Lee, an ex-prisoner, tells how he found hope
Twenty years ago, I was living in Gibraltar. My mother had recently died and I was grieving. I am an only child and never knew my dad. I was approached to carry a suitcase from Thailand. Despite knowing that if I got caught I would probably be executed, I went, took the case, but was arrested at the airport. The authorities had been tipped off before I even got there. I was given a ‘death sentence’ which in Thailand equates to 200 years.
I had a five-kilo set of chains hammered to my ankles, had my hair and eyebrows shaved off, and was led off to spend the rest of my life in Bang Kwang maximum security prison. I shared a cell with 40 other chained prisoners for 18 hours a day, with one hole in the floor for a toilet. I was 27.
I made friends with a prisoner who had a missionary called Susan come to visit him. Whenever she had another person with her, she would try to get me called out of the cell too.
After two years, the conditions got so unbearable, I opted for solitary confinement: locked up 24–7 in an eight by six foot cell infested with rats, mosquitos and cockroaches… but at least I was alone. It was in solitary that I started to read my Bible. One day, I got to the part where Jesus read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–21). It stopped me in my tracks. Jesus claimed not only to heal the blind and the deaf, but also to free those that are captive and those that were bound. I will never forget my plea to Jesus that day.
My health started to deteriorate after three years. I had contracted tuberculosis and went from weighing 75 kilos to 45 kilos in a matter of weeks. The British Embassy kindly applied on my behalf to the prison authorities, asking if I could return to England once cured – not to change my Thai sentence, but so I could serve out its remainder in humane conditions. It was a long shot with a lengthy process, but I had nothing to lose.
Five years later, after having served 10 years, my request was granted. My chains were removed. I was flown back to England to HMP Wandsworth to await transfer to HMP Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight (due to my considerable sentence). However, the day before I was due to go, I was informed I would be going to HMP Rye Hill instead
In Rye Hill chapel, after an event, I walked up to the piano and played something I vaguely remembered from piano lessons. I went back to my cell and thought no more of it, but about 20 minutes later I could hear cell observation flaps being slammed open and shut. The officers were looking for someone along the landing. The flap opened on my cell and an officer asked me if I was the guy that had been playing the piano. Was I really in so much trouble for that?
The cell door opened and there was a short, blonde lady called Sandy telling me she was a minister in the chapel. Could I come back and play something? I went back and played a few short pieces of classical music. She explained that they had been praying for a pianist. Would I like to come and play hymns for them? I remembered the prison I would still be in if it weren’t for God. How could I possibly refuse?
I began working as a chapel orderly, building up a repertoire of over 200 hymns for services. Then, one day, a man called Paul came to give a Christian talk. I recognised him immediately. He had been to the prison in Thailand! What were the chances of meeting him here in England?
Paul said that, if I ever got released, I should look him up. In my mind I thought, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ I had resigned myself to the fact that I would spend the rest of my life in prison – but I was forgetting, God always keeps his promises.
One day, my cell door flew open. After having been in prison a total of 15 years, the officer informed me I had been given the Thai king’s royal pardon and was to be released immediately! Thirty minutes later, I found myself on the other side of the gate with £40 in my pocket, and a feeling of complete and utter bewilderment. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!
I spent the next two years working all over the country. I attained three forklift licences and bought myself a motorbike, but my company lost its contract. I had to find a new job. What was I going to do?
hen, I got a call from Paul, asking me how things were going. I explained my situation and he suggested I use my forklift skills in Milton Keynes, where there were plenty of warehouses. So, that’s what I did for the next two years. I bought a caravan to live in, but sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, I wished I was back in prison playing hymns in the chapel. Despite being free, I had no sense of purpose. I kept working, but I wasn’t making any friends. I was living in fear, with feelings of shame. All I was doing was chasing wage packets from week to week, and I felt as if I had lost touch with God. But God had not lost touch with me.
I got a call from a guy called Steve I had met when he worked in HMP Rye Hill. He was a mutual friend of Sandy and Paul’s. I explained my situation. Steve told me that he now worked for a former chapel orderly of Sandy’s called Simon Edwards. Simon had been released three years previously. He had been given a vision by God to start his own organisation in Stoke called Walk Ministries.
I had a number of conversations with Simon, the CEO, and he offered me a one-bedroom flat to stay in while I was with the project. There would be Bible studies, discipleship, counselling for post-traumatic stress, courses on personal development skills with modules on self-esteem, citizenship, social interaction, how to form lasting and meaningful relationships, and a 12-week leadership course. As well as that, they were looking for suitable trainees to work within the organisation. This was exactly what I had needed five years earlier!
I worked for Walk Ministries for 14 months as Simon’s personal assistant. When I moved on from Walk, I decided to stay in Stoke, where I felt accepted. I now have a forklift job with a permanent contract, and I am excited about the new opportunities that are ahead.
I believe I am exactly where God wants me to be: in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing what I believe is the right thing. I go to an amazing House of Prayer, and also to a local Methodist Church.
God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. He always finishes the good work he has started in us, and he most certainly never gives up on us!
Lee’s story features in 40 Stories of HOPE published as part of Prison HOPE – find out more at prisonhope.org.uk