'There is no moving on from a past like mine'

Sentenced to death for smuggling in Thailand, Sandra Gregory finally won her freedom in 2000. Here she describes her struggle to return to normal life - from coping with notoriety, to winning a degree at Oxford, to rediscovering the world of 'great, hairy men'.
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I moved to Thailand in 1990 and had been living there for a little over two years. I was teaching English in a university, various schools and businesses, and to private students. I had a lovely boyfriend, lots of friends and life had generally been pretty wonderful. I loved Thailand and most things Thai.

Everything changes, though, and at the end of 1992 my life took a terrible turn for the worse. Following the 1991 military coup and subsequent massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators, two nasty illnesses and personal loss, I was desperate to return home, and stupidly agreed to carry a drug addict's personal supply of heroin to Tokyo for him. In return I was to be paid £1,000 - enough money to buy a plane ticket home to England.

I did not make it to Tokyo. I did not even make it past Bangkok airport. Somebody had alerted the British embassy in Thailand that the man I was travelling with would be attempting to leave the country with drugs, and the embassy staff had promptly informed the Thai customs of his movements. Several plain-clothed customs officers were waiting for him at the check-in desk and when they asked me whether I was with him, I told them that I was.

We were taken off to a small, dank room where the customs officers found the 3oz of heroin I was carrying. Both of us were arrested and charged with international drug trafficking. After a three-year trial, the judge ordered that my life should be terminated (at that time, the death penalty was carried out by firing squad). But he commuted the sentence and I received the minimum possible term for the crime I had committed in Thailand: 25 years in prison.

I was actually very lucky. Lucky that the original death sentence was reduced and lucky that I was born British. Being British meant that after serving just four years in prison in Bangkok I was able to transfer home to serve out the remainder of my sentence in England. I only did a further three years though, because the King of Thailand granted me a royal pardon and I was released.

During the years I spent locked away from the world, my father always spoke of "LAP" - Life After Prison. "What," he would ask, "are you going to do with your life if you are ever released from this situation?" I used to think he was a bit mad, always going on about it so much. I mean, really, life would be just fine if I were ever released from the world of walls and bars and madness that I had become so accustomed to. I always rather naively thought that if I were ever given a second chance at life, I would be able to just leave the whole ordeal behind me; almost as though nothing untoward had ever happened.

My father, however, always knew that my life would never be anything remotely similar to how it might have been, had I not been so stupid as to try to carry drugs through Bangkok airport.

Being released from a 25-year prison sentence, with almost no notice, was a shock, to say the very least. One day I was considered an example of the worst-case scenario by my fellow inmates and the next I was dragging a black, plastic rubbish bag along the ground and out of the prison gates.

For over seven years I had dreamed of walking out of the gates a free woman, and I would try to evoke the feeling that that walk would bring me. Yet when the time finally arrived, on 21 July 2000, my elation was mixed with fear, as I realised, almost immediately, that I had changed. I didn't feel comfortable with myself and had forgotten how to be in public. There were men, for example, at Kings Cross station! Apart from the uniformed and key-carrying guys who worked in the British prisons, I hadn't been around men for over seven years. Those I came into contact with now all seemed to be great, lumbering, hairy beasts who walked far too closely to me. I felt intimidated by them and disturbed that I couldn't remember the right way to act around them. Is it right to look them in the eye or to ignore them?

Everyone was moving around so quickly and they all seemed to be wearing very modern, Star Trek-style clothes. How should I walk down a street? How do we avoid bumping into each other? I wanted to buy some chewing gum, but had forgotten where it is kept in the supermarket - even though I knew it was always stored in the same place. It was a few weeks before I found it next to the check-out tills.

Coming home was hard, because I had become comfortable being in prison. Home didn't feel like home at all.

That was more than six years ago. In that time I have attempted to right my wrongs, to pay my debt to society and to leave the past behind. I have volunteered with charities and spoken publicly on behalf of penal reform organisations. I have worked with the Foreign Office on their Know Before you Go campaign, and ran the British division of a campaign to raise funds for a hospice for prisoners in Thailand. I have travelled to prisons around England visiting inmates and I have written a book about my experiences and given hundreds of talks to thousands of teenagers, in schools throughout the country. In 2002 I went to Oxford to read for a geography degree and graduated last year with 2:1.

At each stage of the last six years I have thought to myself: "Now I will be able to draw a line under the past, move on and leave it all behind." What I have found, though, is that there is no moving on from a past like mine. It lingers in my present, the way a bad smell loiters in a small room.

My case was covered quite extensively by the national media and as a result I gained a certain notoriety and, in an odd sense, somehow became public property. When I first came back to the small town in west Yorkshire that I left when I went to Thailand, I was astonished by how many people seemed to know me, or know about my case. Strangers came up to me in the street and welcomed me home. Others told me how, if it had been up to them, I would never have been released.

Some, on realising who I was, looked astonished to be in my company and exclaimed, "Oh, you're that Bangkok Hilton girl!"

"No," I told them, "that was Nicole Kidman."

Sadly, I have not been able to re-establish many of my old friendships. When I was in prison people would warn me that everything had changed on the outside, and that if I didn't get out soon, I'd never be able to adjust to the new computerised world out there. I worried about never being able to understand things like the internet and bar codes, but when I did finally make it outside, I found that, actually, the world has in many ways become much easier. You only have to see a mobile phone or an email once to understand them.

What was disturbing was meeting up with people I had once known and realising that we now have little, or nothing, in common. Many would just gawp at me and say things like "Oh my God, I don't know how you coped with all that."

Many of my old friends had hardly changed. They wore the same clothes, seemed to say the same things and were doing much the same as they had been doing a decade earlier. It saddened me to realise that I had travelled my path alone and nobody would ever truly know, nor understand, what I had experienced and why I am now the way I am.

Most people never see the things I've seen, such as a woman walking her three-year-old daughter to the prison gate and handing her over to a guard, knowing that she will never see her again, or a girl with learning difficulties masturbating in a puddle of slime while chained by an ankle to a wooden fence.

These things have changed me, have left me with a passion for justice - whether legal, social, environmental or economic - and a child-like lust for life and the world about us, but no desire to own the things money can buy.

It was this new outlook that lead me to take a place at Oxford two years after my release. But despite my eagerness to learn, the prospect of going to university terrified me. I experienced all the usual insecurities about going up and spent several months worrying, along with most other Oxford freshers, that I wasn't bright enough, wouldn't be able to do the work, and fretting that they had made a terrible mistake in offering me a place. On top of all the usual concerns, though, I worried about how people would treat me when I got there. Would they know who I was? Would they avoid me if they did?

It turned out that my pre-Oxford fears were a reflection of my own insecurities. Throughout the first year I struggled through conversations about my previous life and constantly panicked that my past would be exposed and I would be "found out". Whenever asked what I had done before coming to college, I would mumble and ramble on about teaching and travelling and being self-employed, desperately hoping that the conversation would verge off in any direction and away from me.

Halfway through the three-year course, I realised that most people did know all about me and my speckled past, but were only interested in me as the person they knew, not the person they had read about. It had been years since people had treated me purely as they found me and for that reason Oxford became, temporarily at least, my retreat, my sanctuary from the world.

After graduating, though, I learnt that, in the 21st-century job market, having a criminal record, coupled with notoriety, is far more significant than having a decent Oxford degree, lots of work experience and an assortment of transferable life skills. Getting a job has been an interesting and somewhat tricky process this past year. My record means I cannot, of course, work with children or vulnerable people, so I can't teach again, or become a social worker or care assistant. I have also purposely not applied for any jobs which require an enhanced criminal-record check, which rules out the crown courts, local government, police, prisons, the armed forces.

As for the jobs I have applied for, having a criminal record may not be the only reason that I have not been called for interviews, but I cannot help but feel that what I did in the early 1990s has had a negative impact on many of my applications.

I went to university hoping that at the end of the course I would be equipped to go forth and help save the world. I saw myself working as some sort of social "do-gooder", with a respected public body or charity. Now, though, I find myself back in my home town in west Yorkshire, working for a US engineering company. It is not a very good job, not what I ever imagined I would be doing. It doesn't pay well, but it is a job and I love the nine-to-five normality that having it brings me. I get up at the same time every day, sit in lanes of stationary traffic with hundreds of other people during the commute to work and I treasure the weekends, as I have never done before.

Ironically, though, the company I work for is an odd one, with very quirky employees and strange goings-on. Working here has made me wonder whether "normality" is ever to be mine.

Often I feel that there is something that separates me from many of the people I meet. I was chatting to an ex-policeman a few days ago and we naturally got around to the subject of crime, punishment and justice. When he told me he was strongly in favour of bringing back the death penalty, I immediately felt my hackles rise and my demeanour change. I managed to remain polite, though, as we discussed the pros and cons of execution, but I was absolutely horrified that a policeman, of all people, could support the death penalty. Such issues go beyond the realms of theoretical debate with me. Having lived alongside the condemned, the death penalty is almost a part of me, rather than being a mere topic of interest to be debated.

Eventually, I almost spat at the ex-policeman as I asked him whether he had ever seen a young woman taken, without warning, in the middle of a calm afternoon, to be shot in the back by eight soldiers.

Then I told him that I, too, had been given the death penalty not so many years ago. He looked rather shocked and said only that I didn't look the type. No, I thought, maybe I don't. But I am the type; whatever that means.

"Forgive them for they know not what they do" is one of the phrases from the Bible I find most poignant. What I realised during my years away is that so many people knew no better than to do what they did. Yet, unlike many people, I did know what I was doing all those years ago in Bangkok and continued to go ahead and break the law anyway. Yet less than a third of the way through my sentence, I was forgiven. I am not sure it was fair that I received forgiveness, when so many others do not, but I am eternally grateful for the second chance I have been granted.

Since my release, I have tried to draw a line under what happened to me and all the things I experienced, but I realise now that a line can never be drawn under such a mistake. My past has helped forge my present and will probably also shape my future. Although not always easy, life is certainly very good and these days I appreciate almost every minute of it.

Banged Up Abroad: The Sandra Gregory Story, is on Channel 5, at 10pm on 2 October