoners and buys them food and such.
It’s vital that you find your Florence – though she will likely find you first. Florence knows everything and everyone. The embassy should know her and be friends with her. In your darkest hours, she will be there for you when others have abandoned you.
Build your network. Like it or not, get on with your local embassy, priest, charity workers and others besides. Food, bedding, clothes and books may have to be bought for you and brought in regularly. It’s important you get to grips with your physical and mental health. The embassy and Prisoners Abroad can usually supply vitamins and other essential items. Almost everything has to be paid for. It’s hard.
There is a prison community and system of sorts, inside and out. Learn it. Don’t fight it. It may kill you otherwise.
After an initial few months or a year, you’ll understand what’s going on and how things work – or don’t. You’ll learn to adjust.
Remember to keep yourself on people’s radars. The kindness of strangers really does exist.
On countless occasions we experienced help from different quarters, including locals who were regular visitors to the prison, who showed us how to fill in the forms or where to buy food; prison staff, who took sympathy on us and gave us longer visiting time or more visits than normal; and expats and others in the community whom we had never met but who came forward to offer us comfort and support. It was very humbling, and you yourself must try to help others if and when you get the chance.
Prison visits are vital but filled with overwhelming emotions. Inside, you need to concentrate on one thing: survival.
International Prisoner Transfer Agreements (PTAs) are a big subject. Depending upon your circumstances, they may help you greatly. They did us.
First, check if the country in which you have been detained has a PTA with the UK. The Prisoners Abroad factsheet is excellent and addresses most points. In our case, there was no PTA with the UK. When I fought to get one agreed, the Foreign Office told me that they prioritised countries where Brits were on death row. There were no Brits on death row where we were fighting our case, so they told me there would be no PTA.
By this stage in the saga, I’d lost count of the number of times that we'd been told by both sides, including apparent experts, that something wasn’t possible, only for us to make it possible. This was also true for the PTA.
After three years of lobbying, including with the help of our embassy and the local government – who by that stage realised that it would be in everyone’s interests to see the back of us, because we were lobbying so hard and our case had become somewhat political – we got a PTA.
Often, your ‘host’ will wish to get rid of you. Therefore, work with your host to make that happen. Don’t antagonise them. Take a ‘help me to help you’ approach.
In our case, long, bitter experience taught us that there’s always an element of humour and a sense of the bizarre whilst living through all these procedures.
One example of the weirdness of it all: In the last year of his seven-year travel ban, Paul and his local girlfriend were actually working on behalf of the local Ministry of Justice, translating his own testimony for them. None of this would stand up in a genuine court of law.
In the end, after more years of waiting for the court system to be exhausted and the prosecutor to be denied the right to appeal any further (despite his promise that he would not do so), it took about six months to complete the paperwork, after which Paul left for the UK. We were relieved that finally the whole process was coming to a conclusion.
All British prisoners transferring back to England (not Scotland) go first to Wandsworth. HMP Wandsworth is a category B prison.
Be aware that the airline ticket purchased for your transfer by the Foreign Office may cost double or triple the normal cost. You will have to pay it back. You will also be accompanied by two or three British representatives from the prison service.
I should mention the sentence calculation with regard to any PTA. This was a great disappointment to us. Section 9 of any PTA is the relevant section. The English agency that handles all such transfers is Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. A first offence involving marijuana, with no drugs or money in evidence, would not get you four years in an English jail.
Our fear was that the Prison and Probation Service would reject the transfer entirely. After all, why should the British taxpayer pay to incarcerate someone for an offence that wouldn’t normally attract a custodial sentence in the first place? It would be bed blocking and a waste of time and money, especially in the light of efforts to reduce the prison population. Plus, of course, Paul had served seven years in detention on a travel ban by that stage, and the foreign country where he was being transferred from were reluctant to put him in their prison at all, insinuating they would be glad to accept a lower ‘transferred sentence’. Yet the Prison and Probation Service didn’t raise the issue or attempt to save the taxpayer any money or time. They just accepted the sentence given.
With regard to my previous mention of the importance of getting a sentence of less than four years, if you receive a sentence of less than four years in the UK, you may be eligible for Home Detention Curfew (HDC) – also known as electronic tagging. Depending on many factors, HDC might mean you get out before the end of your sentence. No matter what, at least in a British prison many more family members can visit your loved one.
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