The story of two girls jailed in Peru for allegedly attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country struck a painful chord with a Downham woman.
Jan Connor, 48, knows exactly what the families of 20-year-olds Irish Michaella McCollum and Scottish Melissa Reid are going through – for she has been there.
Miss Connor’s partner of 20 years, Ray – the father of her 19-year-old daughter – is halfway through a six-year eight-month sentence for the same crime. Miss Connor prays every day for a mooted change in law to come into force to allow his imminent release, upon which she plans to marry him.
She said: “If nothing else it has made me realise how much I love him. He is not a bad man. This was a mistake and we all make mistakes.
“Ray was old enough to make the decision himself and unfortunately it was a bad decision.
“If these youngsters realise where they were going to end up, they would think more carefully about doing it.”
Miss Connor said that when she was first able to speak to Ray following his arrest in April 2010, the only way he could describe the jail he was being held in was ‘hell.’ During the three years he has been detained so far, he has been beaten, had boiling water thrown over him, watched one prisoner disembowelled by another with a homemade knife and caught dysentery three times.
She said she has sold the contents of his flat to pay for healthcare and privileges such as phone calls home and to keep him out of a cell known as the hole. Jan said prisoners who went into ‘the hole’ were sometimes never seen again.
Jan and Ray’s relationship broke down a year or so before he was arrested and the pair were living separately. Looking back, she feels he had slipped into depression after losing his job after suffering Repetitive Strain Injury.
In their time apart, Ray, who Miss Connor says was a rogue in his youth but had been a hardworking family man in adulthood, fell in with the wrong crowd.
He has told her he was offered £10,000 to smuggle 3kg of cocaine out of Peru. He believes the people who put him up to it, told the authorities he had the drugs in his luggage in order to take the attention away from a team of others on his flight who were doing the same thing.
Jan said: “When I told my daughter, she just collapsed on the floor in tears. She was absolutely distraught and hasn’t been the same since.
“My daughter and I have been treated as if we have done the crime as well.
“Those who criticise should remember, it could be them waking up one morning and finding their son, daughter or wife has made this silly decision and that’s when the nightmare starts.”
With the support of the charity Prisoners Abroad, Miss Connor wrote to Peru’s human right’s minister urging him to pass a law which would allow drugs mules who have served half their sentence to return home in exchange for a substantial fine. Under the law Ray would qualify for release.
She has also asked that should Ray have to serve his full term, he is not prevented from returning home by red-tape, which she said can see prisoners unable to get home for at least 12 months.
In January of this year, Miss Connor saved up for the plane fare to Peru to visit Ray.
She said: “I had spent two-and-a-half years, waking up every day hoping he was still alive and hadn’t been beaten to death or caught dysentery and died.
“He said how sorry and ashamed he was and wanted me to forgive him, which I had already done. I was able to look into his eyes and know he can survive this as opposed to looking at some of the other men in there who just looked like walking corpses.”
Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reidclaim claim they were forced to smuggle drugs by a gang.
Jan said: “I know what the families are going through. It’s a melting pot of emotions – shame, anger, sadness and fear.
“Everybody who has every sniffed a line of cocaine has got to take a bit of the responsibility.”