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Page last updated at 19:04 GMT, Thursday, 19 January 2006

Hard return for Jamaica drugs mule

By Lucy Ash
BBC world current affairs

Hundreds of Jamaican women have been arrested in recent years for bringing cocaine into Britain. Now at the end of long jail sentences many are returning home.

Georgette and three of her children
For now, Georgette's children will stay at a foster home
When I boarded the Air Jamaica flight, Georgette was already in her seat flashing a big smile and a brand new hairstyle.

Last time I saw her she was making light switches in a prison workshop. Georgette, a cheerful woman in her late 30s, has served nearly four years of an eight-year sentence behind bars at Morton Hall in Lincolnshire.

Like many other couriers at the same prison, Georgette was a prime target for the drug dealers in her neighbourhood: she was a single mother desperate for cash.

She could not pay her water or electricity bills and she could not afford to send her children to school. So, in April 2002, she left Jamaica with a suitcase stashed with cocaine. She was caught at Heathrow Airport.

"The morning I left it was my son's eighth birthday," she recalls.

"I remember that my little girl was crying and I kissed her and told her I'd be back in three weeks' time. I did feel bad but at the end of the day I needed the money."

Georgette did her best to keep in touch with her children thousands of miles away by writing letters and calling home every week. Most of the money she earned from working in the prison went on international phone cards.

Upset

When the plane landed at Montego Bay, Georgette was wriggling in her seat, excited at the thought of seeing her children and boyfriend Ray again.

I used to cry in the nights and I didn't understand why she [Georgette] did it. But now I know she's back and she's apologised to us and now everything will be okay
Janelle, 14
Georgette looked dazed and happy as her son and two youngest daughters rushed up to hug her in the arrivals hall.

They have been living at a children's home for most of their mother's absence.

The home, in a rural fishing village in the south-west corner of Jamaica, is run by Penie and Jim Koch, an American couple from Kentucky. They head an organisation called Kingdom Builders Ministry, funded mainly by donors in the United States.

Some children here have been placed in the Kochs' care by the Jamaican government, but Georgette's youngest children were brought to the home by a concerned missionary from Montego Bay.

Janelle, 14, says she was very upset by her mother's sudden departure.

"I used to cry in the nights and I didn't understand why she did it. But now I know she's back and she's apologised to us and now everything will be okay."

But Georgette knows that her life has changed irrevocably since her arrest.

No money

She would like to have the children back but there is not much room for them in the little shack she now shares with her partner Ray and her 16-year-old daughter Jodie in a ghetto called Bogue Hill on the outskirts of Montego Bay.

Penie Koch at the children's home
Some children are placed in Penie Koch's care by the government
More importantly the Christian foster home is giving them something she cannot afford - a good education.

All three children have said they want to stay with the Kochs until they graduate from high school.

Janelle wants to go on to college and become a teacher while 11-year-old Abigail dreams of training as a doctor. Andrei wants to be apprenticed to a carpenter.

"I'm working hard on my maths so I can use a tape measure and make the right calculations," he says sitting next to the swimming pool in the Kochs' spacious garden.

Since her return, Georgette has spent a few days with her children at the foster home but she cannot visit as often as she would like because it is a two-hour drive from Montego Bay.

She is also worried about Jodie, who has been out of school for seven months because there is no money for fees.

'Lucky'

Many ex-mules return to find that they have nowhere to live, their husbands or boyfriends are living with other women and their sons and daughters have become street children or have simply disappeared.

Of course we need to punish for deviance but what do we do with these women when they come back - if they are not well integrated then we find ourselves looking at repeat offenders
Aldrie Henry Lee
sociologist
Some are savagely beaten or even killed by dealers for failing to deliver several thousands of pounds' worth of cocaine.

I met one woman whose house had burned down in the middle of the night, soon after her return from the UK.

She was sleeping rough in the market, where she had a stall, until armed men came and chased her away and stole all her merchandise.

In relative terms, Georgette is lucky. Her youngest children are being well cared for and she has a loving partner.

Now, her priority is to find a job but so far she has had no luck.

Stigma

She picked up a number of qualifications behind bars in the UK such as certificates in health and safety, computing and book-keeping - important skills in Jamaica's tourism-driven economy.

She has tried several shops and a hotel overlooking the beach where she used to work but was told there were no vacancies.

I think some people thought that because I'd been away in the UK I'd come home with a bag of money and all kinds of presents
Georgette
And her chances of getting work soon are slim because of the high unemployment rate, according to Aldrie Henry Lee, a Kingston sociologist who has just published a report on the impact of prison on women who have been incarcerated both in Jamaica and in the UK.

The report says that even well-educated and highly-qualified ex-mules struggles to get work and jobs in the public sector are out of the question.

"There is a huge stigma attached to ex-prisoners," she says.

"And with crime being the number one problem in Jamaica, the whole of society is geared towards punishing.

"Of course we need to punish for deviance but what do we do with these women when they come back - if they are not well integrated then we find ourselves looking at repeat offenders."

Cold-shouldered

Men and women jailed in Jamaica can apply for a small rehabilitation fund once they are released but the government offers no support to those who were incarcerated abroad.

A small but energetic British charity is doing its best to fill the gap.

Named after its founder's favourite flower, Hibiscus or the Female Prisoners' Welfare Project has spent two decades helping jailed mothers and their children in the Caribbean and West Africa.

So far their Kingston office has helped 600 women and their families by providing food parcels, paying school fees and bus fares, buying uniforms and text books.

The children are a main focus of attention, says Omega Solomon, one of the charity workers.

"Our main goal with the children is to keep them in school - and to make sure they make use of education so they don't find themselves committing the same offence that their parents did".

Now that the euphoria of being back home has worn off, Georgette is finding daily life a struggle.

She has no running water or toilet and she has been cold-shouldered by some of her neighbours.

"I think some people thought that because I'd been away in the UK I'd come home with a bag of money and all kinds of presents," she says.

"They seem to have forgotten that I was in prison and things were hard. They're hard now too. But I won't give up, I'll get through it."

It's My Story: The Hard Road Home was broadcast on Thursday, 19 January 2006. on Radio 4. Hear the programme online at Radio 4's Listen again page.

SEE ALSO
Jail for drugs grandmother
16 Jan 04 |  Gloucestershire
Drugs mules arrests soar
10 Jul 03 |  England
Swabs tackle Jamaica drug mules
21 Nov 02 |  UK News
Country profile: Jamaica
04 Jul 03 |  Country profiles

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