Michaella McCollum tells of despair at prospect of serving sentence in Peru
'I would rather spend 90 years in a prison back at home than spend another day here'
Published 13/01/2014 | 07:00
From a sheet of toilet roll to a glass of water, Michaella McCollum has to fork out hundreds of Peruvian soles a week to survive inside Lima’s Virgen de Fatima prison.
“Luckily I am never without money here, I’ve never run out,” she tells me, as the mid-morning sun shines down on the prison yard.
“There’s no doubt you need it in here — anything we eat or drink, we have to buy ourselves.
“We even have to pay for the cell to be cleaned every morning, three soles (65p).
“But it is still dirty. There’s cockroaches everywhere.”
Within an hour of sitting down with the convicted drugs mule, I even feel the sting of an insect bite on my leg.
“You get used to it,” she said.
“When we first came we suffered quite bad [with bites]. Now it’s not so bad.”
Every day is a long one in here. All prisoners are awoken at 6am. Lockdown is 9pm. Unlike other jails where inmates are forced to work, here the women so far have had a choice in what they do during the day. But their lack of Spanish has meant they have so far struggled to participate in many activities.
“We’ve tried beauty but we can’t even take notes because we just don’t understand,” she said.
“I do aerobics in the evening, but apart from that I would just be sitting in the room and reading. I can read a book a day in here.
“There is one TV for everyone in this section. But most of the programmes are in Spanish so we can’t watch them.
“A few weeks ago [the film] Friends With Benefits was on — we were so excited. To just get watching a film in English here is a luxury.
“I’ve also done some knitting. I knitted a wee outfit for my niece Ava, who was born a few months ago.
“I was supposed to be her godmother. My brother sent me a picture of her wearing it, she is so cute.”
Fatima, which holds over 400 male and female prisoners, is considered one of the country's more “humane” jails.
The girls are held in a minimal security section of the prison, and are free to wander into the patio area any time before lockdown.
Michaella admits the pair have settled in the jail.
“We don’t really want to move,” she says, arms folded.
“We would be happy to stay. We’ve heard the horror stories about the other prisons.
“I’m in a routine here so the thought of moving makes us feel awful. I don’t want anymore change.” That change, however, is inevitable.
The fact that both are now sentenced prisoners means they are set to be moved to a bigger prison.
Both women received the minimum sentence of six years and eight months for drug trafficking at a Lima court last month. They had been facing a potential 15 year sentence.
A judicial spokesperson said both would be moved to Santa Monica jail to serve their terms.
But Michaella insists they have been told they aren’t going there.
“I actually wouldn’t mind going to Santa Monica prison though.
“You can do more things and even take pictures in there.
“I heard they even have a Christmas party,” she added.
The 20-year-old is convinced she and fellow cocaine smuggler Melissa Reid will serve their sentence in north Lima‘s Piedras Gordas prison, home to male and female compounds — Ancon 1 and Ancon 2. More than 400 of the 3,000 inmates are foreigners.
Despite being one of Peru’s more modern incarceration centres, it is also one of the most corrupt.
Just last year the Prisoners Abroad charity reported that females there were being charged “extortionate” amounts for food and even drinking water by gangs of prisoners, which includes leaders of drug and organised crime cartels.
Michaella says about Ancon: “There’s a woman from Northern Ireland there too [Lillian Allen].
“I don’t know too much about her but it makes me less anxious going as there is someone from home there.”
With the minimum ‘six and eight’ term, the dancer said she is hopeful that both she and Melissa will get early release.
“The best we could hope for is anything under eight years because then we could serve half of it at home.
“I would rather spend 90 years in a prison back home than spend another day here. At least you could have a TV and proper food.”
Michaella asks me what has been written about her back home in the newspapers.
I tell her bits and pieces, before she interrupts. “My fami
ly have sent me some clippings,” she says. “It’s surreal reading about yourself, and there’s been so much lies.
“One newspaper here [in Peru] said that I was pregnant. When I came in, the guards pointed at my belly and kept saying, ‘baby, baby.’
“I also read that me and Melissa went on a spending spree from the money we were supposed to have got from the drugs.
“Police asked where all our shopping was, but there was none because it wasn’t true.”
Both, however, realise that without the press attention they would not have been sentenced as quickly.
“There are people that have been in prison here for years and haven’t even seen a judge, so we are glad of the media pressure.
“I hope it does work in our favour and we can get home as soon as possible. But anything could happen in this country and we know it.”
Before I leave, I ask Michaella what the hardest part of this ordeal has been.
“When the guards made me ring my family,” she replied.
“I was actually in the prison in Dirandro two days before I rang them. They [the police] said I had to.
“I said, ‘please, don’t make me ring my family’, but they said I had to because I’d been reported missing.”
Going back to the moment she dialled her home number, Michaella breaks down.
She composes herself quickly, something she has had to do many times over the last few months.
“I haven’t seen my mum since June, but I think she is going to visit soon,” she says.
“I have missed so much at home. My wee niece Ava was born, and I missed my cousin’s wedding in September.
“I have missed so much, and when you start to think about that, that’s when it gets hard.”
Michaella says she thinks she would still be modelling and nightclub PR if she weren't here.
“I try not to think about that now, I just block everything because it brings me down,” she said. “I take everyday as it comes — it’s another day closer to home.”
As I leave the prison, I can’t help but feel sorry for Michaella.
Barely out of her teens and set to spend the best part of her 20s in a foreign prison hellhole, thousands of miles from home.
But she did commit a crime, a horrendous one that destroys millions of lives every year.
I also seriously doubt her kidnapping claims - no matter how detailed they seem. Not only is it far-fetched, but also inconsistent with her account to police.
What I think doesn’t matter though. It won’t change the fact she will spend almost the next seven years behind bars, with the life long stigma of being a convicted drug smuggler.