Wednesday 24 January 2018

Michaella's coming back out of her Peruvian hell

The 21-year-old is to leave the discomforts of a Peruvian prison to resume her sentence at home

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly
Peru prison
Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid

Barbara McCarthy

Almost exactly a year to the day after her highly-publicised €1.7m cocaine bust at Lima airport in Peru, Michaella McCollum Connolly from Dungannon in Co Tyrone has been granted repatriation from Peru to the North. Her lawyer, Kevin Winters, said the transfer would happen before October, but the exact date was unknown.

"In around four weeks' time we will know more precisely," added the Belfast-based lawyer.

The chances, he said, of the authorities in Peru changing their minds about the repatriation were slim. "That said, she's not home yet. She's still in prison in Peru. It's a long and arduous process with a lot of protocol and red tape," he said.

"Her family have partaken in a high level of engagement with numerous agencies to ensure a successful transfer back home. Embassies, prison services and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, amongst others, have been involved."

So how did Ms McCollum Connolly feel when she heard she was coming home? "Her sister informed me that she was 'extremely pleased' when she heard the news a few days ago," he said.

When I met her in Peru's Virgin di Fatima prison last October, she told me how she would much rather be in prison at home, where she could be close to family and friends.

"You can use phones in prison and occasionally watch TV that's not in a foreign language," she said.

Both Ms McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, who was also convicted for the same incident, were in good spirits when I was with them, and we chatted about music, her much-discussed bun and general gossip. They have since had to endure a difficult move to Ancon 2, one of South America's most notorious prisons.

Mr Winters said her first few weeks there were very tough. "She was squashed into a rat-infested, vermin-addled cell with 15 others, where hygiene levels were extremely poor and food was inedible." She is now enjoying more humane living standards and is allegedly close to Ms Reid. "When I spoke to her a month ago, she was upbeat. She said conditions were a lot better."

The Peruvians authorities recently made it very clear that they would not offer benefits to prisoners, so it is surprising that the girls are to be transferred so quickly. Locals I met in Peru - as well as airport security staff, policemen and prisoners - all thought they would be made an example of.

I got in touch with a prisoner I went to see in Santa Monica prison in Lima last year, and she said she didn't have the same luck with her application.

"The new law does not pertain to my sentence." She is in the sixth year of a 14-year sentence handed down after she was caught with 18kg of cocaine in her luggage.

Emma Rowland, a caseworker with Prisoners Abroad, said: "If the agreements are in place with the prisoners' home country, then transfers are possible.

"Prisons in Peru are so overcrowded that often they will allow foreign prisoners to travel home to sit out the rest of their sentence.

"Currently there are 35 British people in prison in Peru and a large number of them have applied for transfer, so there will be quite a few happening in the next few months."

Once someone applies for a transfer, it can take between 12 and 18 months to happen. Though it rarely happens, prisoners can contest the transfer.

One prisoner wrote in a blog: "Don't do it, unless you're in a Far East prison with twenty people to a cell. It's like going from the frying pan into the fire."

While another saw its pros and cons. "Do I think transferring to the UK was a good idea? Yes, because my family can come and see me, and no, because I would have been free by now had I stayed in Spain."

Telephones, opportunities to go on day releases and better healthcare have been listed as reasons why home is generally preferred.

"I am smiling again! I feel like a respected, dignified member of the human race again," one prisoners wrote. "My time in a Japanese prison left me in constant fear. I felt degraded and each day was a tremendous hurdle."

I would imagine that Ms McCollum Connolly can't come home soon enough, having set out on a Balearic adventure 13 months ago with absolutely "no intention of smuggling drugs," as she insisted.

"I wouldn't know where to start," she told me last year.

When she finally does get the go-ahead, two prison officers from the Northern Irish Prison Service will fly to Lima and pick her up. "She will be flying home in economy class and sitting with other customers on a passenger plane," Ms Rowland said. She is not a big threat, so it won't be like Con Air.

"I'm not sure if the prison officers will be plain clothed or not," Ms Rowland said. "She will be allowed a small amount of hand luggage, but won't be checking in any bags."

What happens if someone on the flight recognises her and posts a photo on social media? This, said Ms Rowland, can't be controlled. "She certainly won't be cordoned off in any way."

Though she will be in custody the entire time, it won't feel like it and she will finally get a long sought-after taste of freedom by just sitting on a plane with fellow travellers. But it won't last long.

"She will be picked up directly at the airport and brought straight to prison in a prison van. Whether she will be handcuffed for the entire journey remains to be seen."

Once in Belfast, Ms McCollum Connolly will be brought to Hydebank Wood Prison and Young Offenders Centre, south of the city. The facility caters for offenders aged between 17 and 21.

According to a source at the prison: "The difference between a Peruvian jail and here is like comparing a motel to a five-star hotel."

Phones are allowed in the prison. Inmates can also partake in numerous workshops and sporting activities. On the website it says that every prisoner is provided with "sufficient food, which is wholesome, nutritious, palatable, adequately presented and well preserved".

When I called the airport authority in Dublin Airport they informed me that they had no part in the transfer and that it was a matter concerning authorities in the North.

This means taxpayers in the Republic won't be footing the bill. However, this year, tax-payers' money in the Republic has gone towards guitar tuition, cookery classes, Open University courses and room and board for Joe O'Reilly, who bludgeoned his wife and mother of two Rachel O'Reilly to death in 2004. In 2011, €80,000 of tax-payers' money was spent on footballs for prisoners.

The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that they did provide consular assistance for Ms McCollum Connolly, who has an Irish passport. "We can't comment on the details," I was told by a source.

It is unsure how much of her remaining five-year and eight-month sentence Ms McCollum Connolly will have to serve. There has been speculation about her sentence being cut, but that is unconfirmed. "It's the subject of further engagement," her lawyer said.

He added that media hype about the case had not contributed to an early transfer. "It was the work of various authorities and the family, certainly not the media. She will still be a prisoner," said Mr Winters. "She is already paying the price. She's not free - and she won't be when she gets home."

A fund, which was set up by her family last summer, has already raised over €5,500.

Sunday Independent

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