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Locked up abroad - Women learning new skills after prison term for drug trafficking

Published:Sunday | April 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Laura Redpath, Senior Reporter

TWENTY WOMEN are learning new skills with the intention of becoming self- employed after spending a number of years in prison for drug trafficking.

Hibiscus Jamaica was established in 1993, seven years after the original Hibiscus was started in London. The organisation partnered with Garmex HEART Academy to carry out a pilot project where women who were once incarcerated can learn new skills, along with mathematics and English.

In this case, that skill is sewing drapes.

"An office was opened in Jamaica when it was discovered that most of the (incarcerated) nationals were Jamaican women," said Ann-Marie Brown, who is a social and project worker for Hibiscus Jamaica.

This group is set to complete its six-month optional programme in the first week of June. They will then be granted a statement of competence, which outlines their newly acquired skills.

"They've been progressing well," Brown said.

Anneis 36 and was arrested in England for drug trafficking in 2000. She was sentenced to nine years, but as a foreign national, she served four years and four months.

A measuring tape hung around her neck and she fiddled with it as she shared her story.

She had one son at the time and was worried about how she would be able to afford to send him to school. She also lived in the depressed Kingston community of New Haven and had a desire to get out and eventually go to England.

"When I got on the plane, I thought 'yes, I'm going to England'."

"To be honest with you, I wasn't planning on coming back," she said.

Anne was introduced to a man who promised her £3,000 if she took the drugs to England.

She got on a plane to London Heathrow Airport with two other women. They didn't know Anne's suitcase had cocaine stitched into it. However, one of them started acting strangely and that was enough to warrant a search.

"She wasn't carrying drugs, I was," Anne said.

Sandrawas arrested in London, too, after spending the entire previous day swallowing 71 pellets.

"They were hard to swallow and I vomited, but I was confident and was going to go through with it."

Before Sandra, 50, lied to her husband and embarked on her life- changing trip to London Gatwick Airport via the 'cocaine express' in 2001, she had two outstanding loans.

"I was taking a very serious chance with my life at the time," she said.

Her source offered her £2,500 and encouraged her, saying there were no prisons in England.

She said when they x-rayed her and took her to the hospital to pass the pellets, she knew what her fate would be.

"I wasn't a fool at that time. I knew I was going to prison."

While incarcerated, Sandra said she cooked for all the prisoners. She never had to say goodbye to Sunday dinners, inclusive of rice and peas, and welcomed a new pastime - bingo with the inmates.

As a cook, along with other duties, she made £22 a week, which she saved and sent to her husband and five children.

She became very depressed when her 15-year-old son was shot in Mountain View. He survived.

"I was so depressed and I blamed myself."

Tears ran down her cheeks and she said she didn't know where she would be if she had said no to the trafficking request.

"God has taken me a far way. Some persons don't make it."

Anne and Sandra, both first-time offenders, had experiences that were similar, such as taking part in bingo parties and karaoke. Anne said she even had a television that cost 50 pence per week to keep. She compared her prison experiences to a holiday camp.

"The only thing is, you lost your freedom. There were no jail cells, just proper rooms."

Anne was on the hunt for a new environment and better opportunities, and while imprisoned, she received a college education and her hairdressing certification.

Upon returning to Jamaica, they were happy to be back. Sandra said it was difficult for her to face society, so she kept to herself for a while, and then she got baptised the following year.

"I've really learned my lesson," she said.

Prison life, while having positive outcomes for both, also had negative effects on their lives at home.

Anne lied to her mother for a couple of months before admitting she was in prison. She also has a 13-year-old son who doesn't want to talk about the years his mother spent away from him.

"I try to speak to him every day," she said. "He says I should not have left him.

"(My prison term) really rocked his world and he is rude and angry at all times."

Sandra said her oldest daughter refuses to speak to her.

"She doesn't talk to me," Sandra said. "She said I shouldn't have done it."

They are now preparing to face the working world. Sandra has plans to establish a wholesale store while she sews on the side.

For Anne, life is just about the same as it was before she left and even a bit worse.

"It is harder now because (prices) keep going up."  However, she said, "it's good to be home, happy and free."

- Names changed.