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July 24, 2012
African Voice
The Day We Went to Prison
by Imo Eshiet

I had never set foot in a prison. No decent person ever wants to go there. Prisons and prisoners in my country attract a social and cultural stigma with tenacity more difficult to break than an ancestral curse.

Because of the horror prisons inspire and the mockery convicts endure, few people ever marry into a family with any ex-convict member. Such is the mark of disgrace associated with the penal institution that even correctional officers (known by locals as warders) are also not spared social disapprobation. The warped logic is that a caregiver to prisoners is as bad as a prisoner himself.

Thus when the cavernous doors of the prison opened and we were ushered in, a sharp pang of uneasiness shot through me. I felt as if I had willingly stepped into the gapping jaws of a monstrous and dreaded beast. I was so nervous my heart knocked against my ribcage like the crazy pendulum of a dysfunctional grandfather clock.

There is something in my DNA that instantly revolts against closed spaces. I was an infant when my grandmother was murdered. She had resisted the appropriation of her lands by coveting kinsmen when her husband died.

Women then did not have the right to the inheritance of their deceased husbands’ property. Since the only way her murderers could grab the land was to physically eliminate her, they stalked to her farmland in the jungle and when they found her working alone, they strangled her.

In those days things were pretty grim in my village. Her death was intended as a macabre warning to women who refused to stay in their place. Those who committed that gruesome murder were never found and brought to justice. Then as now, many felonies went unresolved because of bungled investigations, corruption and deep-running poverty and insecurity.

That terrifying memory has remained stubbornly embedded in my psyche. In addition to that I had another nasty experience as a fourth grader where I lived with an uncle in a tenement yard in a big city. One morning when everybody had gone to work or business, I went to use a restroom shared by all who lived in the yard. I slammed the door shut when I got in and when I was done, the lock had malfunctioned so I couldn’t get out.

I kicked, pushed and shoved, to no avail. I shouted my lungs out, but there was no response because there was not a single soul in the yard. I was so terrified I cried until I collapsed to the floor. I must have lain in a swoon for more than eight hours until later in the evening, when I was discovered with some drama.

When my uncle came back from work and didn’t find me he wondered if I had run back to the village. In those days kidnapping and human trafficking were unheard of. The search for me was frantic but fruitless.

While still trying to unravel the mystery of my disappearance, someone went to use the restroom but the door was locked. A rap on it yielded no reply. Several more knocks met with the same futile results. Eventually someone scrambled up the half-wall to find out what. He saw me sprawled on the floor and let out a scream, thinking I was dead.

It was when cold water was sprinkled on me that I came alive and started crying allover. The door was forced open and I was set free. Since then I have avoided closed places like a deadly plague.

And so when my mission president, George Pingree, and his wife, Ann, suggested the idea of visiting the prison as a part of a public affairs and Relief Society outreach, I naturally resisted it — in part because of my cultural inhibitions. However, it was my responsibility as the district president to arrange the visit with the prison authorities.

As a professor, my public image forbade any association with those who had been dismissed as the dregs of society and dubiously consigned to oblivion. President Pingree, whose sensitivity was more inclusive, would not buy into worries about my self-esteem at the expense of spreading the gospel to all people, even the prisoners.

I swallowed my pride though I was still agitated about his course of action. My agitation was not without warrant, because in those days due process was not part of governance in my country and any misstep could mean we too could take up residence in that penitentiary. The conduct of affairs was such that people lacked trust in formal institutions. This in part also explained my fears.

Prisons there were a metaphor for noisome pestilence. They were nothing remotely like the images of the vacation resort, luxury hotel or country club complete with recreational facilities, libraries and other amenities that I saw on television of correctional institutions in the Western world. Rather, ours were like a midway house between life and hell. There was no thought of rehabilitation. Rather, those who were imprisoned became part of the ingrained social dysfunction.

The rate of murders, armed robbery, kidnapping and graft in the government was among the highest in the world and many perpetrators deserved to cool off in the prison, yet there were a countless number of unfortunates who were just yanked off the streets for no reason and left to rot there. Tales of the torture that went on there were dreadful. Neighbors spoke of eerie, bloodcurdling screams of victims.

When we got into the prison, what I saw sent cold shivers down my spine. Many of the inmates were so diseased they looked more like the living dead than humans. I saw many whose skins were completely devastated by rashes after sleeping on dirt for years. Some human beings were so degraded that words to describe them failed me. The whole place oozed with a stench worse than sewage.

Built near a swamp, the squalid prison was surrounded by a forbidding tall and intimidating wall that was capped by razor wires and watched by ferocious-looking guards. In spite of these measures, I had heard rumors of prisoners who attempted to escape through the creeks, risking being eaten by crocs instead of continuing to suffer the routine of inhumane treatment at the prison. Many who served their term were disowned by their families upon being released. Thus abandoned, many lost their minds and walked the streets begging until they dropped dead.

Even in death they knew no dignity, for many unclaimed bodies are simply neglected until they either rot or are eaten up by scavengers.

During our visit, President Pingree had arranged for supplies such as scriptures, medication, food, toiletries, toothbrushes and paste, body and hair creams, balms, sleeping mats, pillows, beddings, mattresses and all such things that could cheer a forgotten, distraught and forlorn humanity. In a dingy meeting hall he spoke hope to the inmates. He assured them they were as much the children of a loving Heavenly Father as anyone else, and on account of this, they were entitled to the power of the atonement.

As we left, I found the visit had added value not only to the inmates’ lives but to mine, for I learned the compassion the Savior meant when he said, “I was in prison, and ye visited me.”

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