Charity praised for tackling plight of female drug 'mules'

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The Independent US

Jamaican drugs "mules" - women who swallowbags of cocaine - were being picked up every day at British airports three years ago. However, arrests have now fallen to less than one a month, and the number of Jamaican women in prison has tumbled from 700 to just over 200.

The turnaround follows a graphic publicity campaign in which posters, bumper stickers and beer mats were distributed across the Caribbean island. Its message - that smuggling drugs into Britain carried long prison sentences and could prove fatal if a bag splits - was hammered home by television films and a series of public meetings.

The campaign was masterminded from south London by a tiny charity originally set up to advise foreign women in British jails, but whose work now takes it to the Caribbean and west Africa. For its unstinting efforts dealing with a group of inmates who are often forgotten, FPWP/Hibiscus will today be awarded the Longford prize. The award, which is sponsored by The Independent and named after Lord Longford, the penal and social reformer who died in 2001, recognises "outstanding qualities of humanity, courage, persistence and originality".

The survival of the organisation - named after the national flower of Jamaica - over the past 20 years is a tribute to the stamina and persistence of its director and founder, Olga Heaven. Hibiscus staff and volunteers counsel women at seven women's prisons, including Holloway in London and Morton Hall, Lincolnshire, where nearly three quarters of inmates are foreign nationals.

In the past year they have advised more than 1,700 women of 50 nationalities. Nearly a quarter of the 4,420 women behind bars in England and Wales were born abroad. Almost all the Jamaicans and a high number of the Nigerians have been convicted of drug smuggling, and have typically received sentences of between four and 15 years.

Sandrina Wenn, a project manager at Hibiscus, says the women - who are typically poverty-stricken - are often in a desperate state. "Their main worry is their children, who have been left with mothers or sisters or friends, and how they can keep in contact with them," she said.

Hibiscus workers meet foreign women when they arrive in prison, explain the system, put them in touch with legal advisers and help them to contact their families. They continue giving advice throughout the women's sentences.

The work with individual inmates led the Hibiscus team to widen its horizons in the mid-1990s to Jamaica, home to so many of the women it was counselling.

"We knew we needed to get the message out to Jamaican women. They were oblivious to the consequences of what they were doing," said Sylvia Gerrish, office manager at Hibiscus.

Also commended in the awards are: Chance UK, a mentoring organisation in north London that works with children aged five to 11 with behavioural problems; Roma Hooper, who helped to found Radio Feltham, the UK's first prison radio station; and SmartJustice and its campaign manager, Lucie Russell, who promote alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.