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Doing time in a foreign jail
As the Foreign Office warns young people not to risk using or smuggling drugs abroad, hundreds of Britons are languishing in foreign jails after being caught.

When Rachel McGee was offered a cheap flight to the Caribbean island of Cuba she jumped at the chance.

Two years later, the 24-year-old Londoner weighed just six stones and had worms. She had been convicted of smuggling drugs and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail. She had no drugs on her when she was arrested and her trial was conducted solely in Spanish.

After a campaign by supporters she was released in September 2000 as a "goodwill gesture", the Cuban authorities said. But the months in appalling conditions in Occidente women's prison had taken their toll and she emerged with a kidney infection, stomach problems and bleeding gums.

The health-shattering conditions in Thai jails were described by 21-year-old Judith Payne.

Two years ago she was arrested for possessing opium and cocaine and faced six years in the notorious Klong Prem Prison - nicknamed the Bangkok Hilton - where she had been held in a room with 80 other women.

"It was filthy. There were no toilet facilities, no room to walk around, no room to do anything," she said.

"All you could do was lie down, head to foot, with the other prisoners."

She was released with her friend James Gilligan, 25, on 10,000 bail but the prospect of returning to Klong Prem was too much, and the pair disappeared.

Organisations like Fair Trials Abroad and Prisoners Abroad warn against being tempted - or duped - into acting as a drugs mule.

Young women are particularly sought after to hide drugs, often carried in condoms, about their bodies.

Patricia and Karen were teenagers when they acted as couriers

Scot Sandra Gregory admitted she had been stupid to stick 89 grams of heroin inside a condom in her body for cash in 1993.

The 35-year-old was initially sentenced to death but that was commuted to 25 years in prison after she confessed.

She was transferred to a jail in Kent to complete the sentence but after serving only seven years received a royal pardon from the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and was released.

She said what she had experienced in the Thai jail "destroys the soul of a person".

Death sentence

Other women say they were conned into acting as a drugs courier.

In 1990, Birmingham teenagers Karen Smith and Patricia Cahill went to Thailand on holiday after a British man they hardly knew offered to pick up the tab.

Both girls served three years in prison after being caught with 66kg of heroin hidden in their luggage, the biggest haul recorded.

The Foreign Office (FO) stresses that it cannot intervene if a Briton breaks another country's laws.

Nurse David Chell, 57, was convicted of drug trafficking in Malaysia in 1998 and sentenced to death.

He claimed 133 grams of heroin were planted on him by officers after they tried to extort money from him.

Despite a campaign to free him, the FO said it could not step in until the legal process was finished - in reality until all hope was lost.

Without their help, he was freed last summer after an appeal.


Sandra Gregory warned others against drug smuggling


Rachel McGee caught worms in a Cuban prison


All you could do was lie down, head to foot, with the other prisoners

Judith Payne



Karen Smith and Patricia Cahill soon after their release


Sandra Gregory now free


Sandra Gregory considers her future on the outside

Archived from the BBC News Online Wednesday, 6 March, 2002

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