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Monday 11 December 2017

Michaella is expected to plead guilty 'to get home'

Peru drug accused eager to return to Ireland as quickly as possible

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly
MICHAELLA: She felt her 'whole body was crawling with bugs' after picking up lice in her cell
Michaella McCollum-Connolly and Melissa Reid after being detained in Lima Airport

Michaella McCollum-Connolly has spoken to the Sunday Independent of her deep desire to escape her Peruvian prison hell as quickly as possible and go home to Ireland.

"The only thing I want to do is get out of here and return home," she said.

The 20-year-old Co Tyrone woman has yet to reveal how she will plead to charges of drug trafficking when she appears in court on Tuesday.

However, her comments give the clearest indication to date that she will plead guilty in order to fulfil her desire to go home.

Her co-accused, 20-year-old Glaswegian Melissa Reid, has already decided to plead guilty.

She said: "The most important thing is to get out of here, and if that means pleading guilty, although we still say we were duped, we will do it."

Meyer Fishman, Ms McCollum-Connolly and Ms Reid's Peruvian lawyer, said the two women were unlikely to be sentenced on Tuesday.

The pair have spoken of life in the low-security section of the Virgen de Fatima women's prison in Chorrillos, south-west Lima, saying it is difficult to cope.

"We get very excited when we hear we have visitors," said Ms McCollum-Connolly. "It's a real treat for us."

The prison is relatively small, with around 460 inmates.

The minimum-security wing opens on to a patio the size of a basketball court. The cells appear to be on three levels and are effectively large rooms with just over 40 beds.

The two women have encountered significant difficulties communicating with fellow inmates and staff because of their lack of Spanish, and have had to resort to some rather crude methods in order to get by.

"We have Spanish-English dictionaries and we get by using them and by gesturing to have conversations with the rest of the women," said Ms McCollum-Connolly.

Ms Reid said: "While we don't understand everything, we are able to communicate with the other women and find out a little about their background. We know about how many children they have and why they are here. We are learning as we go.

"We are the only foreign prisoners. The other women and the prison officers are nice to us – I think they feel sorry for us because we have no family here."

One of the visitors has been former Irish honorary consul, Michael Russell.

"We are very grateful to Michael Russell for telling us what to expect during this process," said Ms McCollum-Connolly. "He was the first person to explain what was likely to happen to us. It helped us to prepare for what was to come."

Another visitor is Bishop Sean Walsh, who has been liaising with the women's families to get necessities such as toiletries and money to them.

The pair are aware their case has attracted extensive media attention in Ireland and Britain. They said they were overwhelmed by the number of reporters they faced outside the anti-drugs unit in Lima when they were being transferred to the court for their preliminary hearing last month.

"I think people misinterpreted my reaction, thinking I was not taking what was happening seriously," said Ms McCollum-Connolly. "When I get nervous, I smile and giggle. I can't help it. It doesn't mean I don't take things seriously, because I do."

Referring to their first appearance before the judge, she said: "It caught us completely unawares. Neither we nor our families or lawyers knew the hearing was public until we were actually going into the court room.

"After that hearing, we were told we would be transferred to Santa Monica (a larger women's prison in the same district of Lima). It was only when we were in the van that we were told we were going to Fatima.

"My dad was waiting outside the other prison for us and eventually someone told him that we were not going there, we were being taken to Virgin de Fatima."

Ms McCollum-Connolly and Ms Reid are currently the only two inmates housed in one of the rooms, although that could change. They have a mattress, sheets and blankets and say they sleep well at night, despite initial problems with bed bugs.

"I felt like my whole body was crawling with bugs," said Ms McCollum-Connolly.

"We went to the doctor who gave us an injection in the bum. They didn't even ask what we had, they just gave us an injection and it worked."

There is no prison uniform; all the inmates wear their own clothes. There are separate visiting days for men and women, and it is obligatory for women visitors to wear skirts in order to distinguish themselves from the prisoners.

Speaking of the mainly rice-based diet, Ms McCollum-Connolly said: "We cook the rice we are given for free, but I find eating so much rice very heavy. I'm not used to it."

The pair's day consists of role-call in the morning, time outside, lunch, and role call in the evening. They have not yet been allowed to participate in the daily workshops run in the prison. "We're delighted when we get books in English, it helps pass the time. I could read a book in two days here," said Ms McCollum-Connolly.

"Most of the books we've been given so far are light reading, romances, chick-lits, which is fine."

Ms Reid said she exercises by running around the patio in the morning with some other women.

There are public telephones on the patio which the pair use to call their families on a regular basis.

There is also a shop where they can buy food and drinks. Prisoners have the option to buy their own lunch or cook their own meals.

Ms McCollum-Connolly said: "We're both independent people, we're used to paying our own bills and it's not easy to have to depend on our families to pay everything.

"They will have to pay for us for the next three years, but at least after that we can go home and start our lives again."


Martina Hanlon

Sunday Independent

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