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Billy Hayes talks about his experience of a Turkish jail which inspired his book and film Midnight Express
He’d completed the run three times before. So on the fourth occasion Billy Hayes smuggled marijuana out of Instanbul, it should’ve been, he says, a piece of cake.
“I was so f*****g dumb,“ he sniggers in a strong, New York accent, shaking his head. “The day before I was due to smuggle the hash out, I’d gone to check out the airport.
“I could see people moving through customs. But what I should’ve done was go up on the observation deck at the airport. If I had, I’d have seen that they were taking people on a bus to the plane, and armed soldiers were searching them on the runway.
“But at the time I was staying with an English belly dancer, and hey, I wanted to see her moves.
“I’d never have attempted it otherwise... but I was young, I was dumb and I was following my dick.“
What happened to Billy next was the subject of best-selling book and an iconic film: Midnight Express.
It has also been the focus of numerous documentaries and more recently a stage show – which he currently performs at Soho Theatre.
Caught by police trying to board an airplane with four pounds of hashish strapped to his body, he was initially sentenced to four years and two months in a Turkish prison.
“In my mind I was way too smart and good looking for any of this to happen to me, so when it did, the sky fell in on my head,“ he says.
“Prison was a dirty, nasty place. Men were covered in sores, roaming around with hardly any clothes on. There were drugs, there was violence... it wasn’t good.“
During his first night in the Sagmalcilar jail, 23-year-old Billy tried to steal a blanket and was hauled in for punishment by a guard called The Bear, who tied him up by the feet and battered his soles with a stick.
“At the time, I thought he was killing me, but I soon discovered that it wasn't a bad beating. Later on, I discovered what a bad beating was – they would break bones if they thought you had hash or information they wanted. But it was 1970, Nixon was in power and Turkish authorities wanted to make an example of me.
“Prison was mostly endless boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
“The hardest thing for me in there, was having to write the first letter home to my folks, to tell them what had happened.“
With his release date weeks away, Billy learnt that authorities had decided to impose a life sentence on him instead.
Determined to escape, through bribes and “passing the crazy report“, Billy was initially sent to Bakirkoy Mental Hospital, with the aim of scaling the hospital walls. He enlisted childhood New York friend Patrick to secure false passports and documents to help him flee the country, but just days before the big escape, Patrick was found dead in his hotel room.
Destroyed by his friend’s death, he put all thoughts of escape on hold, and even contemplated suicide. It was only when he was transferred to Imrali, an island prison, that he realised he could attempt to flee, once again.
The facility was serviced by supply boats, which would always return to the mainland and never remain moored on the island.
One night, a storm left one vessel, which had a rowing boat tied to its bow, stuck at the island – so Billy took his chance.
He swam to the boat, then rowed for hours across the ocean to get to the mainland.
He said: “It was all or nothing and I was totally all in. I realised I would either make it or be caught and possibly killed, one way or another I would be free.“
He spent three days in Turkey, hiding out and dying his hair black, and then made a break for the Greek border. He crossed a minefield at the Turkish border and swam across the Maritsa river, where he was apprehended by Greek soldiers.
“As soon as I realised that I couldn’t understand a word these people were saying to me, I realised I was in Greece.
“They asked me everything I knew about Turkish military intelligence from what I’d seen in my escape, and then deported me back to the US.
“When I got back on home soil, it was a very emotional reunion with my father at JFK.“
Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes is Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London, until April 13. Details: sohotheatre.com