Andrew Pritchard was once one of the UK's biggest drug smugglers, who served time in HMP Belmarsh. Now he helps guide at-risk young people away from a life of crime
Where it all began
Mum arrived in the UK in 1951 as part of the Windrush generation. Marion, or Mavis as she became known, was born in October 1930, in a small village called Alligator Pond, in the parish of St Elizabeth, Jamaica. In December 1951, at the age of 21, Mum flew from her native Jamaica to Canada, then boarded a boat to the UK.
Dad, Ronnie Pritchard, was a white local East End boy who started out as a builder. In the Fifties, he started delivering paraffin to West Indian customers, becoming friends with many. One of Dad’s new friends was a Jamaican called Bill Hill. Bill, something of a rogue, had the ambition to create the first Caribbean nightclub in London. Racism was rife in those days, so Dad agreed to help by becoming the secretary to Bill’s company. It would be easier for a white man to apply for a music licence. The Pepper Pot Club opened in 1958 at 60 Green Lanes, Haringey. Every weekend, smartly dressed West Indians would gather to listen to the latest tunes from Federal Records and the Blue Beat music labels.
One Saturday evening back in 1958, Dad was invited to a blues party in North London. That’s where he met Mavis. Soon after, they got married and they didn’t spend a day apart for 60 years.
When I was about five, like so many other kids, I was obsessed with Action Man. The blond-haired, eagle-eyed action figure had a robust, articulated plastic body with elastic tendons. Mine had a desert camouflage uniform. They were marketed with a full range of accessories, such as different uniforms, weapons, vehicles…even a helicopter. The original form of pester power, it meant gullible kids like me would nag and pick the pockets of their long-suffering, loving parents. I would usually get some Action Man accessory every Sunday morning. One day, at the end of a financially hard month, I nagged to the point that Mum, a Jamaican disciplinarian, started looking for a belt to show me the error of my ways.
Andrew Pritchard as a child
Dad, a kind and salt-of-the-earth East Ender who wanted a quiet life, had a better solution. With very little petrol, and next-to-no money, he took us to see the Changing of the Guard at Horseman’s Parade on the Mall at the opposite end to Buckingham Palace. We marched alongside the regimental band and he bought me a Mr Whippy cone with a flake.
Among Mum's many enterprises was a women's clothes boutique in the basement of our house. Mum would cook up cauldrons of traditional spicy Jamaican chicken soup to give to West Indian customers visiting her boutique on Saturday mornings. Dad had set up changing rooms for Mum to sell “cabbages"—the nickname for extra stock from textile warehouses, through her network. This meant that her customers could buy the latest fashions before they got into the catalogues. And for a far better price. Chicken soup remains an evocative smell of my childhood.
"Dad was a kind and salt-of-the-earth East Ender who wanted a quiet life"
Saturday nights, I would watch Alex Haley's Roots, like most families with West Indian heritage. Learning that our ancestors had been essentially kidnapped from West Africa and taken to the Caribbean as slaves for the sugar trade gave us a sense of injustice, but also of shared history.
By the beginning of the 1980s, I started to bunk off school on a regular basis. I felt rejected by the white kids at my new school in Edmonton, North London. I was also an Arsenal supporter in deadly rival Spurs territory, and I soon found myself rebelling against the establishment.
Finding an escape in music
Reggae music and Jamaican sound system culture proved to be my one release. I established my own sound system [a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music], Mellow Magic, with two friends. We played a mix of soul, lovers' rock and roots reggae at our gigs. We had some dubplates and revelled in the frequent “soundclashes” with our competitors.
Andrew aged 15 with his first sound system
By 1987, the advent of acid house, I threw myself into organising illegal races. Our biggest parties came under the banner of Genesis and Sunrise Parties. By now, in the second "Summer of Love" of 1988, at the age of just 23, I was one of the biggest promoters on the scene. Drugs and cash were the currencies, and I was coming to the attention of the newly formed police “Pay Party Taskforce”.
On August 1, 1999, as an avid reggae lover, I fulfilled my childhood dream by securing the rights to stage the largest urban music festival in the world, Reggae Sunsplash. Contacts among my extended family in Jamaica meant that I was able to successfully negotiate the right to put the event on. The temperature reached 37°C, and over 40,000 people travelled across Britain and Europe to attend the festival in Victoria Park, East London. Celebrities arrived en masse, and the event was a huge success. And for once, entirely legal.
The dark side of the scene
Unfortunately, by that point, I had been lured into the other side of the scene—drugs. I started out importing huge amounts of hash, but after spending some years with family in Jamaica, I got in with smugglers and was soon learning all about the trade of the premium, and most profitable product: cocaine. By the turn of the millennium, I had become a seasoned smuggler. I was a major player, importing industrial loads of cannabis and, later, cocaine from the Caribbean into the UK. In Jamaica, I learned to weld and cut steel to create false compartments in freight lorries to hide the contraband. What could possibly go wrong, right?
"My nickname was 'The Joker', thanks to my inventiveness when it came to getting out of sticky situations"
In December 2004, I was indicted for importing half a metric tonne of premium-grade cocaine. Despite the fact that we had the corrupt Freight Anti-Smuggling team on our payroll, it must have been naïve of me to have thought that we were the only smuggling syndicate operating through the fruit and vegetable market at the time. Because it soon came to light that we weren’t. There was one particular Essex-based drug trafficking organisation that British law enforcement had a serious interest in. We almost accidentally ended up under surveillance.
That led to my first major courtroom trial in 2005. My nickname in certain circles was "The Joker", thanks to my inventiveness when it came to getting out of sticky situations like this one. At the trial, I claimed that my distribution network was solely to import counterfeit premium cigars from Guyana, through shipping over loads of coconuts to the main fruit and vegetable market in East London. The defence I created was that a "wrong’un" in my organisation must have abused the supply chain to conceal huge amounts of cocaine. In reality, an agent provocateur for customs and MI6 had managed to slip himself into our smuggling syndicate.
Nevertheless, it was more than likely that the allegations of corruption against the police and customs must have caused sufficient doubt among the jury in that they acquitted me. We were working with a corrupt customs unit to clear the gear but what we didn’t know was that another clean unit had the docks under surveillance so they had to invent stories to cover their corrupt colleagues. That proved to be our get-out-of-jail-free card. But it would come back to haunt me. I might well have managed to dodge the bullet then, but law enforcement bears grudges.
I didn't learn my lesson, though, and was back to my old tricks again soon. In 2015, I appeared at Woolwich Crown Court, and this time I wasn’t so lucky. This time, there was no option but to face the music.
At that retrial, I was found guilty of possession with intent to supply cocaine and perverting the course of justice. The judge sentenced me to 15 years of “bird” as a Category-A prisoner, where escape was impossible. This was accompanied by a crippling Proceeds of Crime Order (POCA), that meant all my ill-gotten gains would be taken away from me.
Turning things around
Inside, full of regret for my family and victims, I began to re-evaluate. I had always tried to convince myself that my smuggling activities were “victimless” crimes. I looked at marijuana as a hippie-like, easy way of life, and cocaine as a middle-class, after-dinner-party pursuit. Yet in HMP Belmarsh, every day I would see young men—boys,really—setting out on sentences for young lads in postcode gang wars for control of the drugs trade. What a senseless way to waste your life. I took it upon myself to come up with a postcode intervention course.
After spending months trying to convince governors to give my idea a chance, in 2015, the One Postcode initiative launched. I designed courses that would give young people opportunities to progress in life once they got out. I shared my experiences to help them not to make the same mistakes as I did. I was convinced that by giving them alternatives, we could give them hope and, more importantly, a future. Within three months, assaults in Belmarsh on inmates and staff started to drop rapidly, making the institution safer for those who worked there and those who were obliged to live there.
Devastatingly, on July 20, 2019, my beautiful mother passed away. This was the result of her suffering from various medical conditions, doubtless worsened by the shock of my long incarceration.This strengthened my resolve to “give back”. My dad died eight months later on April 1, 2020. They lived together, and it seems they couldn’t live without each other.
Upon my release, I formed the AP Foundation, an organisation designed to stop re-offending. For over 30 years, I had made organised crime my profession that promised the luxury lifestyle across the world—cars, villas, women, boats—only to realise it all amounted to nothing. It just created a legacy of misery and destruction.
"I am driven by the urge to repair any damage and I can only hope [my parents] are proud of me, finally"
Today, the AP Foundation works across schools, youth clubs, pupil referral units, prisons across the country and, yes, even the police,to deliver rehabilitation programmes to persuade young people to stay away from crime. Our mission is to be a force for positive change and to turn young offenders’ lives around.We have a five-step pathway to help them. Namely, intervention, rehabilitation, training and education, employment and housing.
If we can give people hope for the future, the whole of society will benefit since they will not fall back into re-offending. This is now my life’s work and a legacy project. I now see clearly that my actions in the past only destroyed communities that decent people like my parents strove so hard to build. I am driven by the urge to repair any damage and I can only hope they are proud of me, finally.
To learn more about Andrew's work, visit apfoundation.co.uk
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