“When I first stepped inside my cell the words that kept going over and over in my head were ‘welcome to hell’. The stench of bodies hits you like a wall - 114 men packed in a stifling cell meant for 30, one filthy toilet in the corner which we all had to share in view of everyone. I could feel the hatred, violence or fear in people’s eyes. I saw beatings and stabbings and wondered when my turn would come.”

When I visited a Moscow remand prison with my wife in 1996 as part of a Bar Human Rights team, there were only 14 men, not 114, in the same cell. But once again there was a single filthy toilet in the corner, and one of the inmates was at an advanced stage of TB. They received visits from the prosecutor quite often: an opportunity to meet their defence lawyer was a very rare occasion.

I helped Prisoners Abroad to stage an awareness-raising event ten years ago, at which Lord Phillips spoke. Its director told me he was surprised to see so many lawyers on the charity’s database – as donors I hasten to say. I was not at all surprised, because I knew that the Bar, and particularly the criminal Bar, has always been generous in helping causes like this. In January 2013 Lord Neuberger is hosting a similar event. This is why I was pleased to be given this chance of describing to Counsel readers what Prisoners Abroad does and why it does it.

What...and why

The charity has three main aims.

  • To give British prisoners in foreign prisons a lifeline to home – and to help while they are serving their sentences overseas.
  • To provide help, advice and support to their families.
  • To give them practical assistance when they come home, sometimes penniless and with only the clothes they stand up in.

When the US authorities find that one of their prisoners has some kind of tie to this country – sometimes they last lived here as a very young child – they are put on a plane when their sentence is over and shipped back here like so much unwanted cargo, leaving them to sink or swim when they land. A number of them know nobody and have nowhere to live. Prisoners Abroad is contacted when they arrive at Gatwick or Heathrow and helps them to travel to their North London offices. There they will be given some money (they have no immediate access to benefits), emergency shelter, advice about finding or claiming their National Insurance number, and help in looking for jobs or training opportunities and a permanent home. The main purpose is to enable them to build up their lives again. One-to-one meetings and membership of monthly support groups assist in this process.

I turn now to family support. The telephone rings at home, with the news that one’s son or daughter is in jail in Thailand, or South America, or one of the Gulf states. Who does the family contact for advice? How do they cope with a foreign language, or with a complex foreign legal system? Often they are too traumatised or ashamed to look for the help they need. In the last 12 months nearly two thousand family members have turned to Prisoners Abroad.  Again and again I have heard them say that its great strength is that it is entirely non-judgmental. A human being needs help, and they are there to provide it as best they can.

On 27 occasions last year Prisoners Abroad made financial grants – a contribution towards the the cost of a family visit to a prisoner, for instance. Their Freephone family helpline is in constant use. They help families liaise with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and its local consulates. They arrange prison visits. They offer other support, such as translation facilities or freepost envelopes. For the families they are an ever-present resource at a time of great need.

But it is on the lives of the prisoners themselves that Prisoners Abroad has been making the greatest impact during its 35 years of existence. When I retired from the Bench, the representative of the Law Society (a former President) said how grateful he was to me and my wife for bringing home to him “the huge difference it makes to someone incarcerated in a foreign jail to receive something as basic as a toothbrush.” That was at least something I achieved during my 18 years as a judge - 448 prisoners in 40 countries received quarterly “survival grants” last year. Each £30 grant enables a prisoner to pay for essential items, such as food, clothing, bedding – or a toothbrush.

Often a vitamin supplement is sent (costing £10 to £20 per quarter) – essential for maintaining some level of reasonable health in prisons where the prisoners’ nutritional needs receive no priority at all. In one country in South-East Asia the daily fare is likely to be two bowls of white rice, together with watery soup or fish or chicken bones if you are lucky. 266 prisoners in 40 countries received these supplements last year.

Prisoners Abroad can also help in meeting medical needs – to help with a chronic condition or to save a prisoner’s life.  HIV – hepatitis – stomach ulcers – rheumatoid arthritis – asthma – diabetes – psychiatric illness – ovarian cancer – the list is endless. Last year 48 prisoners in 20 countries received 70 grants from an emergency medical fund at an average cost of £160 each.

But its greatest strength is to convey the message that somebody cares. I have heard former prisoners express their astonishment when at the moment of greatest despair, two weeks after sentence, they received a letter from an unknown charity in England telling them of its existence and asking how they could be of practical help. 150 prisoners were matched with a pen friend. Nearly 2,000 Christmas cards were sent last year. Newspapers, books and magazines are also popular. So are freepost envelopes for letters home.  One prisoner said:

“It’s a sign that someone out there loves me as I receive no other support from the outside world.”

When I look back at a lifetime at the Bar and on the Bench, I feel how lucky I was to work among many people who really cared for those less fortunate than themselves and were willing to use their skills – or their surplus cash – to help them. The sheer scale of lawyers’ pro bono work which has blossomed since I first became a trustee of Free Representation Unit 25 years ago never ceases to amaze me. Charities like Fair Trials International do much to alleviate some of the most disagreeable features of the pre-trial process, quite apart from the trial process itself, for our citizens who get into trouble with the law abroad. Prisoners Abroad takes over where FTI leaves off. I am proud to be a patron of them both.

For more information on the work of Prisoners Abroad please visit: www.prisonersabroad.org.uk.

Sir Henry Brooke is a Patron of Prisoners Abroad.