Mr Nice


Mr Nice

Irvine Welsh

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN: 9781407066301

Version 1.0

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2


20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,

London SW1V 2SA

Vintage is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

Penguin logo

Copyright © Nowtext Limited 1996, 1997

Introduction copyright © Irvine Welsh 2017

Howard Marks has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

This edition published by Vintage in 2017

First published in Vintage in 1998

First published in hardback by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1996

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library


      About the Book
      About the Author
      Also by Howard Marks
      Title Page
    One  British
    Two  Master Marks
  Three  Mr Marks
   Four  Mr McCarthy
   Five  Mr Hughes
   Six  Albi
   Seven  Mr Nice
   Eight  Howard Marks
    Nine  Marks
    Ten  Mr Dennis
  Eleven  D. H. Marks
  Twelve  Mr Tetley, Not
Thirteen  Dennis Hooward Marks
 Fourteen  Señor Marco
  Fifteen  Marco Polo
  Sixteen  41526-004
Seventeen  Daddy
      Picture Section


Howard Marks (1945–2016) was one of the world’s most wanted drug barons. An Oxford nuclear physics and philosophy of science graduate, he was famously acquitted at the Old Bailey of cannabis trafficking, but was later convicted in the US for his global cannabis network. He served seven years in one of America’s toughest penitentiaries before being released and becoming the author of Mr Nice. The autobiography has sold over one million copies worldwide and was adapted into a major film.

His public readings from Mr Nice received excellent reviews throughout the national press. They quickly evolved into the legendary one man comedy show, An Audience with Mr Nice, which sold out at venues throughout Britain and Europe for the rest of his lifetime. Howard Marks also garnered critical and popular acclaim for his travel journalism, The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories, Señor Nice, Mr Smiley and a series of crime novels.



He was Britain’s most wanted man. He spent seven years in America’s toughest penitentiary. You’ll like him.

During the mid 1980s Howard Marks had forty three aliases, eighty nine phone lines and owned twenty five companies throughout the world.

At the height of his career he was smuggling consignments of up to thirty tons of marijuana, and had contact with organisations as diverse as MI6, the CIA, the IRA and the Mafia. Following a worldwide operation by the Drug Enforcement Agency, he was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison at the Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana. He was released in April 1995 after serving seven years of his sentence.

Told with humour, charm and candour, Mr Nice is his own extraordinary story.



The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories

Señor Nice

Mr Smiley


Sympathy for the Devil

The Score

To my son, Patrick Marks


Howard Marks was a supremely inspirational man. He sparked a tremendous devotion among the many people who met him. Countless more – who didn’t have that privilege – still felt that they were his friends. To be held in such affection by strangers is generally something that only true outlaws attain. Olaf Tyaransen, the Norwegian-sounding Irish journalist, describes our mutual friend as a ‘highly intelligent, erudite and charming man, who enjoyed life to the full – while running rings around law enforcement agencies for years’.

Yes, Howard certainly took the piss out of the authorities. His relish in flouting them fuelled his actions, just as much as his desire to turn profit. When he turned from drug smuggling to become a writer and anti-prohibition activist, he continued to be a thorn in their flesh. This was the quality that made him a true folk hero. Carl Loben, editor of DJ magazine, recalls a 1998 anti-drug prohibition demonstration they attended together. ‘Howard was the de facto star speaker at the end of the demo. He hung around for a couple of hours after the speeches, chatting with people and posing for pictures. He always had time for everyone.’

So how did a kid born in 1945, to a merchant sailor father and teacher mother, in the small coal-mining town of Kenfig Hill, who spoke only Welsh till he was five years old, become the world’s biggest drug smuggler? Well, Howard loved weed, and saw the lunacy of his tipple of choice being illegal while all around him, in the booze-soaked pit towns of South Wales, the destructive impact of alcohol was clearly visible. The old maxim of ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ was never coined with him in mind. Although cannabis was a labour of love for him, Howard never judged non-believers. Despite his zeal for pot and his intrigue at my lack of interest, when I readily displayed an enthusiasm for other substances, he never bothered trying to convert me.

He first began smoking hashish in 1964 at Balliol College, Oxford, to which he won a scholarship from a Valleys grammar school. As often happens, he started dealing small amounts to student friends to support his habit. Joshua Macmillan, the grandson of former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was a close friend. He later died of a heroin overdose. This tragedy made Howard averse to trafficking in hard drugs, despite the bigger money to be amassed in that trade. He saw their potential for individual tragedy and social destruction, and had no real emotional connection to them.

Leaving Oxford with a degree in nuclear physics meant that the world was almost but not quite his oyster. Britain is overly fond of its meritocracy myths: less academically able but more connected rich kids could still harness family networks to progress much further, much faster. Howard could have established himself as an academic, but despite brief employment in teaching, he was never cut out for the straight life. International drug smuggling was more his forte and he operated under multiple identities for many years, a particular favourite, ‘Donald Nice’, establishing this book’s title.

It was an exciting if precarious life, fraught with dangers and stresses, yet Howard ducked and weaved with enormous aplomb, as these pages recount. It took being grassed up by a brothel-operating Tory peer and the obsessions of an anally retentive DEA agent to change his luck, when, smack bang in the middle of the acid house revolution of 1988, he was arrested in Spain. Following extradition, Howard went on trial in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the court heard how he and his associates had smuggled thousands of tonnes of processed marijuana into the USA since 1970, through a criminal network covering many countries. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in Indiana’s Terre Haute Penitentiary, one of the harshest death row prisons in America.

It was a tough call for anybody to survive such an environment, let alone a man whose wife and children were on the other side of the ocean. Howard not only did so, he had the audacity to actually thrive. His international notoriety was no hindrance in helping him manoeuvre prison politics, but his charm and intellect were even bigger assets. He taught many inmates how to read and write, and, as a campaigning jailhouse lawyer, facilitated the release of a few more. His ‘exemplary behaviour’ and the zeal of the corrupt DEA to incarcerate him, leading them to fabricate evidence, resulted in his release through parole after just seven years. The global headlines that followed assured that Mr Nice became an international bestseller, shifting well over a million copies. It would later become an acclaimed movie starring Rhys Ifans, and, of course, was the subject of Howard’s long-running one-man stage show. On his release he campaigned for drug law reform and wrote six further books – including 2015’s follow-up autobiography, Mr Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been a friend of Howard’s. We were an unlikely duo to break into both the best-seller lists and nineties celebrity, with Mr Nice coming out around eighteen months after my first novel, Trainspotting, through the same publishing group. As displaced rock ‘n’ rollers who couldn’t sing a note and who entered pop culture through the back door of literature, we instantly hit it off, forming a kind of quiet, understated support system for each other. Both of us had been around the block enough to appreciate the gifts fame bestowed while retaining a certain ironic detachment, as we watched yet another Britpop star suffer a hotel-room whitey. Although Cool Britannia was fun, it wasn’t our first rodeo. I had lucked out: here was a street-savvy big bro of infinite wisdom and huge heart to help me navigate those exciting but potentially treacherous waters.

The first thing that struck you about Howard Marks was his gaze. His eyes looked right into your soul and also presented his own beautiful one out on a platter for your consideration. It was always fair trade. That gaze and grin must have broken a few hearts, and, when coupled with the unsuspecting uppercut of his steely will, gotten him out of several scrapes with jailhouse bullies.

The second thing to hit you was that voice. His Valleys lilt, accentuated with a gravelly hue by smoking, was the dog whistle that drew the cool and the wannabe cool. If you went into a nightclub you would wonder who all those hot young women were huddled around, until those rich, Burtonesque tones gave the game away.

So to say that Howard was an impressive individual is a massive understatement. Charisma leaked out of him, and his mindset was one of natural extravagance, augmented with an understandable desire to catch up on life’s good things after spending so long locked away. Yes, the cliché is true, he really did look like a sixties rock star. It was often said that he resembled a Rolling Stone, but the truth is that the only one that could ever come close to him in the coolness stakes would be Keith Richards. Dave Beer of Back to Basics nightclub in Leeds, a city Howard loved and where he lived the latter part of his life, told me: ‘He was a real-life folk hero; a modern-day Robin Hood or, more true to his nature, a legendary highwayman such as Dick Turpin. Howard was a true outlaw and always considered himself a criminal, which he felt comfortable with. But most of all Mr Nice was the nicest man you would ever have the pleasure to meet.’

Howard was also one of the last of that great stratum of working-class intellectuals, who came out of the post-war era where education was greatly prized and fees and grants, rather than loans, were offered to those from modest backgrounds. It was a time when we still had a proletarian culture that hadn’t been lain to waste by a declining capitalism, anxious to treat it like jam, and spread it as unthreateningly thinly as possible across its otherwise unappetising products, while reducing it to reactionary tabloid sound bites.

Unlike many working-class Oxford scholarship kids, blanding out his Valleys accent and muting his political radicalism was never an option. Howard Marks was a classic rebel. While he oozed charm and appreciated good conversation with people from all walks of life, the dumb, crass absurdities of the power elites offended his natural outlaw sensibilities. He didn’t just disdain them, he fought a stealthy guerrilla war against them and their pathetic assaults on intelligence and freedom (disguised as a war against drugs), and he never let up on this crusade. More subversively, he fought this battle in the most personally charming and engaging way, generally by taking the high ground and playing the ball, never the opponent. One of the few exceptions was with the boundless hypocrite former Home Secretary Jack Straw. As he said at the 1998 anti-prohibition demo: ‘If Jack Straw can’t stop his own son doing it [smoking weed], how the hell does he think he’s going to stop us?!’

Howard had a wise and wonderful way of simplifying matters and getting to the point. Artist Nick Reynolds, himself the son of an iconic working-class outlaw in Great Train Robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds, recalls asking him to speak at an anti-death-penalty art exhibition in Brick Lane, with Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlan. ‘Howard got up and boomed in an accusatory tone: “According to the Law, the most unacceptable and heinous crime a man can commit is premeditated murder. Premeditated murder – that means if you plan to kill someone at a specific time and carry it out, that’s premeditated murder. So then, what may I ask is the death penalty? Is that itself not premeditated murder?” Classic Howard and spot on!’

Howard was portrayed as a superstar waster, and often he was – he saw no contradiction between fighting for a better world and basking in the joy of what life had to offer. He would laugh off sycophants’ attempts to sanctify him as cheerfully as the media ones to demonise him. But he held his drugs well. James Brown, our editor at Loaded, remembers him as ‘the one man in the room, whom, when everybody else was ranting shit on coke, you could still have a decent conversation with’. When those heavy eyelids did start to go, it was generally the best signal that the night, or morning, or afternoon, really had come to a natural close.

Howard’s advice would often be counter-intuitive to most people. When Dave Beer stopped taking drugs and got a bit miserable as a result, everybody (including me) supportively told him he was doing the right thing. Howard took a different line. ‘You don’t look very happy to me,’ he said to Dave. ‘If I was you, I would get back on the drugs.’ Dave laughed off this comment, but Howard’s response was sincere. ‘Don’t laugh, it’s true. It suits you and you’re very good at it. Yes, people like you that way, you see, but it’s not about everyone else, it’s about you and what makes you happy.’ Dave gave the matter some thought, later telling me: ‘Only Howard would come out with that kind of advice. I didn’t take it instantly, but after a while I realised that he was right, in that a little of what you like is good for you. It’s all about being in control; using the drugs and not letting the drugs use you. After this perspective, I became in control of my own destiny and no longer a prisoner of my identity. I was happy in myself again.’ Howard saw that Dave was essentially a creature of clubland, in all its psychic layers; it was wired into his DNA. To have him in such an environment without drugs was like having Tilikum the killer whale captive in SeaWorld or a polar bear pacing a small concrete enclosure in a zoo.

Thus Howard had little time for boring ‘leftist’ puritans, understanding how, in their stiff-arsed disapproving morose piety, they simply fuelled the right-wing reactionary forces they professed to despise. Yet he was well aware that his media portrayal as a supreme hedonist was often underpinned by a desire to neuter his campaigning edge. It never did. Whether through his natural raconteur’s stage shows, or his journalism, his own voice was never muted or shorn of its critical intelligence in order to appease some lowest common denominator. I doubt if he’d have recognised such a concept.

Howard loved a good festival and nightclub, but was comfortable in any social situation. His spiritual home for a while was the legendary Tardis in Clerkenwell, a description-defying space run by George Parish and Nick Reynolds, where artists from all disciplines and gangsters of all levels of ambition merged happily, swapped tales, indulged in bad behaviour and put on weird shows. It was a journo-free zone, and the Fourth Estate had to content themselves with writing infinitely lamer tales about the Groucho, largely for each other’s consumption.

On his last public appearance at Kentish Town’s Forum, Howard, though in the throes of terminal cancer, was mesmerising and hypnotic, and most of all, beautifully angry. He evoked a latter-day Dylan Thomas, dismantling hypocrisy and vested interest with intelligence, passion and humour, almost literally until his last breath. A man who genuinely loved life so much was never going quietly: graciously, always, but never quietly.

It’s rare to find a genuine intellectual and an incredibly warm person in the one package. The gift of abstraction that fuels the hungry, critical mind so often works against the expression of simple humanity and social engagement with others. Howard did both effortlessly. After the big Decriminalise Cannabis march in London in early 1998, the government did indeed relax the law on cannabis. As Carl Loben says, ‘Not only was Howard a diamond geezer and great storyteller, he was also an activist who made a huge impact on the world.’

For a man who posited himself (as always with Howard, in self-deprecating humour) as an international master of disguise, he was paradoxically always himself. I’ve been in his company with writers, gangsters, publishers, labourers, schoolteachers, rock stars, scientists and even minor royalty, and I never saw him defer, condescend or dismiss a single one of them for a solitary second. He was always Howard Marks, and he took a great joy in them all. That was enough. God, that was so much more than enough. Howard’s life is one of the few where fact impressively outstrips mythology, but it’s all in here and he tells it better than I ever could. So it’s probably time for me to shut up and let my old buddy take over. And for you to read the story of a remarkable life, lived by the very brilliant and exceptionally wonderful Mr Nice.

Irvine Welsh

January 2017


I was running out of passports, ones I could use. In a few weeks I intended to visit San Francisco to pick up several hundred thousand dollars from someone keen to exploit his connections, both with me and with a bent US Customs Officer working in the imports section of San Francisco International Airport.

A few years earlier, I had been declared the most wanted man in Great Britain, a hashish smuggler with documented links to the Italian Mafia, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the IRA, and the British Secret Service. A new identity was vital. I’d already gone through about twenty different identities, most of which had been backed up by a passport, driving licence, or other indicators of documented existence, but they’d all either been discovered by friends/enemies or compromised by featuring in some suspicious trail meandering through a recent scam.

We drove to Norwich. After a couple of awkward meetings with go-betweens, I was introduced to a gentle guy named Donald. I couldn’t tell if he was a drinker, a stoner, or a straighter. His kitchen gave no clues. He looked normal, except that his eyes danced like those of a villain.

‘We can talk privately out here,’ he said and took me to a garden shed.

‘I need a passport, Don, one that’ll stand up to all checks.’

‘You can have mine. I won’t be needing one. But there’s one problem.’

‘What’s that?’

‘I’ve just done twelve years of a life sentence for murder.’ Convicted murderers, although clearly people with a criminal record, would rarely be declared as unwelcome at a country’s borders. They were regarded as mere menaces to individuals rather than threats to the fabric of society. The latter attribute tended to be restricted to dope dealers and terrorists.

‘I’ll give you a grand for it,’ I said, ‘and a few hundred quid from time to time when I need more back-up.’

I was thinking of a driving licence, medical card, local library card. Just a passport with no supporting identification is suspicious. A membership card to the local billiards club, obtainable cheaply and without proof of identity, is enough to give the required credibility.

‘That’s the best deal I’ve ever been offered for anything.’

‘What’s your last name, Don?’ I asked. I’d been lumbered with some terrible ones in the past.


‘How do you spell it?’

‘N-I-C-E, just like the place on the Riviera.’

It was up to Don how he pronounced his name. But I knew I would pronounce it differently. I was about to become Mr Nice.



‘Marks!’ yelled the guard. ‘What’s your number?’

‘41526-004,’ I mumbled, still in a really deep sleep. My number was used more often than my name, and I knew it just as well.

‘Get all your shit together,’ he ordered. ‘You’re leaving.’

Slowly I woke up. ‘Yeah, I’m leaving.’ I was leaving El Reno.

El Reno, Oklahoma, houses the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ transit facilities and is host to between one and two thousand federal prisoners, who are cajoled, bossed, and bullied by a few hundred guards. Every prisoner who is required to be moved from one US federal prison to another passes through El Reno. Even if the prisoner is being transported from North Dakota to South Dakota, he still has to go via El Reno. I had been through there five times. Some had been through more than fifty times. Expensive illogicalities and inefficiencies do not worry the monsters of American bureaucracy, and the taxpayers are enthusiastic and eager to spend fortunes in the name of fighting crime. Prison places cost the US taxpayer more than university places. The American belief that prisons are the best way to combat crime has led to an incarceration rate that is at least five times that of almost any other industrialised nation. Overcrowding is endemic. Conditions are appalling, varying from windowless, sensory-deprived isolation to barren and futile brutality.

Mostly, prisoners are taken to El Reno in aeroplanes confiscated by the US Government from the Colombian cocaine cartels, who have made billions of dollars out of America’s War on Drugs. There are at least two large airliners, each seating well over one hundred prisoners, and numerous smaller planes carrying up to thirty passengers. Every day, between three and six hundred prisoners arrive and leave. Arrivals take place in the late afternoon and evening; departures take place in the early morning. Flying courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons is a gruelling business. The only consolation was that this would be my last of over a dozen flights on this airline, known as Conair. I was going to be released in three weeks. My release date was the same as that of Mike Tyson. I had been continuously in prison for the last six and a half years for transporting beneficial herbs from one place to another, while he had done three years for rape.

‘Getting my shit together’ meant putting my dirty bedclothes in a pillow case. No personal possessions of any kind are allowed in El Reno. I got my shit together.

Along with about sixty or seventy others, I was herded into a holding cell to await processing. Our names, numbers, fingerprints, and photographs were carefully scrutinised to ensure we were who we said we were. Our medical records were perused to ensure that if anyone had AIDS, TB, or some other dreadfully contagious disease, the right space on the form was filled in. One by one we were stripped naked and minutely examined during the ritual known as ‘shakedown’. In full view of, and in sickeningly close proximity to, three Oklahoma rednecks, I ran my fingers through my hair, shook my head, tugged my ears to show the wax, opened my mouth, pulled out my Bureau of Prisons denture plate, stretched my arms above my head to show my armpits, pulled up my balls, pulled back the foreskin of my dick, turned round to display the soles of my feet, and finally bent down, pulling the cheeks of my bum apart, so that the rednecks could treat my anus as a telescope. A federal prisoner has to perform this series of indignities before and after each time he is visited by his family, friend, religious counsellor, or lawyer, and each time he enters or leaves any prison. I had performed it thousands of times. The three Peeping-Tom rednecks made the same jokes that prison guards never tire of making when shaking down: ‘I recognise that hole. Didn’t you come through here three years ago?’

During the course of this departure process, I checked among the other prisoners where they were expecting to be transported to. It was important to establish that I was not about to be sent somewhere in error – a most common occurrence. Sometimes the error was deliberate – part of a practice known as ‘diesel therapy’. This punishment of keeping one on the move and out of contact was frequently administered to troublesome prisoners. The ‘treatment’ could last up to two years. I was meant to be going to Oakdale, Louisiana, where criminal aliens (the word ‘alien’ is preferred to the word ‘foreigner’) nearing the expiry of their sentences began the gleeful process of being removed from the US and sent back to civilisation. I began to panic when some of my shaken-down companions mentioned they were going to Pennsylvania; others thought they were going to Michigan. Security reasons always prevent prisoners from knowing where (and sometimes when) they are going. Eventually I met someone who was also expecting to go to Oakdale. He was a gentle, bright marijuana smuggler, longing to finish his ten-year sentence and get back to his loved and longed-for native country of New Zealand. He told me that he knew it was just an hour’s flight from El Reno to Oakdale.

We caught a glimpse of the time – 2 a.m. We were then outfitted with our travelling clothes: a sleeveless shirt with no pockets, a pair of trousers without pockets, socks, underwear, and a pair of very thin, beach-type shoes, which were made in China. Next came the part that everyone hates, even more than the shakedown: the adorning of heavy metal: handcuffs around the wrists, chains around the waist, chains from the chains around the waist to the handcuffs, shackles around the legs, and, if like me one is described as having a propensity for escape or violence, a ‘black box’. This last lump of heavy metal is like a portable pillory without the hole for the head and renders the handcuffs completely rigid, preventing any independent hand movement. It is chained and padlocked to the chains around the waist. I have never attempted to escape from anywhere and have never physically harmed or threatened anyone. Nevertheless, according to information furnished to the US Federal Bureau of Prisons by Special Agent Craig Lovato of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, I’m an Oxford graduate and a British Secret Service operative, and, apparently, I can get out of places that Houdini couldn’t even get into.

We were then placed in another holding cell. Two or three hours had passed since our awakening; two or three more would have to pass before we would leave by bus for Oklahoma City Airport. We sat around talking to each other, comparing conditions in different prisons in much the same way as I once discussed the pros and cons of various first-class hotels. Dog-ends that had been miraculously smuggled through the shakedown process were produced and fought over. At times like this I felt very glad I had given up smoking tobacco (after thirty-five years of fairly constant use). Prisoners clanked and jingled their chains as they shuffled to the solitary toilet bowl and performed the acrobatics necessary to unzip and undo.

Federal regulations require prisoners to be fed at least once every fourteen hours. Each prisoner was provided with a brown paper bag containing two hard-boiled eggs, a carton of ‘Jungle Juice’, an apple, and a Granola bar. People began to trade food items furiously.

The gates to the holding cell were opened, and we were led out into the sub-zero temperature in our sleeveless shirts and were counted and checked again against copies of photographs. We were then patted, as opposed to shaken, down and guided into a mercifully heated bus. A radio blared the two kinds of music with which Oklahoma rednecks are familiar: country and western.

The icy roads made for a slow journey to the airport. There was a long wait at the runway before we were finally handed over by the prison guards to the United States Marshals. None of them looked like Wyatt Earp. They handle interstate transportation of federal property such as prisoners. Some of them are female, kind of. Soon I would see real air hostesses – and then my wife.

After an hour in the air, we landed at a military airfield. Names were called, and some passengers left. My name was omitted. I panicked until I realised the New Zealander was still on board, but he looked worried too. Some different prisoners boarded and told us we were at Memphis. We took off again, and in an hour really did land at Oakdale airport. A bus took us to the prison, where we were dechained, shaken down, fed, and otherwise processed. I was beginning to look forward to the various facilities that every federal prison tends to have: tennis courts, jogging track, and library.

Processing is an irritating and lengthy process, but most of us had been through it dozens of times. Each newly arrived prisoner has to be seen and checked by a PA (physician’s assistant) and a screening counsellor. Each prisoner also has to be fed and given clothes that fit at least approximately. These seemingly straightforward activities take several hours to complete.

The screening counsellor’s function is to decide whether or not the prisoner may be allowed to be accommodated in the general prison population. If not, the prisoner is locked up in the prison’s ‘hole’, a very uncomfortable prison within a prison. There are a number of reasons why a prisoner would be separated from the others. Occasionally, the prisoner would himself request segregation: he might have been warned that someone at this new prison was out to get him to settle some old dope or gambling debt. He might be terrified of being raped, extorted, or discovered to be a snitch. Sometimes, particularly if release was imminent, the prisoner would wish to be isolated merely to diminish the chances of getting into any trouble inadvertently. One had to do one’s best to decrease the frequency of random cock-ups. Moreover, there is an obligation for prisoners to be gainfully employed, and one of the very few methods of avoiding work is to be locked up in the hole. Accommodation in the hole could always be requested: checking-in was easy, checking-out extremely difficult. More often than not, it’s the screening counsellor who determines who goes where, and the most scanty of reasons are used to justify placement in the hole: a history of violence, escape, connections with gangs, and high profile would almost always ensure at least a limited spell inside. My file was littered with absurd allegations of escape attempts, but I did not expect problems from that quarter because of the short time I had left to serve. It was March 3rd, and my parole release date was March 25th. Not a sensible time to attempt to leg it, but American law enforcement is prohibited from making common-sense assumptions.

Despite valiant attempts, I hadn’t pissed for over twelve hours. The toilets in the holding cells are always crowded by smokers, and I’ve never yet been able to piss covered in chains and sharing a pressurised airplane cabin with a redneck marshal whose job is to stare at my dick to ensure it doesn’t turn into a dangerously offensive weapon or dope stash. I was bursting. My name was the first called. I went into the screener’s office and immediately noticed on his desk a piece of paper referring to me with the word ESCAPE highlighted in yellow.

‘Oh no!’ I thought. ‘They can’t be that insane.’

But I knew they could be.

They didn’t use my so-called escape history against me, but I was put into the hole anyway. The screening counsellor informed me that as I had less than thirty days of my sentence left, it would be pointless for the prison to go through the time-consuming charade of admitting and orientating me. The screener didn’t care who I was. It was policy.

‘How am I going to see Immigration and get deported? How can I get my passport? How can I get the airline ticket that will take me out of this horrible country if I can’t telephone or write?’

‘Don’t worry,’ said the screener. ‘They’ll come to you, tell you what’s happening, and arrange for you to have all the calls and stamps you need.’

They lie so easily.

The New Zealander saw my solemn face as I returned to the holding cell.

‘That’s too bad. Nice to have met you, British. Take care of yourself.’

I was so angry. I went to the toilet, now really crowded with dick-staring smokers.

‘Fuck them,’ I thought, and I let loose a stream of vile-smelling dark green liquid.

That was the last time I had any problem pissing. After a few hours, I was called out of the holding cell, handcuffed behind my back, and marched to the hole.

The Oakdale hole contained about forty cells. Everyone coming into the hole has to be showered under supervision in a cage; submit to mouth, anus, and foreskin search; and be given a pair of underpants, socks, fairy slippers (Chinese made), and a sterilised, oversized jump-suit. Nothing else could be acquired without a struggle. I had long ago reached the point where degrading rituals ceased to matter. Had they taken away my dignity, or was my dignity too formidable to be dented or diminished?

Most of the prison officers in Louisiana are Black. A Black duty officer took down my particulars. Custodians of the hole have no interest in why someone has been placed there. There was absolutely no point trying to explain that I had committed no disciplinary infraction, that I was only in this punishment block because I was almost free. They’d heard it all before. Sometimes it was true, sometimes not. Instead, I did my usual trick of being excessively friendly and polite. This was the only way I could begin to get the essential books, stamps, paper, envelopes and pencil. The duty officer liked my accent and did an almost recognisable imitation of John Gielgud. I laid on my best Oxford inflection and called him ‘Milord’. He loved it. Sure I could have some books to read.

He locked me for one hour in the library cell. I rummaged around and found Lord of the Flies, 1984, a Ken Follett novel, the inevitable Bible, a Graham Greene novel, and a textbook on calculus. These would last a few days, much longer if my cellmate turned out to be a jabbering Yank or loony. I got some paper, pencils, and envelopes. Stamps and phone calls were issued only by counsellors and lieutenants.

I was taken to a fairly clean and mercifully unoccupied cell, which contained the usual fixtures and fittings: steel bed, frayed and stained mattress, continuously flashing neon light, and a filthy, malfunctioning WC and washbasin. It had been an exhausting day. The time was almost 10 p.m. I read and slept.

‘You’re in the jailhouse now,’ sang a tone-deaf Irish hack as he passed coffee, cereal, and other quasi-edibles through three-inch slits in the cell doors.

I knew it had to be 6 a.m. Breakfast in bed. If it wasn’t for time zones, well over a million American prison inmates would be consuming the same fare at the same time. It was cold.

Special Housing Units, euphemism for holes, were always deliberately maintained at discomforting temperatures in case one or more of the prisoners were there to be punished. One of the hole’s inmates was assigned the job of orderly. He came round and took the breakfast waste back through the slits. The orderly’s other official duties included keeping the areas outside the cells clean and supplying prisoners with toilet requisites. Unofficial duties, ‘hustles’ that he could maybe make some money from, included distribution of contraband (non-generic coffee, stamps, and cigarettes) and liaising between buyers and sellers of the same.

‘Got a stamp?’ I asked as he retrieved an empty box of raisin bran.

‘Maybe,’ he said, ‘but I’ll need two back.’

This was the standard prison loansharking rate for almost everything.

‘Give me two, and I’ll give you five back.’

He looked as if he trusted me and nodded assent.

The cells were patrolled every couple of hours. When anyone other than the orderly passed by, I banged the door and demanded to make a phone call, to contact my lawyer, to contact my family, and to contact the British Embassy. Chaplains (authorised to listen to prayers), psychiatrists (authorised to listen to everything else), and medical officers (authorised to distribute Tylenol) are required by law to make daily rounds of the hole. They cannot supply stamps or arrange phone calls, so one is kept insane, stressed, and in need of help from above. I would have to be patient. Now that there was no one to watch my bumbling attempts to rescue my body from ugly deterioration, I could resume my yoga and callisthenics. And I had my books. Someone would come sometime and let me make a call. The orderly would bring some stamps. Relax. There wasn’t long to go until I became free. What was Special Agent Craig Lovato of the Drug Enforcement Administration doing? Was I in the hole again because of him? Was he going to be able to stop my release? He had ruined so much, so very, very much.

Craig Lovato’s ancestors were rich Spaniards. They emigrated to America from Spain about 250 years ago and were given 97,000 acres of what became New Mexico in a land grant from the Spanish throne. By the time Craig Lovato was born, his family had lost most of their fortune, and he had to work for a living. He missed both the Vietnam War and the Sixties movements which opposed it and joined the Las Vegas Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. He learned about street life as a patrolman and ‘goon squad’ officer chasing undesirables out of town, about dope as a narcotics detective, and about life and death as a homicide detective. In 1979, he yearned for a new way of life and joined the DEA.

The DEA has offices in sixty-seven of the world’s countries. It has more power than the KGB ever had. One of its offices is in the United States Embassy, Madrid. In August 1984, Craig Lovato went to work there. At the same time I was living in Palma peacefully carrying on my international drug-smuggling business. Lovato found out I was not only smuggling dope but actually enjoying it. God knows why, but this made him lose his marbles, and he has been hounding and persecuting me ever since.

The weather in Louisiana comprises rain, light or heavy, and thunder, loud or very loud. Although quite early in the evening, it suddenly got very dark, and a torrential downpour began. Four hours later, the rain was still tamping down. I went to sleep. In a few hours, I was woken by thunderclaps and observed about three inches of water on the floor. Strange creatures were swimming in the water, but I was too sleepy to be scared. I went back to sleep and was vaguely aware of the rain ceasing.

In the distance I heard, ‘You’re in the jailhouse now.’

I looked at the floor. The water had disappeared, and in its place was a writhing mass of hideous Louisiana insects: multicoloured spiders, grotesque underwater cockroaches, large worms, and giant beetles. All my carefully cultured Buddhist beliefs on the sanctity of all life quickly evaporated, and I set about systematically murdering the creatures of the night by whacking them with my Chinese fairy slippers before accepting my breakfast. The corpses filled two empty cartons of raisin bran. The air-conditioning was on full. It was very cold. I did more yoga, callisthenics, and reading, but I couldn’t get my mind off the primitive life-forms. Did Tibetans really ensure they killed no insects when building their temples?

‘Put your hands behind your back and through the slit,’ ordered two hacks in unison from the other side of the cell door.

One of them was the Irish crooner. They slipped on the handcuffs. I retrieved my hands. It was now safe for the hacks to open the door.

‘The Immigration want to see you.’

This sounded good.

‘Can I wash, change, shit, shave, and shampoo?’

‘No, they want you now.’

The crooner and his buddy led me out into the blinding sun, across several yards of squelching swamp, and into a building labelled INS. I sat down. The handcuffs were removed.

I heard a voice in the background say, ‘Well, he was extradited, so is he going to be excluded, deported, repatriated, expelled, or permitted to depart voluntarily?’

Since at least 1982, I have been prohibited from entering the United States. I did not have a visa, and in order to gain entry when I was extradited in October 1989 I was paroled (a strange use of the word) by the United States Attorney General to satisfy the public’s interest in prosecuting, convicting, sentencing, and incarcerating me. Paroling is not entering, and I was not to be considered as having entered the United States despite having been conspicuously present here for well over five years. Legally, I was to be treated as still just outside the border, and no decision regarding my deportability or excludability could be made until the reason for my being paroled into the United States no longer applied, i.e., until my release from incarceration. Given I was a felonious, criminal alien, I could not in any circumstances be allowed to walk the streets of the Land of the Free. Given I had not applied for entry, I could not be excluded. Given I had not entered in the way the law understood the meaning of the word, I could not be deported. Given I was soon to finish my sentence, I could not thereafter be held in prison.

I had read all the relevant law in the law library of United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute. As a consequence of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, freedom of access to the courts had to be available to all prisoners. This was achieved by putting law books and typewriters in every prison and allowing prisoners to litigate to their hearts’ content. For years, articulating other prisoners’ legal presentations to the US courts had been my ‘hustle’. I had achieved a few successes and was quite a respected jailhouse lawyer, but I had no idea what on earth the Immigration authorities could or would do. I didn’t know of anyone else in the same position. I was very scared of law enforcement bureaucrats. Anything could happen. I could become a Cuban illegal.

‘Come in, Marks. Can you get a passport and pay for your own ticket? If so, you can avoid all court proceedings and leave the United States as soon as you finish your sentence on March 25th.’

What a very nice man.

‘Sign this, Marks.’

I had never signed anything so quickly. I read it later. I had waived all court proceedings provided I got my passport and ticket within thirty days. I knew Bob Gordon of the Chicago British Consulate had already sent an emergency passport, and there were plenty of family and friends prepared to pay for my ticket.

‘Get yourself an open, one-way, full-fare ticket from Houston to London on Continental 4.’

‘I’m in the hole and not allowed to make telephone calls,’ I said, ‘and I can’t get any stamps.’

‘Don’t worry. I’ll speak to the lieutenant of the hole. Your phone calls will save the United States Government several thousand dollars. He’ll agree. Ask for him when you get back.’

Since when were these people into saving money?

‘Will you please take some passport photos?’ I asked. Maybe the ones I’d sent Bob Gordon wouldn’t be suitable. Spares would always be handy.

Armed with photographs and a signed waiver form and feeling happier than I had for a good few days, I was handcuffed and marched back to the hole. I was greeted by the lieutenant.

‘Listen up, British. I don’t give a motherfucking fuck what those motherfuckers at Immigration said. I run this motherfucking place, not them. This is my motherfucking hole. You get one motherfucking call a week, and your first will be next Sunday. On Monday, you can ask the counsellor to give you some stamps. I’m not authorised to. Now fuck off.’

Angry and frustrated, but not really surprised, I returned to my cell. The orderly gave me a couple of stamps. I wrote to the consul.

After another two days of yoga, meditation, and callisthenics, I again heard from the other side of the door, ‘Put your hands behind your back and through the slit.’

‘Where am I going?’

‘Oakdale Two.’

‘Where am I now?’

‘Oakdale One.’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘Oakdale Two is run by Immigration. That’s where you’ll be deported from.’

This news made me feel on top of the world. There were still two weeks of my sentence to go. Were they trying to get me out of the country as soon as possible?

I was halfway through being handcuffed when the foulmouthed lieutenant came tearing along, yelling, ‘Put that motherfucker back in his motherfucking cell. The Warden’s Executive Assistant wants him.’

After a few minutes I spotted a human eye at the door’s spyhole.

‘Some journalists from an English newspaper want to interview you. Yes or no?’ barked the Warden’s Executive Assistant.

‘Oh! No!’

How did they know I was here? Did they know I was about to be released? If they knew, who else knew? Would there be an international storm of protest from the DEA, Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, Scotland Yard, and all the other law enforcement agencies that had struggled so hard to get me locked up for the rest of my life? The Warden’s Executive Assistant pushed a piece of paper under the door.

‘Sign this. It states you refuse to be interviewed.’

I signed. I had to keep a low profile, but I felt bad about it. On the whole, journalists had written sympathetically about my incarceration in America. Their sympathy, however, might galvanise the authorities into preventing my release. I couldn’t risk it. I slid the paper back under the door. Footsteps receded.

Two sets of footsteps returned.