Famous jail blogger talks to students on drug dangers (article by Stephen Rodgers for The Week In)
It may have been too soon after breakfast for many Year 12 students at Sir Bernard Lovell School last week when their first session of the day was to listen to harrowing tales of prison violence and barbaric living conditions in cockroach infested cells and dead rats in the food. This was no third world country either but Arizona in the US and the personal experiences were of Englishman Shaun Attwood who fell foul of the criminal justice system there.
Having spent six years in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable, the 41 year old former stockbroker and rave organiser is now touring secondary schools in the country to warn about the dangers of drugs and crime. It all started so well for Shaun. Having left the recession behind in 1991, he moved to Arizona and quickly became a millionaire stockbroker specialising in high tech industries during the dot.com revolution. But he was also a party animal, having been a fan of the burgeoning rave scene in his native Manchester before leaving for the States. He began organising similar style events around Phoenix. His legal and his not so legal life came crashing down in 2002 and with bail set at $750,000 his new residence became the infamous Maricopa County Jail. With the highest death rate among inmates of any prison in America, it has become the focus of a lot of media attention over the years because of the hard line attitudes of the County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. He makes prisoners wear striped overalls over pink underwear, has reintroduced chain gangs, tented compounds in the Arizona desert and famously claimed that more is spent on feeding the police dogs in Maricopa County than the prisoners. His belligerent stance of ‘if you don’t like it – don’t come back’ has won sheriff Arpaio a lot of support but many of the lesser publicised activities have also brought him into conflict with federal prison authorities, Amnesty International and the US president.
What Shaun Attwood describes is a life of gang violence ignored by guards, an absence of even basic healthcare and hygiene and a diet of mouldy bread and slops. Sleeping in 100-degree temperatures at night with armies of cockroaches and spiders crawling over his body, and listening to the crack of an inmate’s skull being smashed against the wall of a neighbouring cell was a common nighttime experience while bodies would often lie for several hours before the guards removed them.
During his time in jail, Shaun began smuggling out stories of what life was really like via his American aunt who visited each week. These were then posted online in Jon’s Jail Journal blog, which became a worldwide phenomenon and turned media attention onto the regime of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Back home, his parents remortgaged their house and cashed in their pensions to be able to pay the solicitor’s fees and, as is frequently the case in America, a plea bargain was agreed. Instead of a possible 200 year sentence if found guilty at trial, Shaun accepted a 9½ year term and because he was not a US citizen and this was a first offence, he was finally released in December 2007.
Since that time, he has been working on his memoir of life in prison and his book ‘Hard Time’ is out in August. In the meantime, he is keen to share his experience with as many teenagers as possible so they don’t make the same mistake. As a successful businessman and drug user, he never saw the problem.
“I considered myself a functional, recreational drug user and that I would never be caught. What I learnt from other inmates who made the same mistake was that as a drug user I was making decisions that I would never have considered. The problem is that you begin to think you are invincible.”
Ironically, it was living so close to a society so dependent on drugs that convinced Shaun that he didn’t need them. “I still hear that howling wolf from time to time that makes me want to party but there are other ways of dealing with it now” he told a very still and silent audience.
Shaun’s book ‘Hard Time’ is published by a division of Random House and is due out on 5th August. It can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.
Click here to read the original article published on Thursday 20th May 2010 on page 5 (it's a PDF file that takes a bit to download)