17 Mar 08
Shaun Attwood on life in an American prison
by Greg O'Keeffe, Liverpool Echo
Welcome to hell
Widnes stockbroker Shaun Attwood was jailed for five years in the US for drugs offences. From prison he started a blog about the terrible conditions inmates endured. Now back in the north west, he tells Greg O’Keeffe how his life has turned around.
OF ALL the nightmarish sights, smells and sounds Shaun Attwood experienced in Maricopa County jail, one will never leave him. It was the sound of fellow prisoners’ heads being smashed against metal toilets during a routine jail-gang beating.Usually the thuds were followed by a bloody pulp being stretchered off the wing, a sight Shaun says became nauseatingly familiar.
Now, almost three months after he finally arrived home in England as a free man, those sights and sounds still haunt him. Shaun, 39, is reflecting and recovering at his family home in Widnes, where he is back living with parents, Derick and Barbara.
The covert blog he started from behind bars to expose inhumane conditions inside the U.S. jail system has led him to write a book which he hopes will be published this year. The book will focus on his time at Maricopa county jail – a strange and unforgiving environment for a middle-class Widnes boy who graduated from Liverpool University with a top-class economics degree.
Shaun had moved to the US, where his two aunts lived, in 1991 and became a successful stockbroker living the American Dream. Before his imprisonment he was earning $1m and living in a plush, gated community in Arizona, with his wife.
“I thought that lifestyle was going to go on forever,” says Shaun matter-of-factly. “Then I got involved in throwing raves and drugs and by 2002 they had arrested us.” Police had been carrying out an extensive undercover investigation into the burgeoning rave scene and sale of ecstasy tablets, which Shaun had become mired in.“I’d got into raves back in the north west going to places like The State and Quadrant Park in Liverpool,” he says. “It was like a religion and I was addicted. I had become bored with life as a stockbroker and I tried to transfer that rave scene to Arizona. “We organised one of the biggest raves ever held in Arizona, and I was putting up most of the money for it. We would throw after-parties in five-star hotels which would go on for days with huge piles of ecstasy and ketamine in the rooms.“I was hedonistic, materialistic and emotionally immature, back then. I needed to grow up.”
Shaun’s party lifestyle came to an abrupt end when machine gun-toting SWAT police smashed down the door of his home in May 2002. It was part of the major crackdown by police which saw 100 people arrested, with Shaun labelled the ‘Mr Big’. “These policemen were pointing their guns at me and my fiancee in bed and yelling at us not to move,” he says. “Some of them looked young and nervous so I was panicking in case they got trigger happy. The irony was that my involvement in the rave scene had tapered off by then and I had gone back to dealing stocks. “I was off the drugs and was trying to live a quiet life with my fiancee. But the police had been following me for ages and bugging my phone calls. They’d even sat by us listening in while we went for dinner.
“The bond for my bail was eventually set at $1.5m, which I didn’t have a hope of paying, so I was on remand in the jail system.” Shaun then spent two years awaiting sentence in Maricopa County jail, a cockroach-infested hellhole run by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, where inmates endured starvation and frequently attempted suicide. During this time his fiancee broke off their engagement and, horrified by his surroundings, he started the blog – titled Jon’s Jail Journal to protect his identity. Shaun wrote his notes using a tiny, blunt pencil stub and paper, which was usually soaked in sweat because of the intense 100f heat. He then sent it to his aunt and father who published the notes on his website.
Meanwhile his parents liquidated their pension and re-mortgaged their home to pay for a top US attorney, who eventually negotiated a plea bargain sentence of nine-and-a-half years. The online diary tells a disturbing story of life in the Maricopa penal system, before Shaun was moved to a less severe jail. Sheriff Arpaio forces inmates to wear pink underpants, puts women on chain gangs and brags that it costs more to feed the guard dogs than his prisoners. He thrives on the reputation as ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ but his hardline tactics have infuriated human rights campaigners.
“I was thinking I’m a first time offender on drug offences and thought I could get probation. But I soon realised I was going to be in jail for a while,” says Shaun. “I spent many a night lying awake worrying. On my first day at Maricopa I had barely eaten for a couple of days before and had started to hallucinate. “The first thing when I walked in, these thugs called Torpedoes rolled up to me asking what my crime was. “Each race inside has their own gang. There were whites, Chicanos, blacks and Paisas, who are Mexican nationals. I was just a skinny, nerdy fella and I told them I was in for drugs. “Drugs were an everyday part of life inside so that didn’t merit a beating, but the sex offenders got it worst. “I was put in a one-man cell with three people in it. If I raised my head from my bunk it hit the ceiling. It was squalid with violence happening all the time.“The majority of people inside use heroin or crystal meth and it makes them paranoid. While I was there I saw loads of race riots and things could kick off at any second.
“Because I was from England people thought I was a novelty. I told them I was from a town near Liverpool where Sporty Spice was from and they liked that.“I was only attacked once by this biker who got at me a couple of hours before a visit from my parents. Beforehand I had this maniac cell-mate who was a burglar and torturer. He would ramble all night about how he tortured people, and I didn’t get along with him. It turned out he knew the guy who attacked me. I couldn’t tell the guards because then everyone turns against you. My lifeline was my family. They came and visited me every year and held my hand through the whole thing. It was a shame about my fiancee but she needed to get on with her own life. There was a lot of time for introspection. I was completely irresponsible before jail. I’d done so much drugs I was lucky to be alive. But I learned Spanish in prison and read all the great philosophers.”
Meanwhile, Shaun’s blog started to raise eyebrows, as his accounts of the pitiful food served to inmates spread around the world. “There were two meals. One was mouldy bread, which you’d just scrape the mould off and eat with raw meat baloney. The other was called Red Death – a stew the colour of blood with potato peel. Two of the lads found rats in their stew. It turned me into a vegetarian. I’m 6ft and I ended up weighing 10 stone – my parents said I looked like a skeleton.”
Shaun, who upon release was banned for life from returning to the US made many colourful friends in the prison system. “Bizarre doesn’t do justice to some of the things that happened,” he says. “A lot of the men in there would have sex with the she-males. Frankie was a Mexican Mafia hit-man who looked like Joe Pesci and had been proposing our gay marriage ever since he saw me. He was in on murder charges. I was only around hairy men for five years but I never went for a she-male. There was one who carved out his own testicles and another one performed his own breast reduction with a knife.”
In December Shaun was freed early from his sentence and returned to the UK on notorious Con Air, subject of the Hollywood blockbuster.Now he is re-adjusting to life at home, and for the time being, on the dole. “I drafted five books in prison. Most of my friends in there were murderers and I’ve done books about their lives,” he says. “I class myself as a struggling writer now. It was hard when I first got back after the initial euphoria wore off - not just for me but my family too. But things are starting to look up. After all this I’m actually going out with the girl next door and I’m still writing the blog (jonsjailjournal. blogspot. com). I’m loving freedom. I missed some things like going for Indian food massively. I’m taking nothing for granted now. All my friends from the prison still write to me and I post their stories on the blog.”
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