I was tricked into smuggling illegal drugs
Jessica*, 23, was arrested and imprisoned after she was tricked into smuggling two kilograms of cocaine back from holiday.
Looking back at it, I can't believe I was so naive. But at the time I didn't know anything about drug trafficking. I'm sure people who listen to my story will see the warning signs I missed and think "how could she be so stupid?" I definitely know a lot about drug smuggling now.
I was 21 and studying broadcast journalism at university when I got a call from my friend Rose* asking me if I wanted to go on holiday. I couldn't afford it and she told me her brother would pay. We were more good-time friends than best buddies. Rose kept on at me about the holiday and I eventually agreed to go to St Lucia with her for a week, and pay her brother back in instalments.
Rose said she knew a lot of people out there and was on her mobile the moment we landed. When we arrived at our hotel there was already a man waiting to greet us. He asked us if we were OK and then gave Rose quite a bit of spending money. I didn't think much of it, assuming he was a family friend. The holiday was pretty uneventful apart from the fact this guy kept coming round to see Rose. I thought he fancied her, especially as he took her shopping and bought her stuff, but mainly stayed out of their way because I felt awkward.
On our last drunken night of the holiday, Rose told me she had ordered some duty-free alcohol to bring back home with us. She said friends from England had paid her to bring back the cheap booze and asked if I could carry some so she wasn't over the duty-free limit. I didn't question it. Why would I? It never occurred to me that Rose would smuggle drugs. She had never taken drugs before.
At St Lucia airport, Rose handed me a duty-free receipt so I could pick up the alcohol. Once we got through customs, we were each were given two large bottles of rum in blacked out bottles. I jokingly asked her: "It's not drugs is it?" and she laughed. "Come on. You know I don't do drugs," she said.
We flew home without consequence, landed in England, and picked up our baggage. But as we were strolling through 'nothing to declare', a security lady approached us. She asked to check our bags and I agreed, thinking it was a routine check. She found our rum, shook the bottles, and then asked Rose and I to talk to security staff in separate rooms.
At this point I still thought everything was a big misunderstanding and wasn't at all worried. That was until security staff told me our rum bottles were filled with class A illegal drugs. I was totally confused.
I was strip searched. I had to take off all my clothes, lean over and be searched while another lady just stood and watched me. It was a horrendous experience. And then I was arrested. It was a Saturday and I wouldn't get a court date until Monday so would be held in custody until then. I was driven to a police cell and left there for the weekend, shivering in the summer dress I had flown home in.
If a jury found me guilty, my lawyer told me I would be looking at ten to fifteen years jail time.
I spent the weekend alone in a holding cell while disgusting microwave food was shoved through a letter box at the bottom of the door. I was allowed to make one phone call, and let my uncle know what had happened. I didn't want to worry my parents unnecessarily - I honestly still believed it was all a big misunderstanding that would be sorted out quickly.
Everything hit home as soon as I got into the court room. My father was sitting in the public gallery, crying. That was the moment I realised it could be really serious. I honestly thought I was going to get bail - if only I could explain my point of view, they would let me go. So when the magistrates said the charges were too serious for bail and that Rose and I had to remain in custody, I cried. We were driven to a women's prison where all my clothes and possessions were taken. I was put in a shared cell with an open toilet. That night I went a bit crazy. I freaked out and starting writing my name on the walls of my cell. I thought I would never see my friends, boyfriend, or my family ever again.
Awaiting the trial
I spent three long weeks in prison until my uncle cleared out his bank account bailing me out. Then there was an agonising year-long wait until my crown court trial. Rose and I were facing charges of trafficking five kilograms of crack cocaine between us. If a jury found me guilty, my lawyer told me I would be looking at ten to fifteen years jail time. The sheer enormity of that didn't register. I had to go back to university and try to get on with normal life knowing I could soon be spending a decade behind bars. During this time, I cut off all contact with Rose and began to realise she might not be as innocent as she claimed. But my lawyer told me that if she was convicted, I would then have a higher chance of being found guilty - so at the same time I wanted her to be OK.
The trial finally began, and it was then that the cracks in Rose's story began to show. Under interrogation she kept changing her mind about what happened and told the court she didn't have an older brother. I was shocked - I thought he was the one who paid for the holiday. It was terrifying when it was my turn to give evidence. I was scared I would slip up on a lawyer's question and come across as guilty. The jury then couldn't reach a verdict that day, so I had to go home and wait for morning. I didn't sleep a wink that night. I instead spent my time saying goodbye to everybody and hugging my dog. I felt sure the jury would find me guilty.
Rose and I were to get our verdict together. Her name was read out first. Followed by one word. "Guilty." We both dissolved into tears. I thought: "That's it, I'm going down." I could barely hear the jury speak because I was crying so hard, but then I heard them call my name. Then a pause. And then two words. "Not guilty." Rose collapsed in the defendant box while I was told I could walk free from court. She got ten years.
This all happened over a year ago, and I'm still struggling to digest it. I can't believe it was real and it has really knocked my confidence. I stopped my university course and haven't been able to work. But I'm gradually getting to the stage where I can talk about it. Organisations like Giving Hope and their Stop Using Me campaign [LINK http://www.stopusingme.net/]have really helped. They support people in my situation as well as informing people about the dangers of drugs trafficking.
My advice to anyone who even considers trafficking drugs is that it's just not worth it. Although I've been through hell, it could have been much worse. In some countries they have the death penalty for drugs offences. Drug trafficking is something more young people need to be aware of. You can easily be used or manipulated into unknowingly committing a crime that has a long jail sentence. Learn from my experience and never put yourself at risk. I was naive then. I'm certainly not naive now.
*The names in this article have been changed