The charitable organisation, Prisoners Abroad, recently invited Jon's dad to contribute a piece to their Winter Newsletter describing how life is for a parent of an inmate:
Prison Without Bars
I put the phone down and returned to the living room to tell my wife and daughter that our son was facing 25 years in a U.S. prison. That was on May 16 2002, and since that day our life has been a roller coaster ride from one emotional episode to another.
Following his arrest, Shaun spent over two years on remand in facilities run by the notorious U.S. Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The Sheriff’s treatment of inmates is well documented, and has led to protests from many human rights groups including Amnesty International.
The distance of 5000 miles from our son’s jail cell has put constraints on the viability of visits, but in the first few months after his arrest, we all managed to go over to see him, behind a plastic screen, manacled to the table and to speak with him via a telephone. It was quite horrendous. But our son being who he is, always arrived in the visitation area wreathed in smiles, with a joke never far from his lips.
My wife, Barbara, urged Shaun to write “to help keep you sane”. This he did with a vengeance.
Letters are a constant in a prisoner’s life, and the ones that Shaun wrote to us from his cell told a disturbing tale of mistreatment and abuse in Arpaio’s jails. We could hardly believe that what he was writing could be true of a civilised country in the 21st century. But he never complained – he just reported to us what happened and what he saw - it was the brutal truth. A truth that contained suicide, cockroach infestations, medical neglect, overflowing sewage and rotten food.
I had just read Salam Pax’s book ‘The Baghdad Blog’, and I thought that a weblog would be a useful way to share Shaun’s letters amongst family and friends, to let them know what it was like in a US jail. Initially we feared for his safety, and so we posted the blogs under the pseudonym of ‘jonsjailjournal which Barbara and I thought up along with an email address. The first batch of Shaun’s pencil-stub written ‘blogs’ were smuggled out with the help of my sister Ann, who lives in Phoenix and who was a frequent visitor to the jail. We typed up and posted the blogs regularly until Shaun was forced to accept a plea bargain from the prosecution – the case was never going to go to trial, they rarely do in the U.S. This was in June 2004. Shaun’s attorney explained to us that it was vital that we attend the sentencing hearing, as we could address the judge and perhaps have some influence on reducing the length of the prison term.
It was the worst day of our lives. We stood up in court, one by one, to plead with the judge for the lower end of the sentencing range. Barbara went first and heartbreakingly addressed the judge begging leniency for her son. Both of my sisters spoke up for Shaun, and then my daughter Karen, who was quite distressed by this time. As she spoke, her eyes brimming with tears, it seemed as though the whole courtroom was awash with emotion, sniffles heard and tissues used even by courtroom officials.
Finally it was my turn. I spoke of prosaic childhood experiences I’d shared with Shaun, but this turned to be too much for him and he broke down with only his attorney by his side to comfort him. This emotional parade appeared to have the desired effect , and after the sentence was handed out - still draconian by any civilised standard - we were allowed to talk to Shaun in the court before he was taken away, his chains jangling with each step. After he was senteced Shaun was moved to a State prison where conditions were better. Away from the jurisdiction of Maricopa County, Shaun went public and we posted his name onto the blog.
Not long after we returned to England, the blog attracted the attention of The Guardian, who ran excerpts in the G2 section entitled ‘Hell on Earth’. This in turn attracted further media interest including local radio, to whom Barbara gave her first live interview, and she stood up well to what was quite hard questioning. Then the BBC interviewed us for the online news service. Now the story was going not only nationwide, but worldwide, as the email address I had set up for Shaun started to receive emails from around the world. Most were overwhelmingly supportive, people had been genuinely inspired by Shaun’s words from his prison cell.
The difficulties of being the parents of a prisoner are many: the whole family serves the sentence, we are in a prison without bars. Our difficulties have been compounded by the distance, and only being able to visit annually. But as we receive Shaun’s letters, and we type them out, it connects us to him in a very real way. The blogs put us alongside him, inside the chow hall, on the rec field, playing chess with ‘Frankie’. We see the characters he describes, some are tragic, many are very funny, but there is an ultimate air of sadness and frustration as we realise that prisoners – everywhere – are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to being treated with both dignity and humanity.
As I write this in September we have just had a week in which Arpaio was visiting the UK as a guest of the BBC, ‘advising’ us on how to run the jails. This visit in turn led to a Phoenix TV station requesting a telephone interview with Shaun - they were running a story exposing the Sheriff’s jail abuses. We were able to see the broadcast on the internet and hear Shaun’s voice for the first time in months, it seemed, ironically, that the Sheriff had done us a favour…