Joe Parham, courageous campaigner who gave hope to UK prisoners locked up abroad

A cat-loving, whisky-drinking riot of fun and a rock of support to many neighbours

Friday, 25th February — By Tom Foot

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Joe Parham

WHEN asked not long ago Joe Parham, who has died aged 79, said her crowning achievement was a landmark prisoners’ transfer treaty secured by an organisation she set up in the 1970s.

The former primary school teacher was also remembered this week as a cat-loving, whisky-drinking riot of fun and rock of support to many neighbours in the Fairhazel Housing Co-operative in South Hampstead which she devoted much of her life to protecting.

She was the last surviving founder of the Prisoners Abroad charity that supports inmates all around the world from its office in Islington and is still going strong today.

Keith Carmichael, a British businessman, recalled how Joe had helped him while detained in a Saudi Arabia jail without charge for 857 days.

He said: “All her letters really encouraged me never to give up hope of being released, and wonderfully uplifted my spirits.”

The organisation brought his case to the attention of the House of Lords which led to his conditions dramatically improving until he was freed.

He was just one of hundreds of prisoners she helped for the charity whose chief executive this week praised her decades-long association with the organisation that “was enormously close to her heart”, recalling how happy she was to be recognised at a 40th anniversary celebration in 2018.

With her brothers around her, Joe died peacefully from kidney failure in the Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead, on February 11.

Born Vivian Le Messurier Parham in 1943, her father was in the navy and her childhood was spent travelling around Hong Kong, Malta, Egypt and China.

As a young woman she trained to teach but continued to travel, proudly stating she held a “world record for hitch-hiking” after making it from the Acton roundabout to Istanbul in just four days.

She had gone to visit a man called Chris Cheal in prison on behalf of the drugs agency, Release.

They later travelled together before deciding to “start something new”.

In a recent interview with a friend, Joe had recalled: “When we started [Prisoners Abroad], it wasn’t possible for someone out there to request to transfer to serve their sentence over here because it was not legally possible to recognise a sanction made in a foreign court. So we got a group of lawyers together to draft a Bill for Parliament.”

This led directly to the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentences that has made it possible for many countries to apply to transfer prisoners home, if they wish.

“Chris worked very hard on that – it was actually his triumph,” said Joe.

“Sadly, he committed suicide. I think as a result of his prison sentence … because of post traumatic stress disorder, which we didn’t know about at the time.”

As well as teaching at George Eliot Primary School, Ms Parham also worked for a time at Powell Spencer solicitors in Kilburn High Road.

Her neighbour Andrea Scherzer said: “The reach of Joe’s kindness, strength and humour was tremendous. Most importantly, Joe was very genuinely never judgmental of anyone.”

Her cat Lulu will be moving to Joe’s niece’s home in Twickenham while the Fairhazel Co-operative – where she lived for 40 years – has plans to remember her with a tree or bench in a communal green.

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