Visiting The British Man Spending His 30th Christmas In A US Jail

Last week, as soon as I got off the plane from Guantanamo Bay, I went to see my client Kris Maharaj, in Miami. It is hard to know what is more depressing – men being held in the Cuban prison base for 16 years without being charged with a crime, or Kris’ case.

British citizen Kris has been held for nearly 31 years now, after a farce of a trial where the judge was arrested on the third day for taking bribes. Kris’ lawyer failed to present six alibi witnesses who would have proved that he could not have committed the crime.

Kris is innocent. But in his case the government continues to insist, as they did in their latest legal brief, that innocence is not a legal issue that requires that a prisoner should be freed.

Kris is held in the South Florida Reception Center, which sounds like a welcome zone for people coming to enjoy the Sunshine State and its sandy beaches. It is not. To be sure, when I visited the sun was shining. It was a beautiful day. For the first time in many visits, the guards were uniformly friendly and efficient, and one was even humming a rather unrecognisable version of ‘Silent Night’ as he went through the metal detectors with me. But it was as if a dark cloud hung over the prison, a place where every effort at humanity seems forced and false. He sang about ‘heavenly peace,’ and yet I could only think about death.

I got through the security to the visitation room before Kris, so I had time to look around. The starlings were swirling across the sky. I counted half a dozen planes flying east towards Miami International Airport. All were reminders that Kris and his loyal wife Marita (78-years-old recently) would not be flying east to England for this Christmas – just as they have not flown home each of the previous 31 Christmases since Kris was locked up on October 16th, 1986. Marita will set a place for Kris in her cottage thirty miles north of here, but Kris will not miraculously walk in the door.

Looking around me, the efforts at institutional cheer fall flat. None of the three vending machines is working, so I cannot even buy Kris a soda. The sign on the wall – “Inspiring Success: By Transforming One Life at a Time!” – seems so false when Kris is not eligible for parole until he is 101 years old. Even the Angel who has been drawn across the far wall seems to be bowing to the inevitability of doom. She is meant to be watching over the bridge, where some of the boards have come loose, leaving the presumably errant pedestrian of life in danger of falling. But her eyes are tight closed. He is going to fall anyway.

The other sign on the wall boasts that the Florida Department of Corrections has been in operation since 1868. I wonder how much misery they have overseen since then.

Kris comes shuffling in with his walker. He will be 79 in January, so he is perhaps lucky – he is already 17 years past the life expectancy for a Florida prisoner. He is surprisingly chipper. I have brought him some of the 1,836 messages of support sent in by listeners of a recent BBC radio interview with him. He is thrilled, and says how humble it makes him feel. He tells me to thank the BBC radio presenter, Adrian Chiles, and everyone. He wants me to remind them that his wife is not one in a million, she is one in 10 million.

Kris is unstoppable today. I take down a verbatim quote from him to his supporters, and he says all kinds of nice things about me and Reprieve – that he would be dead by now if it were not for us. He is absolutely vehement when I suggest I might edit that out.

It is unusual for him – he is so very British! – but he tears up when he talks about the on-going case we have in federal court. “I was really looking forward to being home in England this year. Mainly for Marita. But I really hoped so. It’s not going to happen now, of course.” He speaks about his “duty” to make sure, once he does get out, that nobody else ever suffers what he has gone through – an unlikely goal given the fallibilities of the legal system, but I let that pass.

I hate leaving prisons. It means leaving Kris in there. What do the next few days hold for Kris and Marita? The dreadful Jingle Bells muzak in the airport is so dissonant – the South Florida Reception Center Christmas is certainly not going to be merry, any more than the oppressive heat augurs snow.