Emotional Michaella McCollum reveals life banged up abroad: 'One toilet for 100 women. Once it didn't flush for two weeks'
Published 13/01/2014 | 07:00
Tears stream down Michaella McCollum’s face as she sits inside the dilapidated visitor area of Lima’s notorious Virgen de Fatima prison.
The 20-year-old brunette’s eyes are fixed to the floor, and her voice trembles with emotion as she recalls the first phone call she made from jail to her mum.
“I remember ringing my house that first time and my mummy answering,” she told me in an exclusive interview.
“As soon as she heard my voice she screamed, ‘Michaella! My baby! I’m so glad you are ok, I thought you were dead.’
“She started crying and shouting for everyone to come to the phone.
“Then I said: ‘Mummy, I’m in jail. In Peru’.
“The phone went silent. It was the hardest phone call…”
Unable to finish her sentence as she speaks to me, one of only a handful of visitors she has had since being sent to jail last August, Michaella wipes tears from her eyes.
“I found out that after she had spoken to me she had taken pains in her chest and was rushed to hospital,” she said. “I can’t believe that I did that to her, I nearly killed her with the stress.”
It was the first time in our three hour meeting inside the hellish surroundings of the Chorrillos district jail that the aspiring model from Dungannon broke down — the only time her vulnerability, as a young woman locked up 6,000 miles from home, slipped through.
During those hours I confronted the prisoner about the incredulous account she has given of being forced to smuggle drugs and told her why most people, myself included, don’t believe her story.
It was 9am on a recent overcast morning when I arrived at Fatima jail to visit the one-time Ibiza dancer and fellow drugs mule Melissa Reid.
The pair had been there almost five months following their arrest at Jorge Chavez Airport in August with £1.5 million of cocaine in their luggage.
I had read the reports about the prison but nothing could prepare you for seeing it for yourself.
I joined a queue of mothers, sisters and daughters, all with huge bags full of cooked food, bread and water, waiting to see
their relatives inside.
Some were reading, others knitted. Most chatted among themselves, comparing what they had brought for their loved ones.
As I waited, a local woman dressed in a sports cap, t-shirt and leggings, made her way up the queue.
She was clutching carrier bags, sandals and skirts, and was trying to ‘rent’ them to visitors who had the wrong footwear, baggage or clothing.
Under Peru’s strict prison regulations, female visitors are banned from wearing trousers and any type of dark clothing. Only sandals are allowed to be worn.
For two Peruvian soles (43p) she would rent you a skirt and shoes, and keep your belongings until visiting time had ended. Mobile phones, keys and any type of camera or recording equipment were also banned.
At 9.30am a guard opened one side of the black, steel gates and waved the first five visitors through. I was number five.
“Irlanda del norte! (Northern Ireland!),” said a warder as he handed my passport to another .
I couldn’t speak Spanish and the guards couldn’t speak English. After a minute or two of shrugging my shoulders, a guard signalled for my arm and stamped the first of a number of cartoon like symbols on my arm.
Then with a marker he wrote the number five — my place in the queue.
At checkpoint two another male guard said “Irlande?!” as he typed my passport number onto a computer screen.
Two women guards stared sternly as I attempted to answer questions in Spanish.
I was handed a piece of paper and I wrote Michaella McCollum’s name.
“Ah! Michaella,” said a male guard before lifting my arm to stamp it again — this time with a bird in a house with a smoking chimney.
My arms were now covered in cartoon symbols, the word ‘Ingles’ and number 5s.
My passport was kept behind the desk and I was waved to the third security check — just five feet away.
Four guards and one warder wearing rubber gloves and a mask awaited at the bag and full body scanner.
My bag, which had some sweets and crisps, was emptied and searched.
As that happened, I was told to make my way through the nearby body scanner.
I went through, without a beep, and was frisked by a gloved guard, wearing a face mask.
I was later told that if the scanner had beeped, I would have been taken to a room where I would have undergone a full cavity search — or asked to leave the prison. Thankfully, I collected my bag and headed to the fifth and final checkpoint — a small round room just a minute’s walk away where two young female guards checked the symbols on my arms.
I was then approached by a small, stocky woman wearing a high visibility waistcoat with the word ‘llamadora’ written across the back — it means ‘caller’, a prisoner who you pay to retrieve a friend or family member from their cell.
She was warm and friendly, and asked who I wanted to see.
“Michaella,” I said.
“Melissa? As well?” she replied, before taking me up a flight of stairs.
As I stood at the top I looked down at a long hallway full of rows and rows of steel framed bunk beds, draped in dirty bed linen.
The concrete tiles were covered in dust and the walls were caked in dirt.
This was where Michaella and Melissa slept.
Seconds later Michaella peered around the corner, followed by Melissa.
They greeted me warmly, but with surprise, and took me to the patio-like visitor area on the ground floor.
There were about 20 white, plastic tables with parasols and chairs dotted in the large, open yard, surrounded by 30 foot yellow walls.
“How did you manage to get in here?” Michaella asked as we sat down.
“About 50 journalists have tried to get in here and they couldn’t, they’re banned,” she said.
Both girls seemed happy to get a visitor. Being thousands of miles from home means they are few and far between.
Usually, the girls say, it is Irish priest Sean Walsh who visits regularly, but he was working in America.
“A wee nun comes down too,” added Michaella. “She takes our letters for family and posts them for us. But we haven’t seen her this week yet.”
Sporting messy hair, the former photography student was wearing a black and white top, leggings and a pair of ballerina pumps.
Her hair was a lighter shade too in parts, after one inmate “almost bleached it orange” in the prison salon.
Melissa had her wavy, blonde hair scraped back into a pony tail, and wore a sleeveless top with jeans.
Despite the harshness of the prison regime, both looked well.
“We’ve had a few stomach bugs in here, the water is bad, you can’t drink it.
“I’ve seen it come out of tap brown before. You buy your own, it's two soles (about 43p) a bottle which isn't bad,” Michaella said.
“The food is awful. There’s rice and beans everyday — and the rice sometimes has hair in it, human hair.”
Melissa said the pair, who have picked up some Spanish since being jailed, have had to go to great lengths to communicate with prison staff.
“When we are served chicken feet, we cluck and point to our boobs to let them know we only eat chicken breast.
“We’ve had to ‘moo’ as well, because they only serve soya milk here, not cows milk,” said the 20 year-old Scot. “But it never works.”
After a short chat Melissa, from Lenzie near Glasgow, leaves to ring her Scottish parents at a nearby payphone.
Michaella chats to me.
“When I was brought here from Dirandro (the police drugs unit) I was so scared,” she said.
“I refused to go into the cell and one of the guards had to push me inside. I just fell to the floor and started to cry.”
We were sat at the top end of the large visitor area. The cracked, yellow walls — damaged during Peru’s tremor season — were decorated for Christmas time. Old CDs hung from the walls, tied up with red and green ribbon. A large nativity scene, made by inmates, sat in a corner.
It was hard to believe the women dotted around me were criminals. They looked like warm and friendly locals.
“There are a lot of snakes in here,” Michaella said. “It can get really bitchy — imagine being in a room with 100 women every day. It gets bad, there’s a lot of drama. No physical fights but it can get heated.
“We are the only two foreigners here so the other prisoners call us ‘gringos’ which means white girls with money.
“A lot of people have no money at all. You would get a lot of sob stories, but it’s all lies. At the start I gave one girl some toilet roll and stuff, but I don’t do it any more because they just want you to give
them things for nothing.”
Prison life certainly seemed to have toughened the Tyrone woman. But even the most hardened of criminals in Northern Ireland would struggle with life here.
“There’s one toilet for 100 women, that you are only allowed to use at certain times,” she added.
“Even if you are busting to go, you can’t. I’ve had loads of stomach bugs in here so you can imagine what it was like for me then. One time the toilet didn’t flush for two weeks, the smell was awful.
“There are 100 other women in our cell, all sleeping on bunk beds. Melissa is in one bottom bunk and I am across in another bottom bunk.
“Our families brought us in bed linen so we have those and we wash them ourselves. The mattresses are crap but they are better than what we had in Dirandro (police cell).
“We slept on concrete with a fibre glass blanket. It was so itchy and had me out in a rash.
“The toilet was a hole in the floor and you had to use it in front of 14 other people. I think that place has been the worst experience for us so far.”
Just before she was about to tell me more about prison life, Michaella was called away by Melissa.
“I’ll be back in two seconds,” she said, before going around the corner with the Scot. Five minutes later, both return.
“I can’t talk to you, but Michaella can,” said the 20-year-old.
Melissa left, and Michaella sat down.
A woman with a clipboard approached the table and said something in Spanish to Michaella.
She went into her purse and handed her over about eight coins. The woman noted something down on her clipboard, before leaving.
“You have to pay for everything in here — even to sit,” said Michaella.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“A prisoner,” she replied.
“They run everything in here.”
No payment was made to Michaella McCollum nor any associate for the story