Prisoners Abroad have been shortlisted for the prestigious London Homelessness Awards 2017. Karen is someone who has benefited from their services and tells her story here.
I was incarcerated in the United States in 2012. I was given a six and a half year sentence.
I was visited by an immigration officer and had many immigration hearings while serving my sentence. I left the UK when I was ten years old with my parents, and had spent the next 32 years in the states – I had built a life and I had a family. I couldn’t imagine the shock deportation would have – I knew it was approaching, but I guess a small part of me thought it would never happen.
I talked to a friend about the situation I was facing. She’s called Jeanne and she had read a book written by Shaun Atwood – he talked about his experience of the prison system and how he had been assisted by an organisation called Prisoners Abroad. She passed it on to me and I got in touch with the charity directly. I was sent newsletters and was able to contact them to find out about the kind of support that I could expect to receive on my return to the UK when I was deported. Jeanne visited London whilst I was in prison, she went into Prisoners Abroad’s office to talk to the people who work there and see what it was that I would expect – it already it felt like a weight had been lifted.
I was then deported back to the UK in 2017. It was June, and I arrived during a heatwave – I’ll always remember that. I had grown up in Arizona where it was always hot – but the heat there was very dry, so I felt the difference in the air straight away, another thing that contributed to the unfamiliarity of it all.
I was given directions from Heathrow Travel Care to the Prisoners Abroad office in Finsbury Park. I arrived late afternoon and Cass my resettlement officer had waited around for me. I was exhausted – I hadn’t slept for 40 hours and was desperate for sleep. Cass arranged the initial emergency steps for me; some money for travel and food and arranged a hostel for the night so that I could get some rest. The next day I felt more refreshed and visited the office again to start thinking about the important steps towards my ‘new life’.
It is all a massive change and being so far from my family who I love so much is really hard.
I started sorting out options of mine with Cass. It’s incredible and quite scary to think about what I would have done without Prisoners Abroad – I can’t envisage me leaving the airport or knowing even an ounce of what to do. Their support has given me a purpose – somewhere to go every week and goals to work towards. I have a roof over my head, money for food and travel, and people who are helping me through each stage; people who care.
I have meetings set up at the Job Centre, I’m waiting for my National Insurance number and I have been given a phone which I’m using to stay in touch with my family. It’s a true lifeline as it means I can speak to my family all the time. Because of the time difference I’m waking up every morning with messages from them – I feel greatly loved and this is such a source of comfort.
Jeanne packed me a bag with some clothes and basic necessities before I left the States, but I soon started to realise how much you rely on the daily comforts and the basics that you take for granted, like having clean clothes whenever you wanted. I had maximum two of everything, which meant needing to visit the launderette every other day – a huge expense for me. Cass sorted me out with some more of the essentials I needed.
It took me less time readjusting to life outside a prison environment than I thought it might. Within about four days I had got used to the idea that I had freedom, perhaps I had been mentally preparing for it whilst I was in prison. The prison mentality was harder to shake though – as human beings we know we aren’t naturally meant to be locked up or restricted like that. You have to be tough in prison and ready to defend. Due to the restricted space, you have to be confrontational if you have a problem in order to work out a solution, but it doesn’t work like that in the outside world as people are a lot gentler when time and space are an option; time and space are the healers. So I’ve had to recognise that difference. I’m on my way to better things now – I’m much more able to deal with the day to day than I was a month ago, and I can only imagine it will get easier.
This blog first appeared on the Prisoners Abroad website. The winner of the London Homelessness Award 2017, who will receive £30,000, will be announced at a special event in October. Runners Up will receive prizes of £20,000 and £10,000. To find out more about Prisoners Abroad go to https://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/. For more information about the London Homelessness Awards go to www.lhawards.org.uk