Sunday Independent (Ireland)

Michaella’s com­ing back out of hell

A The 21-year-old is to leave the dis­com­forts of a Peru­vian prison to re­sume her sen­tence at home, writes Barbara McCarthy

- Crime · Prison · Lima · Peru · Belfast · Irish Department of Foreign Affairs · Fatima · South America · United States of America · Santa Monica, CA · United Kingdom · Spain · Centre · Dublin Airport · Dublin · The Open University · Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa · Ancon · Her Majesty's Prison Service

LMOST ex­actly a year to the day af­ter her highly€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.”

‘She was squashed into a rat-in­fested cell with 15 oth­ers where the food was ined­i­ble’

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 20 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 in plain clothes,” 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, she 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.

 ??  ?? OR­DEAL: Michaella McCol­lum said she was ‘hav­ing the time of her life’ in Ibiza be­fore she ended up 6,000km away with 11kg of co­caine hid­den in her lug­gage
OR­DEAL: Michaella McCol­lum said she was ‘hav­ing the time of her life’ in Ibiza be­fore she ended up 6,000km away with 11kg of co­caine hid­den in her lug­gage
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