Free at last!

Jonathan Stephen interviews Ian Stillman for EN

Ian Stillman, deaf and disabled himself, has a Christian ministry among the deaf in India. He spent two years in prison there on false charges of drug-smuggling. He was released and came back to the UK in December 2002 after a vigorous campaign for his release.

JS: Most Christians want to know how you managed to cope spiritually during your long term of imprisonment.

IS: I had a copy of the Bible and was able to read a wide range of books and magazines both secular and spiritual either brought in by people visiting or sent in by post. Nearly everything was censored by the prison guards, so I don't think that everything got through. However, sometimes it was so cold or I was too exhausted or having bad phantom pains, so that it was too difficult to concentrate to read or write.

It was encouraging for me to know that there were so many people praying for me and for the family. No matter how difficult the situation might be, I felt it was important to maintain time for prayer and reading God's word. Seeing things from the wider, spiritual perspective helps to maintain one's mental balance and prevent unhelpful negative thoughts from creeping in. At the rate I was progressing, I reckoned it would take me six years to read from Genesis to Revelation; in prison there is practically unlimited use of time - it was more profitable to spend several hours at once rather than several short sessions.

I underestimated the power of prayer. God is interested in big and small things in our lives. In a way prayer is the 'glue' between our thoughts and actions that are God-inspired. Sometimes we are not sure what to pray for and God answers our prayers in a different way. I felt that I was in the grip of unseen dark forces that went deeper than the 'appearance' of the judicial system. God's power surpasses that of any other power - that should be a real encouragement to Christians living in the present days.

Romans 8.28

Lots of people referred to Romans 8.28 '...in all things God works for the good of those who love him...' I found this verse uplifting as it helped to remind me there was purpose behind it all. Release did not come in four months... nine months... 16 months, etc. Why? God's ways are higher than ours. I am conscious of the different thoughts I had over the time of my imprisonment - especially the last six months. I would not have had the experience of the latter had I been released earlier! But during times of excruciating pain I did find it hard to think that God was allowing it to happen.

One thing that occurred to me is that prison is not necessarily the worst place to be in. The worst place is where the mind is imprisoned by negative thoughts. That can happen anywhere - even in our own homes. In prison we may be restricted physically but our minds and spirits can be free.

JS: Were there any specific occurrences or answers to prayer while you were in prison that indicated to you that God had not abandoned you?

IS: I think the fact that I was kept safe and unharmed is a good example. I met several other Europeans who found it very hard to be in prison even for a few months, some literally went crazy because of the situation and felt very isolated and abandoned even though they were younger and could hear.

Having been in India for so long also helped me to understand that things really do take a long time out there, and I understood that the legal system could be very slow indeed - but I did not expect to be in prison for so long.

Also Sue (my wife) was able to carry on while I was in prison, working for both Nambikkai and for DeafChild in Chennai, regularly commuting 600 km between the two projects and encouraging people. She had to look after Anita too and try to come and visit me and Lennie (my son) when she could.

Communication

One of the biggest problems I had in prison was the difficulty over communication. In the last six months I came across one other European who had experience in communicating with the deaf. He was a great help, especially in times of difficulty and pressure. I believe God had enabled him to be in the same prison as me; it is a mysterious answer to the prayers of many. Most prison accommodation was in dormitory-style which results in endless interruptions and lack of privacy, and which I found particularly difficult. When the other prisoners - rather than the authorities - enabled me to be on my own in a simple cell, I felt that God was behind the move. On my own the quality of my output and spiritual life soared and I was able to talk to those who came in occasionally to see me.

Besides other verses I had a dream that I believe came from God, indicating that I would be released, so in times of doubt I could remind myself of the dream, but I did not know when release would happen. Apart from the medical problems I tried not to fret over the delay at my release but to make the best use of the time. Whether we are in prison or not, we are still accountable to God for the time he has given to each of us. In fact after I was freed, I was made conscious of this fact - whatever our circumstances.

JS: How aware were the prison staff and other inmates of your Christian testimony?

IS: I was able to spend time talking with the other Europeans, especially if I could understand them, sometimes if they could understand me; some were easier to communicate with than others. We sometimes had to resort to using pen and paper for communication. The guards knew that I was different - perhaps more because I am deaf and yet they knew that the courts were saying that I am not! I discovered that it did say 'Christian' on my court records which could indicate a prejudice against me, but it could also be a nominal description and not necessarily indicate discrimination as such. Not being able to speak any Hindi was a disadvantage which made communication with other Indian prisoners very difficult, other than a few basic words in English if I could lip-read them.

Preferential treatment?

JS: Were you treated better or worse because of your faith or disabilities?

IS: There were some concessions. I had a small laptop computer - as I had argued that I could not communicate with others in a normal way and I needed to work. Sometimes extra visiting concessions were granted if the family were visiting from the UK. However, it was always a battle and it was made to feel like 'privileges', so it felt as if I always ran the risk of losing them and having them taken away if something went wrong. In fact, my computer was confiscated for the last few months which made life very difficult. Someone thought that I had had access to the internet while in prison (impossible without a modem, etc.!) and that I had been organising the 'Free Ian Stillman' campaign from inside! They refused to give back the computer and I was worried that all my work would be destroyed. It was only given back once I was released.

There are no concessions for Europeans, but sometimes we could cook some vegetables together as a change from the usual diet of roti and curried veg. For a disabled person, prison is a terrible place; it is so difficult to cope with even everyday things. There is real isolation and prejudice and even neglect of a disabled person's needs. Not just within the legal system but also in the prison system. To an extent even the Foreign Office/British High Commission were not aware enough of the basic needs of a disabled person within prison, and yet their mandate is to meet the needs of health and welfare of a British citizen. My case demonstrated the huge lack of awareness of the needs of the disabled.

Other prisoners helped me by getting water and tea for me - there were so many steps in and around the prison that mobility was very difficult. Another British prisoner helped in communicating with the authorities to prevent me being transferred very suddenly without my family having been informed. Sometimes other Indian deaf friends were able to visit and bring supplies if Lennie couldn't visit. In two years I met over a dozen disabled people who were in prison. Within the court/legal system there was nothing but discrimination and evidence that deaf/disabled people are viewed as second-class citizens.

So many letters

I received so many letters while in prison - in particular 2,000 letters in just over two weeks for my last birthday, which certainly drew attention to me. The prison gave up censoring the cards and letters as there were so many. It could have an adverse effect too. Negative reports in the Indian media gave rise to untrue rumours about me being a wanted criminal, which made life very hard for Lennie living in Shimla. After being interviewed once by the BBC within the jail the authorities clamped down harder on visits from journalists.

This interview continues in the next issue of EN.

Jonathan Stephen