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How I Went from a British Estate to Kenyan Prison in Five Years

A holiday ended up changing the course of this guy's life for good—which he had plenty of time to reflect on in prison.
June 4, 2016, 12:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

The filthy, louse-infested concrete floor of a Kenyan prison cell wasn't quite where Terry Johnson had expected to end up. This 60-something landscape gardener was a long way from his Plymouth home, and his dream of relocating to Kenya to get away from an unhappy marriage had quickly spiraled into a nightmare.

After starting a new family with Sharon, a Kenyan woman four decades his junior who died in 2001 not long after the young son they'd raised together, he realized that it was actually pretty damn difficult to earn a decent living in a nation where the GDP per capita is the equivalent to a few weeks' wages in the UK.

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He also craved excitement, which is partly what had caused him to move to Kenya in the first place. This led to his involvement in smuggling weed from east Africa to the UK, and his eventual arrest at Nairobi airport following a tipoff. I caught up with Terry to find out what possessed him become involved in crime in a developing country, and what his time inside was like.

VICE: How did you end up in Kenya in the first place?
Terry Johnson: My shopaholic wife won £7,500 [$10,900] in a competition. Before she could blow it, I sold her the idea of a holiday. Geography was my favorite subject at school, and I'd done an end-of-term project about Kenya, which is why I chose it. I went against hotel advice and ventured alone into villages. I wanted to get under the skin of real Kenyan life. The place and people fascinated me to such an extent that I knew I had to live there.

Terry today (Photo courtesy of Terry Johnson)

There's been a history of Brits using other countries as places to escape to and start afresh, emboldened by the power dynamic created by colonialism. What do you make of that idea in light of your own experience?
Brits tend to end up in the Costa del Sol or the south of France. I lived under the same corrugated-tin-roofed shacks and shared the same goat-and-rice dinners as my Kenyan friends, and certainly didn't play the "colonial white man abroad" card.

How did you end up becoming involved in crime, then?
Money was drying up, and I wasn't prepared to let go of my dream new life. I got into smuggling from mixing with two dodgy beach traders, who were into all sorts. I traveled three or four times a year from Nairobi to smuggle hash, alternating between different airports in the UK.

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How did you get caught?
I was caught at Nairobi airport. The village landlord had reported me to the police, so they were waiting for me.

What was it like in prison?
In Nairobi Remand Centre, seven of us were crammed into a 17x16-foot cell with a tin bucket for a toilet. We fought for space on the concrete floor to sleep on our lice-riddled hessian mats. I survived on a gloopy maize-and-water paste called ugali, a thumb-sized slither of leathery meat, and a glass of watered-down milk. My weight plummeted. I had shooting pains in both legs, and suffered blackouts.

Kamiti Prison was modeled on the British Army in 1950s. Most of the guards topped up their low wages with any scam they could get away with. A strong kale-like vegetable usually fed to cattle was the main part of the meals.

How were you treated, as a European and foreigner, while inside? Did it feel the same as how Kenyans lived in the prison?
I was fortunate to get monthly visits from the British embassy. On my arrival, I wasn't treated the same as others, and was put into a segregation block to keep me away from the mainstream. They didn't want me to see what really goes on, and thought a foreigner equalled unwarranted outside intervention. I don't think it was because of the color of my skin, but more to do with where I came from. I got to see much more than I should have, though.

The prospect of being the only white 60-year-old in this tough African prison terrified me at first. As time passed, I realised the guards were wary of my connection with the outside world. That gave me the confidence to speak up when they were hostile towards me.


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Was there much violence?
The violence was nearly always instigated by the guards.

What about drugs?
Drug use was scarce. Cigarettes were forbidden, and guards would monitor family visits and track who'd smuggled them in. The next day, cells were raided, and those responsible would be beaten. A day later, the same guards would approach the prisoners to sell their cigarettes back to them.

How easy was it to readjust to normal life again after being released?
On my return to the UK, I saw a doctor about the scabies and body lice I'd contracted. He advised me to get counseling. I never did; instead I became a carer for my wife, who had Alzheimer's. It took years for the nightmares and crawling under the skin feeling to go. I used alcohol to wash away the stress, but soon realized necking a bottle of whisky wasn't conducive to my newfound responsibilities, and kicked the booze.

You can read more about Terry's time in Kenya in his book Flying Cats and Flip Flops: Surviving a Notorious African Prison.

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