A thalidomide survivor has been released from prison in the Philippines after serving nearly 20 years, thanks to a campaign led by a disabled activist and fellow survivor.
Billy Burton spoke this week to Disability News Service (DNS) of his daily struggle to survive in prison and his determination to now “redeem” himself for the crime he committed.
He was handed a life sentence after being caught trying to smuggle more than five kilogrammes of cannabis out of the country in 1992.
But the time he had to serve before being eligible for parole was increased from eight to 20 years, then 30 years and then 40 years as the government increased sentences for drugs offenders.
If the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, had not listened to the pleas for clemency, and granted him a pardon – on condition that he paid a small fine, agreed to be deported and never returned to the Philippines – he would not have been due for release until 2032, when he will be 70.
Burton was finally granted a pardon and released from prison on Boxing Day last year, but was held in a detention centre for three months before finally being allowed to fly home this month.
He is now back in the UK, and staying in Harrogate, near his home town of Wetherby, west Yorkshire. His release is mainly thanks to the tireless work of Guy Tweedy, a fellow thalidomide survivor who spearheaded the campaign for his release, even though they had never met.
Burton was also supported by Dr Martin Johnson, director of The Thalidomide Trust, which administers the compensation paid to UK thalidomide survivors, who visited him at the prison near Manila two years ago.
DNS reported last year how Liberal Democrat Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne had written to Benigno Aquino, asking for clemency.
Browne told DNS this week that he had then raised the issue in a meeting with Aquino, and pointed out to him that Burton had served a far longer sentence than he would have done in the UK, while there were also “compassionate grounds” for releasing him.
He said: “I have never met him but I am very pleased that he has been released. It seems to me that there was a compelling case for releasing him.
“I think they were receptive. I don’t think I was pushing on a closed door. I think I probably made a difference in terms of accelerating the release.”
Burton spoke this week of the constant threat of beatings or killings within the disease-ridden New Bilibad prison.
“A chicken was worth more than a man, because you can sell it or eat it,” he said. “That would be the thing I remember most – the lack of humanity, and how cruel people can be to each other.”
His position was even more precarious as a disabled person. “There is no compassion or sympathy. You are easier prey, so you don’t get any favours at all.
“I acted as if I was stupid, then people would just ignore me and lose interest. You have to find a way to survive. I just became inconsequential, unimportant, and eventually people left me alone.”
More than 15,000 prisoners are kept in huge dormitories in the prison – Burton says they are more like overcrowded “cowsheds”.
Burton paid the price of two pigs a year for the right to build his own living area and secure protection from the gang that ran his dormitory. His gang was known as BSL 22, and he still bears the gang’s “membership” marks on his body.
He constructed his own living area in a 10 feet by eight feet space, complete with a toilet, kitchen and living area on the ground-floor, and a sleeping area upstairs where he stored his clothes and possessions.
Burton devised his own adaptations, including extra wide steps up to the sleeping area, and paid a fellow prisoner who was a carpenter to build a high table that he could use comfortably with his shorter arms.
He found two young prisoners to carry his water from the standpipe, and to cook and do his laundry, and in exchange they shared the food that he paid for and was brought into the prison five days a week by his Filipino partner, Mafe.
He also had to bribe guards to ensure they didn’t move him to a new part of the prison, forcing him to build his living quarters again from scratch.
There were constant attempts to extort money from him, both by guards and other prisoners. As a disabled person, and the only European prisoner, he was even more open to extortion and threats than his fellow inmates.
Medical facilities were basic, and the medical staff had no idea about how to treat him as a thalidomide survivor.
But he believes that coping with the barriers he faced growing up with his impairment helped him survive his ordeal.
He was also helped by the support of friends in the UK, who sent him gifts to keep his spirits up, including news on Leeds United, the football team he has supported since he was a boy, books and CDs, and even a Leeds United shirt.
He appears to be adapting well to life back in the UK – although he notices the cold, the sky-high prices, and the “scruffy” teenagers – but is still devastated by the death of his mother, who wrote to him in prison throughout his sentence, but died in 2010 before she could see him released.
He has already turned down offers from newspapers to buy his story, and says he is not interested in exploiting his experiences for money. Before he even considers writing his story, he says, he wants to “redeem” himself.
Every day in prison, he told himself how stupid he had been, but also questioned how he could have “done something so morally wrong”.
He says: “There is absolutely no excuse and I have never tried to make an excuse. The only thing I am trying to do now is to redeem myself.”
He plans to campaign against drug use and visit schools in the Wetherby area with the Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke – who supported the campaign for clemency – particularly focusing on students who might be travelling abroad on a gap year.
“If we can turn one person away from doing what I did, some good will have come from it,” he says.
Although he does not try to excuse his crime, Burton points out that he would have been handed a sentence of just five years in the UK, and would have been released on probation even sooner. He was eventually released from prison 19 years to the day after he began his sentence.
“Right now I am having my health checked and trying to get better, with possibly some surgery. I have a lot of health issues,” he says.
“The conditions were so bad there. While I was in there, I didn’t think it was so bad, but when I came out to the immigration detention centre it was like 10,000 tonnes had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Now 49, Burton says he is still institutionalised as a result of his years in prison: he stands at doors waiting for them to be unlocked, and asks permission to use the toilet.
Even so, the euphoria of freedom has yet to wear off, and he adds: “I feel like I am on holiday. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”
He already appears to have built up a strong bond with Tweedy, and is clearly in awe of the campaign he ran. “I only met Guy when I came back. For him to have spent two-and-a-half years working for someone he had never even met is absolutely amazing. As a humanitarian, he has no peers.
“He started the campaign, he fought it and he finished it.”
Burton thinks Tweedy eventually wore down the Filipino authorities. One senior figure came to see him in prison, and said: “He’s not going to stop, is he?”
Burton replied: “No, he’s not, he’s only warming up.”
He is now hoping that Mafe, a freelance writer who coordinated the campaign from the Philippines, sending and receiving messages to and from the UK, will fly over to visit him in July.
Tweedy, who also played a major role in the successful campaign to secure a government apology and increased support for thalidomide survivors, wrote a string of letters to senior figures in the Philippines.
He also wrote to the UK Foreign Office, Britain’s ambassador to the Philippines, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, and even the Pope, all appealing for help in securing clemency for Burton.
“I just kept battling and battling and battling,” he says.
25 April 2012