EXCLUSIVE – Author, Shaun Attwood will be at Stoke Newington Literary Festival
The man from Cheshire US authorities say was bigger than mafia honcho and hitman, Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano
I’ve been meaning to catch up with Shaun Attwood for a while. Logistics, commitments and a last minute miscommunication meant we had to make do with a phone interview. Part of our phone conversation takes place as he walked down the high road, in the Home Counties suburb he now lives in.
I’m talking to the former wealthy stockbroker from Cheshire who found himself sharing prison space with mafia hit men, kidnappers, members of the Aryan Brotherhood and cockroaches. We discuss the Ecstasy, Methamphetamine and rave empire he reigned over, his time in prison and his soon to be published book – “Hard Time – A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail”, which he will be reading from, at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, next month.
Two and a half years after his release from prison, Attwood is on a road to redemption, his new life, a major departure from his life of excesses and living dangerously and now works with The Mclellan Group, a Harley St based consultancy, talking regularly to school children and even prisoners. A recent talk at Holloway Prison drew exceptionally large audiences and he has been invited to come back in June, just months after talking to a packed house. It appears the inmates, couldn’t get enough of what he had to say and according to Attwood “They all wanted to get into the room, there was a line that went on forever”. He tells me, “I’m getting requests to speak from places afar as Ireland and China”.
Before being incarcerated, Attwood wasn’t much of a reader yet in 2006 while in prison, he read 268 books. Says Attwood, “I never picked up a book, my sister who is now a journalist was the literary one in the family”.
“Kind people from all over the world began sending me books after reading my blog”, he added: “inmates were only allowed 7 books to be sent, but they made an exception and I donated the hundreds of books sent me, to the prison library”.
The 17 years spent in the USA have left him with a very interesting accent that’s hard to place. Here we find a tad Mancunian, a touch of Scouse, all mixed with an undeniably American lilt. Attwood is very eager to let me know that he doesn’t wish to glamourize his past life. He says he had it coming. “I want people to know that I put myself in jail. I committed the crimes. Brought it all on myself. I take full responsibility”, though adding, “There are things I did, that they never got me for”.
Shaun Attwood came to the worlds attention in 2004, after his family began publishing his blog – Jons Jail Journal, while he was still incarcerated in the Maricopa County Jail in Arizona, USA, awaiting trial on drug dealing and money laundering charges. The blog came about after his family saw the humour and absolute tragedy in his writing about day to day life in prison. It meant his two aunts who lived in Arizona, had to smuggle out his writing after their visits, as all incoming and out going mail is read by prison staff. They would then email them to his family in the UK.
‘Jon’, his nom-de-plume had to be used to conceal his true identify from jail officials.
Because prison regulation forbids normal length pencils or pens from being issued to inmates, Attwood had to make do with a tiny stub of a pencil which he would sharpen on the concrete walls of his cell.
THE EVIL EMPIRE
Leaving his home town in Cheshire after graduating from Liverpool University, Shaun Attwood headed to Phoenix Arizona, with a business degree and a life long dream of making it in America. He became a high earning stockbroker, but he says his love of the rave scene he enjoyed in northern England became a business, when he started organizing them and supplying Ecstasy tablets.
At the height of his heady illicit business days, he had a well oiled organization consisting of lieutenant’s, enforcers and minions who helped run his empire and was able to get away with it for so long, because Ecstasy was a new phenomenon for authorities, who were ill-equipped to trace and identify the substance using traditional methods.
His organizational skills and his charm is what made his business grow. With his British accent, Attwood was a relatively exotic addition to the local scene, where he was known as “English Shaun” within the rave and drug scene. His “Evil Empire” (a term he doesn’t particularly care for), as it was dubbed by police, controlled 85% of the ecstasy trade.
Stories of kidnappings and violence abound, severe punishments were meted out to those who defaulted or had other bright ideas. The Phoenix desert providing sufficient seclusion for these matters to be settled. Some talk of drug fuelled parties that went on for days with strippers and where guests were known to over dose.
But Attwood says all this came to an end in May 2002, after an armed police SWAT team broke his door down late one night while he was in bed. He and his fiance were arrested and that’s when the nightmare began.
He claims the bust came at a time when he was winding down the business. He had grown tired of that life and had a fiancee he wanted to settle down with. Others say his life had spiral out of control. His drug use had escalated and his behaviour became erratic. He was getting careless, business was crumbling, people didn’t want to do ‘business’ with him. Some of his his lieutenants were jumping ship. It was just a matter of time.
The night the SWAT team and DEA officials smashed his door down, they found no drugs. Not even for personal use.
In America, while awaiting trial, suspects are housed in the county jail until the end of their trials, when they are transferred to a state prison. However, in America only a small percentage of cases go to trial. Most are ‘plead out’, with suspects agreeing to plea bargains arranged by their lawyers and prosecutor. In his book, Shaun Attwood, details the course of his case, the brutal reality of prison life, the horrendous sub-human conditions of the jail overseen by the notorious self appointed “America’s toughest sheriff”, Joe Arpaio where gang rapes & gratuitous violence is common place.
Attwood accepted a 9 year sentence (after originally being threatened with 200 years) and was released after 6 years and has been banned from entering the USA.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
With the love and support of his family and mentors, Attwood has began to rebuild his life, by reaching out to others. His cautionary talks to schools is a hit. He tells me: “I’m giving up to four talks per week. A year ago it was maybe one”. He adds: “The young people at schools and their teachers email and write me to say thank you. Some tell me they will never touch drugs, I’m even hearing from their parents, who tell me how much my talk has touched their children”.
He hopes his experience will make young people think twice before indulging in drugs and taking unnecessary risks.
I ask Atwood if he doesn’t feel his talks might sometimes glamourize drugs? He resolutely disagrees. Listening as he relates the impact on his beloved mother, his regret is palpable.
I learn from him, that recently his mother, Barbara, accompanied him on a speaking engagement to his old school in Cheshire. Her impromptu talk about the effects of her sons incarceration on her, the whole family and the nervous breakdown she suffered, brought the whole room to tears. Attwood tells me “I have never seen so many people in one room cry”. “Do you think knowing they were the cause of their mothers breakdown is something these youngsters want to live with?”
His jail time over and his story almost told, his blog Jon’s Jail Journal is still live, but these days it’s other inmates, some are his jail house buddies, who convey their own experiences through the blog. Others prisoners have heard of the blog and send him their letters.
Attwood tells me he’s got the writing bug and wants to continue writing, “I began writing my story in jail and had so much written that it was decided that the first book should be about my prison days. The next one will cover my life before the arrest”.
Shaun Attwood will be reading from his soon to be published prison memoir, Hard Time – A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail
at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 5th, at the The Drop, in The Three Crowns. Copies of the book are available for pre-order from Amazon or any of Hackney’s wonderful independent book shops.