Billy Hayes “The Real Midnight Express” Exclusive Interview

Billy Hayes - Interview

Some people have lived, and some people have lived…Billy Hayes has lived. In 1977 he told the world about his escape from a Turkish prison in his co-authored autobiographical book, “The Midnight Express”, and in 1978 Hollywood told the world his story in the Oscar Award-Winning film by the same name. However, due to legal reasons, Billy was never able to tell his full story…until now.

I had the chance to sit down with him for an interview and I have to say he’s one interesting guy. Moreover, his story is much different than what’s been released previously. The movie portrayed the Turks in a negative light which Hayes didn’t approve of. He loves both Turkey the country and the people very much…it’s prison he didn’t care for. Now, over 30 years after his return home, he’s able to set the record straight on a few things. Check out my below interview and/or transcript to see what I mean.

Also, be sure to check out Locked Up Abroad on National Geographic Wednesday June 30th at 10 PM to watch “The Real Midnight Express” which is narrated by Billy Hayes. There is also a teaser clip below my interview for you to check out.


Clip from “The Real Midnight Express”

Interview Transcript:

From what I understand there were certain things the book and the movie couldn’t say due to legal reasons, and now you’re able to tell what really happened, correct?

Billy Hayes: Right.

So what changed? What happened that allowed you to be able to tell your story?

Billy Hayes: Well, all the legal stuff has passed. Actually, when I first got back it was 1975, and it was a little difficult then to talk about the fact that I had, several times, been to Istanbul prior to this and taken hash and brought it back to the United States. I spoke to my lawyer back then and he said “let me get this straight, you are an escaped convict, drug smuggler, with an Interpol warrant for your arrest, you want to admit to the United States government that you’ve been to Turkey 3 times, brought the hash back, and sold it here, is that correct”? I said “uh..I think so”, and he said “One more question, are you out of your Fucking mind, you can’t say that!”. So, in the book, I had to say this is the first time. The Turkish court from the beginning had assumed, and I did not dissuade them from the assumption, that this was the first time I’ve smuggled hash and so it stood for many years. But I’m not worried now because the statute of limitations is gone, the Turkish government does not care anymore, I don’t’ have an Interpol warrant. I was back there 2 years ago.

I was going to ask you that, I read that online.

Billy Hayes: It was great, I got to go back, and talk about all the stuff I’ve been wanting to say out publicly for quite awhile and to sort of heal the breech between us. Because again my problem with…well the book is my book, other than the fact that I couldn’t say I’d done this before, everything in the book is true. If you like it or don’t like it doesn’t matter, but it’s relatively true. The film made some major changes, among them is…the whole attitude. There are no good Turks in the movie, it’s incredibly well made, and powerful; Alan Parker, and Brad, god love em, I mean, but it created an overall impression that all Turks are like this and Turkey is a terrible place and it’s not. I’ve said that from day 1. I got along great with the Turks. I loved Istanbul, I didn’t like Turkish prison, and I don’t like their legal system, but that’s kind of a given anywhere. So I was able to go back and kind of balance that out a few years back.

And what was that experience like? Were they receptive?

Billy Hayes: They were so receptive. They wanted me to come back because they’d seen a YouTube video…like 10-12 years ago I did this thing and it’s on Youtube. This Turkish guy had asked me “I heard that you liked Turkey”, and I said, “yeah”, and we talked about it and he put it up and the next day it was out on Youtube…which is amazing to me how that can happen. These Turkish police saw this a few years back. They were having international conference in Istanbul and about peace and global security and they had about 1,000 police representatives from 84 countries in Istanbul and these cops contacted me and said “We saw your YouTube, and they wanted me to come back. They had a press conference with international press there and they wanted me to say, what I’ve been saying, but have a bigger audience to hear it, about Turkey and the Turks. Because the film really hurt them. It created an overall impression that to this day they’re still having to deal with. It really hurt their tourist industry, it dropped off like 90% when the Midnight Express came out, which isn’t valid. It’s an amazing place to visit. This history of Istanbul alone you should go back and see. So, I got to go back and tell my tale, and I spent 4 days in Istanbul which was amazing for me to go back. I’ve always wanted to go back. I used to be the most hated man in Turkey, which, I’m not saying that, they told me that. Now it’s changed because I was in all of the newspapers, and a lot of their TV shows and they saw the press conference that we had and I’ve had people go to Istanbul and talk to the Turks since then and they’ve said “Oh yeah, Billy Hayes came back, and he said ‘All the Turks aren’t bad, like the prison was bad, but he likes us’ and I’m glad that impression has disseminated out there a bit.

That’s great that you got the opportunity to do that.

Billy Hayes: It was good. Psychologically it’s good, just to have that balance come around. And I loved seeing Istanbul again what an amazing place.

And you speak Turkish, correct?

Billy Hayes: [Says something in, presumably, Turkish]

And how long were you in prison before you were able to pick that up?

Billy Hayes: I refused to learn Turkish the first year, other than the numbers because you had to do the exchanges to buy and sell stuff. Because I knew I wouldn’t need it because ‘I’m not going to stay here’. ‘Other people get prison sentences but not me’. After a year or so, I thought.. you know I better learn the language. So I got a book, and I learned it. That’s the best way to learn it is to be in the country.

And that was one of my other questions. I mean, there had to be a moment, either when you were first arrested or when you had 54 days left and they gave you life where you just go into denial. Like, this isn’t happening.

Billy Hayes: I went into denial, when I looked out the window of the bus, when I had all this hash taped around me, and I looked out the window and there were Turkish soldiers in a cordon around the airplane, tables set up where they were searching people and my first reaction was “this can’t be happening, not to me, I’m looking at it, and I’m denying the reality in front of me. Well, that didn’t work, but from that point on I’m going to spend time in here, not me, not me. I’m way too smart and good-looking to get arrested, I really believed that, that’s how stupid I was. After a while it seeped in that “yeah, I may be spending some time here”.

Did you ever believe that you might spend the full 30 years there?

Billy Hayes: That was hard because you know I originally had the 4 year and 2 month sentence and I was counting down the days and they changed it to life which they reduced to 30 years – thanks, I guess, 30 years/ life is all the same. But at that point the reality of spending the rest of my life in jail was certainly out there, I couldn’t’ really accept it but it was certainly there. I think the biggest change for me came in my dreams because when I first got in, I would dream about being free and wake up and I’m still in jail and have this terrible jarring from my dreams to life, but once that changed after a little while, I would wake up after dreaming I was free, I knew I was in jail. And that told me something psychologically had happened to me.

Looking back on it now, I mean obviously a 30 year sentence is extreme for the crime. What type of punishment do you think your crime deserved?

Billy Hayes: What type of punishment my crime deserved was whatever the law was in the country at the time. Because that’s the law. You can like it, or not like it, or you can be ignorant of it, but that’s the law. So my advice as always, is do what you like, and know what you’re doing. Know what you’re doing means take responsibility of your own actions, and that still exists today. A whole different subject is legalizing drugs and putting people in jail for drugs. We don’t have the time or place to talk about that but all drugs should be legalized. It stops the middle-men, it stops the crime, it takes half the prison population out of the United States, and stops the corrupt legal system we have because of drugs and the police system you have because of drugs. You have 18 year old kids being sent to prison for pot? Are you kidding me? You think it’s going to to help them, to put them in jail? No, it doesn’t. We should legalize all drugs. Drugs, prostitution, all crimes that don’t have any victims should be legal.

Yeah, and tax the hell out of it…

Billy Hayes: Of course. Tax it, educate people as to what it is because you’re going to make your own decisions anyway. But the insanity of the war on drugs, Richard Nixon…I hate Richard Nixon. He essentially started the war on drugs that has created this climate that we have all over the world now. A lot of foreign countries didn’t do this. Nixon forced them by United States aid to increase their penalties from drugs and look where we are.

Can we talk a little bit about the night that you escaped?

Billy Hayes: Sure.

Where there a moment where you thought, Shit there’s no turning back now? I’m in this, I’m doing this.

Billy Hayes: Yeah, when I came out, I was in this tomato bin and I crawled over the top and started crawling across the beach, and at that point I was committed. Prior to that, you talk about escape, everyone talks about it. There’s a huge abyss of pain and fear between talking about escaping and actually trying it. Once I started crawling on the beach and into the water I was committed. At that point it was escape or…get killed. I wouldn’t accept anything in between because getting arrested again, and beaten and stuff. It was either escape or die. One way or the other, I’m out of prison.

Do you ever get letters from inmates asking you advice?

Billy Hayes: All the time. I just had somebody in Costa Rica, a 53 year old man. The Costa Rican council called me on the phone. In fact Dick Atkins (Billy’s friend and famous lawyer called me up because he does this work. He’s the real deal, in terms of getting American’s out of foreign jails. This guy walks the walk and talks the talk. If you’re ever in trouble, this is the guy you need. Dick Attkins takes care of people. He called me, I talked to the Costa Rican ambassador. A 53 year old American man, he’d been in jail for a year, for drugs, and he was psychologically breaking down and they were putting him in a hospital and they wanted to know what I could say to him…which very little. I told him he should learn Yoga, which saved my life in jail. But I was 23 when I went in, you’re at the height of your physical power. I mean, at 53? I’m 63 now, its tough enough getting up in the morning much less getting up and being in jail and having to deal with that, so that’s just brutally difficult. So, the only advice is don’t get arrested.

So I know that you’re an actor, a writer, a director. What other projects do you have on the horizon?

Billy Hayes: I have a book, “Letters From a Turkish Prison”, the letters I wrote while I was in jail. This is all sort of coming around again, and I have a one-man show called “Riding the Midnight Express” that’s going to open here in Los Angeles which is essentially this kind of stuff. About every 30 years I make a big splash. 30 years ago I made a splash, now I’m making one, when I’m 90, wait until you see what I do when I’m 90.