Drug mule Michaella gets out of jail but Peru is still her prison
From 'hell hole' to the streets of Lima, freedom is still some way off for the Irish smuggler, says Barbara McCarthy
After almost 1000 days behind bars, Michaella McCollum finally walked out of her Peruvian 'hell hole' prison last week. The famously dusty, smoggy air outside Ancon Dos maximum security facility, an hour north of Lima - which has been her home for over two years - must have tasted sweeter than ever.
No doubt the 23-year-old Co Tyrone native has been dreaming of this moment since being caught with over 11kg of cocaine with her friend, Scottish-born Melissa Reid, at Lima's Jorge Chavez airport in August 2013.
She's currently in Lima, spending some quality time with her mother, Norah, who flew out to Peru to see her daughter. The likelihood of her 'telling all' on the Late Late Show next week however is zero.
Her lawyer Kevin Winters said he was working with Michaella's lawyers in Peru and hoped to be in a position to "clarify further, as soon as possible", how long she will be there - but according to an ex-inmate of the famous prison, she won't be home before March 2020 at the earliest.
"This is Peruvian law, so any other outcome is impossible," said 'Daniela', who didn't want her real name identified. "No one, absolutely no one, gets out of a Peruvian prison and gets on a flight home anytime soon."
The girls received a minimum sentence for trafficking of six years and eight months in December 2013 - but as of 2014, a new law allowed inmates to apply for early release serving one-third of their sentence in prison and the rest on parole.
"It's called 'semilibertad,' so she is semi-liberated," 'Daniela' said. "I was caught with 3kg of cocaine in 2010, and got six years and eight months too, but I got out earlier on benefits. Prisoners don't have benefits anymore. The reason I ended up staying on for two years was to pay off my €3,500 penalties," she said.
Everyone stays on after prison, whether it's red tape, parole, to pay fees or all three. 'Daniela' said Michaella could also transfer to a Belfast prison to serve out her time, but she would still only be released when she serves out her original sentence.
"It's called 'translado' and there's a lot of paper work involved and there needs to be official agreement between prisons, so she won't just be able to come home and serve a few months and leave," she added.
"If I were her, I'd stay in Peru. She will be registered, so she can work legally, she can get her own apartment, earn money, go to college, go to cafés and travel around Peru. It will be a hell of a lot better than prison."
When I met Michaella and Melissa in a courtyard in Virgin de Fatima prison in Lima, in October 2013, before they were sentenced, she said it would be "amazing" to get out of prison within two years. At the time, she thought the possibility of up to 15 years was on the cards.
"I'd want to go straight home to my family, but if it's a choice of being out and living in Peru or being in here, I'd rather be out. Funnily enough neither of us had even heard of Peru before we came here, and now we're stuck here," she said. "You know the way when you see prisoners going back to visit the prison they were in years later after they've been released, I don't think I could do that. I don't think I'd ever come back to Peru," she added.
But stories last week appear to suggest she has adapted well to life in Peru, and according to Bishop Sean Walsh, who is based in Lima, McCollum will volunteer at the Eastern Catholic Church in Lima and will be working with people who are HIV positive with a Colombian priest in Peru, Fr Cathal Gallagher.
According to a source who spoke to the bishop, she will be living with Dr Walsh in his home. He said she had been an "exemplary prisoner".
After attending McCollum's hearing, Dr Walsh said she had learnt Spanish and also did a course in hairdressing. The Irish-American bishop recently told Vice news that he came to Peru to be a missionary - but now focuses on helping ex-prisoners, after he saw a group of European or American-looking men 'on parole' rummaging through bins because they had no money.
When I met McCollum, I found her to be extremely level- headed and grounded, where others could easily have fallen to pieces.
"This is why she came out early. In Ancon Dos, they like to see prisoners doing courses, learning skills and not losing the plot," Daniela says. "It's difficult not to, but it pays off.
"But she needs to watch herself. For the first seven months, a prison officer pretty much follows the parole girls around, so she will have to be really careful who she hangs out with. They check your Facebook page and take photos of you. I know Michaella has done very well in prison, I suspect she will be okay. But she needs to remember that even though she's not in prison, she's not free."
Some girls do really well during their parole time. One ex-prisoner is now a supermodel in Peru and is making TV ads, appearing in the social pages of magazines with local celebrities and living in a house with a pool.
But not everyone gets lucky. Belfast woman Lillian Allen, who was caught with 10kg of cocaine in her luggage in 2010, had to pay off corrupt officials to flee the country in fear of her life, vowing never to return.
Some ex-mules have escaped via a dangerous Ecuador border crossing - but the journey is fraught with risk, and if caught, they get 15 years in prison with no chance of parole.
"I'm home now for the last eight months and I'd give anything to go back to Peru. I had a life there. I opened a small restaurant. I had friends. Now I'm back in Europe, my friends have moved on," Daniela said.
She can't get work, because she's 43 and spent six years in a Peruvian prison for smuggling drugs.
"It doesn't look good," Daniela said. "Once you've been to prison, a strange thing happens. It's like the Shawshank Redemption, first you hate the walls that surround you, and then you grow to depend on them. You don't fit in anywhere anymore. You don't fit in when you get home, you don't fit in in a foreign country. Your friends get married; have children and work, while you stand still. It's strange and no one really helps you.
"Michaella is younger than me, so she will be OK. But I would advise her not to do too many interviews while she is there," she said. "She won't do herself or current prisoners any favours if she talks about corruption or illegal activity at official level."
When she is finally ready to go home, her original visa will have ran out and there will be more paperwork and fines. But after incarceration, at least being able to walk the streets of Lima will be a breeze.