Belfast Telegraph

Life behind bars will leave Peru drug mules Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid mentally scarred

By JOANNE SWEENEY

The prison experience facing Michaella McCollum will not leave her or her family unscathed, the chief executive of Prisoners Abroad charity warned yesterday.

In order to survive her sentence of six years and eight months in a harsh, overcrowded women's prison in Lima, she will need to be tough and draw on her innermost strength, one expert said.

But most of all, McCollum will need to be financially supported by her family or by charities such as Prisoners Abroad throughout the duration of her sentence.

"This experience will not only change her life but also that of her closest family and friends," said Pauline Crowe of Prisoners Abroad, a UK charity which supports British prisoners in overseas prisons.

"Most people cannot comprehend just how unlike foreign prisons are to the British experience.

"Many people are likely only to be aware of what prison could be like from programmes like Porridge.

"But South American prisons are not run like British ones. Guards don't patrol the cells or blocks, they just guard the prison perimeter.

"Inside the prison is typically run by gangs, with inmates having to tip other inmates to get through one door to the next wing, to get outside or get food, or get their washing done.

"Foreign nationals, because of their lack of language, can often quite mistakenly be regarded as rich and will be more vulnerable to bullying, intimidation, theft and attacks."

While Ms Crowe would not talk about individual cases, she said that where UK prisoners overseas had no other family financial support, they would give them monthly grants of between £25-£30 to cover their basic living and subsistence needs.

Prisoners' families are required to supply their clothes, food, bedding and water.

Overcrowding in Peru prisons is currently running at 200%.

Only those women prisoners who can afford it sleep on a prison bed or in a cell.

Others sleep in the corridors, on the stairs, wherever and whenever they can.

Welfare and care of prisoners' health is non-existent and is only available if it has been bought and paid for.

"Often, if there is a medical room in a prison, there will be no qualified medical staff present. It will be a room where treatment can take place but it will be paid for and arranged by the prisoner's families from outside," added Ms Crowe.

Maintaining a prisoner's health and personal hygiene is key to surviving the sentence, where an insect sting or simple cut can lead to a life-threatening illness if not medically treated.

Prisoners Aboard is currently supporting 1,200 cases and will normally support 1,000 prisoners over the course of a year.

It is working with 85 cases in South American prisons, with 14% of them women.

Ms Crowe said her organisation can also offer Michaella and her follow prisoner Melissa Reid and their families "emotional support" as well as translation services for legal procedures, arrange medical treatment, stamped envelopes and writing materials.

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