From Brum to the black hole of Trichur

Samantha Barker's trip across India in 1993 ended in a 10-year jail sentence. Her mother holds little hope for her release. Chris Arnot reports
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The sun shone brightly on the neat herbaceous borders, privet hedges and double-glazed bays in a comfortably suburban part of Birmingham. But no rays penetrated the closed curtains of Brenda Barker's through- lounge. Closed, too, was the door of her daughter Samantha's bedroom. Mrs Barker has felt unable to venture in there since a bleak Saturday morning in January last year when an official from the Foreign Office rang to tell her that Samantha had been arrested in India and charged with possession of drugs.

An ounce of cannabis resin, as it turned out, which Samantha Slater steadfastly maintains was planted on her. Her mother is convinced that she's telling the truth ("believe me, I know her") but the court in the southern state of Kerala was not convinced. For an offence that would warrant a pounds 150 fine in this country, she was sentenced to 10 years in Trichur jail.

Conditions are appalling. She shares a 15ft-square cell with 11 other women and any number of insects. Samantha has been treated for worms, dysentery and skin diseases. She lives on bread, rice and bananas. Her eyesight is deteriorating and she has been physically attacked by her cellmates, among them convicted murderers.

Mrs Barker is haunted by the thought. Her neck muscles are taut with strain, her voice brittle. Dark eye sockets tell of sleepless nights and tears. At one point in the conversation, she leaves the room and sobs uncontrollably in the hall.

"When I first heard about it, I was dumbstruck, in a daze. I had to get out and keep walking for hours on end. I couldn't stay in the house. There are so many memories of Samantha here."

The memories don't stop at the front door. Mrs Barker works as a lollipop lady outside the school where Samantha was once a pupil. She walks her dog in the park where she pushed her, first in her pram and later on the swings. But the memories seemed more intense indoors. "I cooked a chicken and then couldn't eat it because I remembered it was her favourite. We were very close, like best friends. Even when she was a teenager, she'd never excluded me. Our house was always full of her friends and she'd invite me to go out with them. We used to go shopping and she'd help pick my clothes. She kept me young."

Samantha is 24. Less academic than her older sister, Vanessa, she left school at 16 and trained as a beautician. Her stunning looks and lively personality later led her into promotional work for a modelling agency. Twice she left home and both times she came back again. "Even when she was living elsewhere, she was still round here four or five times a week," says Mrs Barker.

At 21, she travelled across America in a camper van. The following year she started planning a backpacking holiday in India. Her boyfriend, Andrew Hesketh, had been before. They would have a last fling before settling down. Samantha saved for 12 months, her funds swollen by her mother allowing her to live at home rent-free.

They left in October, 1993, to explore the subcontinent by train and motor scooter. Nearly two years later they are in separate sections of the same prison. Andrew was given three years for complicity. They are able to see each other once a week for around 15 minutes - a rare opportunity - to speak English. Samantha's efforts to learn the Malayalam language of south-west India were met with hostility from her cellmates.

Her mother has been to see her twice, once in July, 1994, and once in February this year. Both trips were paid for by the Today newspaper. Mrs Barker, 50, has been divorced twice and is not wealthy.

At one point she resolved to sell the house and her small car to raise money for a legal appeal, but suburbia suddenly seemed very important to Samantha. A constant theme of her letters is that one day she will come home for "a decent cup of tea and a slice of toast". Viewed from the Trichur jail, a semi in north Birmingham seemed like paradise. Hope of reaching it one day was what kept her going. She wrote to her mother, pleading with her not to sell.

Money for solicitors and barristers was raised instead through a bank overdraft and a fashion show staged by Samantha's friends in the modelling business. Mrs Barker travelled to India in February with hope in her heart and Christmas presents in her suitcase. She imagined her daughter's delight at being able to throw away the grubby, prison-issue sari and joining her at the hotel to try on new leggings, tops, boots and underwear.

But her solicitor's optimism had been misplaced and the appeal was dismissed. The four-and-a-half hour car journey from court to prison was one of unmitigated misery. "I had to go and tell her I'd failed. She looked even thinner and paler than the last time I'd seen her, but she'd gained an inner strength. She was consoling me while all I could do was feed her bits of fruit I'd bought in. I was so proud of her."

Family and well-wishers have kept her going, she says, but nobody can stop her fretting. Friday night trips to the local with friends stopped some time ago. "I can't go out and make conversation," she says. Letters to John Major and a petition to the Indian High Commission have proved fruitless.

Mrs Barker's only hope now is that an imminent agreement on extradition of prisoners would allow Samantha to complete her sentence in the UK. "Who cares," says her mother, "as long as she's over here near me and out of that filthy hole."

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