Cockroaches, violence and mouldy meat: Life in a US jail

Felicity Hannah

“When the lights go out, the cockroaches come. You can wrap yourself in a sheet to keep them away but then you sweat and that makes your bedsores worse, so you just let them crawl on you. At least they don’t bite.”

This may sound like a story from a developing world prison, but British man Shaun Attwood was describing his experiences while on remand within the US justice system.

The 43-year-old from Widnes is behind the blog Jon’s Jail Journal, which became an international sensation while he was in an Arizona jail. Now he travels to schools and young offender units telling his story in an effort to deter the youngsters he meets from a similar fate.

Party time

After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a business degree, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked as a stockbroker. Rising rapidly up the corporate ladder, he invested his money and made a fortune in technology stock.

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“The money and lifestyle kind of went to my head and I started throwing rave parties showing off, buying everybody drugs,” he explained. “It just got bigger and bigger.”

On May 16th 2002 a SWAT team burst through his door, bringing an end to his party lifestyle. He would spend the next two years on remand, before being sentenced and serving a further four years.

Jumpsuit to suit and tie

Shaun is tall and dressed smartly in a well-cut suit. He’s engaging, with a ready smile, and easily commands the attention of the room.

It’s easy to picture him succeeding on the hyper-competitive trading floor. It’s less easy to imagine him lying in a filthy, roach-infested cell, rubbing anti-fungal cream on the weeping sores caused by the heat and dirt.

But this is the story he tells the students he meets, trying to counter the media glamorisation of drugs.
“I could hear a commotion in the shower room. Skinheads were attacking a naked figure on the floor; the biggest was slamming his heel into the man’s temple.

“The skinheads were vying for stomping room, the man was screaming in agony, when a final blow suddenly silenced him. One of the skinheads jumped up and down on him and I thought I heard something snap.”

And the violence wasn’t just from inmates, says Shaun; there have been cases where guards were accused of beating and even murdering their charges.

Then there’s the boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who boasts that he spends more feeding a police dog than an inmate. Mouldy bread and baloney with a “green sheen” is normal.

“One time we found a dead rat in our stew,” Shaun commented. “The guards took it away and then claimed it was a potato.”

When his bail was raised to over $1 million, he was moved to a maximum security wing, where conditions were even worse: “Entering my new cell, I noticed movement on the walls. I thought I was hallucinating and blinked several times. Still movement… I got up close and flinched. The wall was alive with cockroaches.”

Shaun’s mother often attends his talks. As he described a particularly violent inmate attack, she lowered her head and briefly closed her eyes. This has not been an easy decade for his parents.


Barbara Attwood is a pleasant, softly-spoken woman. It would be hard to imagine anyone less likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the daily brutality of the US jail system.
She suffered a breakdown during Shaun’s incarceration and is still on medication today. Yet Barbara and her husband Derick have been his main support; encouraging him to expose the conditions he was being held in and publishing the articles he smuggled out of jail.

“It doesn’t seem real, really. We had simply no idea he was taking drugs, not a clue. I mean, he wouldn’t even take a paracetamol, I remember saying that to his lawyer.

“We were so proud of him being a successful stockbroker. When we used to visit, we’d swim in his pool and be so proud of his success. We had no idea he was involved in drugs.”

The phone call to say Shaun had been arrested came “like a bolt out of the blue” and destroyed that pride. For the next six years, Barbara would spend every day worrying about his safety.

On one occasion, Shaun’s cellmate casually announced his plans to kill him after lockdown.

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His parents were due to fly to the US and visit him the following day, but Barbara had to spend the night on the phone to the British Embassy begging the official to intervene and get him moved in time.
“I phoned and they didn’t care. They kept saying that no one liked their cellmates and everyone wanted to be moved. But I stayed on the phone and insisted. In the end, we boarded the plane not knowing if he had been moved.”

She trails off: “Not knowing if he was dead in his cell.”

While Shaun can’t change his own past, he is determined to keep telling his story and stop other families being hurt like his. “They say that prison is the way you repay your debt to society, but for me it’s telling my story to students, to help them avoid my mistakes.”

He admits he broke the law, and takes responsibility for what he did, but the years since leaving prison haven’t been easy. It was hard to find work with a criminal record and he was plagued by nightmares about the things he’d seen.

But things are looking up. Shaun’s turning his story into a trilogy of books, the first of which – Hard Time – depicts his years on remand. He spends his spare time at the gym, and has found peace through meditation and yoga.

“I’m quite a happy guy. I’m quite a lucky guy. I try to take everything I’ve been through and use it in a positive way.”

Despite that, his talk finished on serious note. The bravado he’d maintained while describing his experience suddenly deserted him.

Quietly, he asked the teens to think about the effect drug use might have on their families. “I can still see the hurt and pain on my mum and dad’s faces. People say to me, ‘Shaun, you’ve lived this wild and crazy life – is there anything you’d change?’ If I could, I’d go back and never hurt them like that. But I can’t.”

Has Shaun’s story affected you? Have you lost a loved one to drugs or prison? Share your experiences with other readers in the comments below.