Libertad after three years in Spanish jail

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier
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Philip Halliday just wants to make people laugh

[RELATED: The verdict   Photos from Philip’s arrival in Digby  Hallidays reunited]

[I'm working on one more article from the interview with Philip and Sheree Wednesday.]

Philip Halliday didn’t learn much Spanish during his three years in jail in Spain.

But he sure knows what ‘libertad’ means.

On Wednesday, Feb. 13 the guards called him to their station over a loud speaker.

When he got there he says a female guard was dancing up and down and shouting the word ‘libertad’ – Spanish for freedom.

When he heard that, he says his heart started pounding in his chest. But his friend in jail who did all his translating for him told Philip the guard might have gotten ahead of herself.

Philip was to go and sign papers.

Sure enough, they were his release papers.

Back in the common room everyone was lined up to hug him and wish him good-bye.

“I don’t think they ever ran into anyone like me over there,” says Philip.

He remembers one conversation with a fellow inmate who ran the canteen.

“He told me ‘You’re always so polite and smiling’,” says Philip. “I told him so are you and he said, ‘That’s because you are.’”

He says he tried to help out the other inmates when he could—lending them a can of pop or money for a phone call.

Others helped him with extra servings in the canteen or hot water bottles to help him keep warm.

Philip says he never had any trouble in the jails and in his last prison, he says there wasn’t a fight in his module the whole two and a half years he was there.

His was a ‘respect module’ and if you did fight or cause trouble you were sent out to modules with a rougher crowd.

He said he was nervous going in but he befriended two big Romanians who called him ‘Dad’. He called them his bodyguards.

The 100 or so prisoners in his module came from all over the world – most communicated in Spanish but some talked English with him.

He says he took some lessons and tried to learn but eventually gave up.

“I had a lot of other stress and it was getting to me and I just thought, why am I doing this to myself—I’m not ever going to talk Spanish.”

To pass the time he worked on a Spanish craft called hilo – where he applied coloured threads on double sided tape to make colourful pictures.

“Very time-consuming,” he says.

And he also cleaned.

The jail was clean he says because the inmates kept it that way—with daily chores and a big clean up every Saturday.

It wasn’t warm or comfortable.

“I missed sitting on something soft,” he says. “The chairs were all hard plastic. I missed walking on something soft. Everything was concrete. I missed sitting on a toilet with a seat.”

But mostly he says, he he missed his family. “For the first couple months I cried a lot and then I just stopped,” he says. “It was hard to think about home. I couldn’t think about my dog.”

When Sheree and the boys talked of coming to visit, at first Philip was against it.

“I thought it would rip my heart out,” he says. “And after a bit I just thought you have to come over.”

Asked if he will miss the people he met in prison, he responds, “Not for very long.”

And then he sits up.

“But I will write them,” he says. “They will be really happy to get a letter. Some of those guys don’t get anything, they don’t have anything. A letter means a lot to them.”

Philip says he received a lot of letters, some from people he didn’t even know.

“One day I got eight,” he says. “I didn’t go flashing them around though. I didn’t want the others to feel bad.”

When it came time for Philip to leave, he divvied up his clothes and books, some to friends, some just to anyone who needed them.

The steps on his way out were lined with people chanting his name.

“They knew I shouldn’t have ever been in there in the first place and they were happy to see me go home,” he says.

Earlier that day, at home in Canada, Sheree had turned off her cellphone for the first time in three years.

She had just had eye surgery and the surgeon had made her turn it off so she could rest properly.

Her sister was driving her home when she remembered to turn her phone on.

She had three messages from Kevin Burke, Philip’s lawyer in Halifax, and three messages from Joanne Dunn.

She asked her sister to give her a moment’s privacy and she called Kevin Burke.

“I was ecstatic,” she says. “I jumped out of the car and ran in the house screaming for my sister. We hugged, we cried and then I said ‘I’ve got to start making phone calls’.”

Sheree had set out a plan in advance.

“While I was thinking straight,” she said. “I just had to call the embassy in Madrid and they put the plan in motion.”

The Canadian Embassy picked up Philip from prison, they had a room already picked out for him.

In Madrid, Philip and two other released members of the crew celebrated with pizza and beer.

Philip’s hotel room was the first heated room he had been in in years. For the first time in years he and Sheree talked as long as they wanted. First he called her from the embassy and then she called him in the hotel.

“I don’t know how long we talked,” she says. “We’ll see I guess when we get the charges. But it was worth it, whatever it costs.”

Philip didn’t enjoy the flight home much—it was a 23-hour trip including the stop over in Portugal and Toronto. He says he was overtired and nervous.

When he landed in Halifax and saw his family, his heart was pounding again in his chest.

Arriving in Digby and seeing the crowds who lined the highway through Conway was “amazing.”

A dozen of Philip’s closest friends were waiting at the Halliday home with food and a bit of beer.

“It was a great night,” says Philip. “I told people I was going to forget the bad stuff and just make people laugh. That’s what I did. They all said it was the best party ever.”

Philip says he doesn’t want people to be afraid to talk to him about his time away.

“They won’t upset me,” he says. “I have already forgotten most of the bad stuff. I’m just going to make people laugh.”

Organizations: Canadian Embassy

Geographic location: Spain, Halifax, Madrid Canada Portugal Toronto Digby

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