Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Letters from Prison

The slave is free
Thought has no yokes
The prisoner is free
There is no prison for dreams
Freedom is at the poor man’s door
Sleep is never sold

Man is not born free
Slavery, bondage at birth end
where the umbilical cord is cut

I wrote this short poem titled Liberty sometime back. My inspiration at the time was a young man who was in prison for a year. Of course, at the time, I was also thinking about poverty and democracy in Malawi.
Apparently, the young man spent two years in the prison for a rather weird crime: His brother was involved in a high profile armed robbery and murder case and bolted. When the police came to his home, they arrested his younger brother (I will call him AMMS, for want of a name) and sister. After a day or two, the sister was released. Police went on to give evidence against AMMS, for crimes committed by his brother. He was sentenced to go to jail and do seven years. Hearing of his younger brother’s fate, the malefactor gave himself up to police who arrested him.
I met the two brothers’ mother when she was fighting for the release of AMMS, since the one who had a case to answer had given himself up to police. I never knew this innocent prisoner, yet somehow, we managed to exchange a few letters, which were smuggled into and out of the prison. Since his release, I have not met this blameless victim of perverted justice, but I have been informed the young man is doing quite well in his chosen profession.
Here are a couple of letters he wrote me from prison, in which I see the voice of an innocent prisoner. There may be many more in his shoes today all over the world. He also tackles the issues we are debating about now: can we allow condom distribution in our prisons where homosexuality is said to be rampant and HIV/AIDS continues to spread at high rates?

Undated, no address
Hie Kondwa
I should thank you for attempting to come to see me in person. Anyway, I understand how engaged people can be sometimes.
To say how I feel about being in jail, well, it’s hard to describe it. It’s beyond description, the only way one can understand it is by wearing my shoes. It is hard to imagine how you can feel to be in prison for something you have no knowledge of. I never imagined it could happen to me. For me, it’s somehow an experience, quite a strange one, that everything that happens to my daily life within these walls is new. I have to take whatever comes along, and I don’t have any option. I have put a grand fight to prove my innocence but all in vain.
The hardships I am facing as a prisoner are just too complicated. Just as I have mentioned above. These hardships are far beyond anyone’s imagination, that even to describe them to you, Ko, you may not understand a thing. Anyway, I will try to do so in the simplest nature, as far as I can.
For instance, the association and the environment in prison are just rough and tough that you can’t get used to life here, no matter how long you can stay here in jail. It’s the survival of the fittest.
In the first place, I had to learn to play the cards by the inmates’ rules, whether I was innocent or not. The rules are just too pressing and terrible. Once you are in here, there is no difference between habitual criminals and those who are victims of a miscarried justice. You don’t have room to play your cards, your way. As far as life is concerned in here, there is no exception, we are all akaidi.
To talk about my future, the future is always promising, but it will all depend on the Creator’s plans. Before I can tell you about my visions, I have to tell you that if there are daydreamers on this planet, none can match a prisoner.
An inmate has all the time in the world to scheme and plan how to cultivate his future life. I, AMMS, always prepare myself to go and work, live and socialize with friends and people in the society beyond these prison walls, but my main worry is that, will society accept me the way I am, despite my being to prison?
People have got a negative attitude towards the name ‘prisoner’. They think that as long as you have ever borne the ‘prisoner’ tag, then you have nothing to offer to society. It is like you have this permanent deformity, yet they forget that all the big shots in politics and several other spheres of life have been behind these bars. They have seen part of what I am experiencing today.
On my vision, I guess I must go back a bit to the days before my incarceration. I was only 18 then, and I was only being introduced to life, physically, mentally and socially…. Most of the people I dealt with (...gives names…) have now advanced in their career and they are quite prolific, yet I must confess I was much better than most of them in those good old days, God knows this.
My being to jail for some years has not affected much of my skills and talents for they are innate things, only that this jail term has silenced me from the professional scene.
Academically, I thank my dear mother and my dear brothers and sisters who have helped me continue studying whilst at the same time fighting tooth and nail to convince the parties involved with my imprisonment how innocent I am. My mother enrolled me for a correspondence course, which will someday help me shine on the Malawi scene, and help me stand on my own when I get out of this terrifying place.
Ko, I must tell you it is not only me in this predicament. The most touching thing is that not all of them can handle the situation as I can. Most of them have lost hope, while others are even scared of the unknown. It is always scaring when they get to think of how unpredictable the judicial system can be at times. Some even wish they were not born. It is so pathetic.
Using my religious beliefs, I try to keep reminding those who have the same plight as mine that whatever happens in life is God’s masterplan. We can never change it. Struggle is man’s duty, failure or success is God’s decision.
Maybe some day we will get together and talk, but for now, I must say goodbye.
I remain,
In the following excerpts, AMMS talks of the issue of giving prisoners condoms so that they practice ‘safe sex’. It is an open secret that homosexuality is rampant in prisons, leading to the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These are moral questions, and moral questions have subjective responses:

Why do they want to condoms to be introduced in prisons? It is not true that STDs are spreading in prisons due to lack of protective measures. Most of those who have STDs in prisons contracted them during their lifetime outside prison walls. If they failed to protect themselves out there, how can they do so in here?
By distributing condoms to prisoners, you are advocating homosexuality. You are leaglising it. In our jails, homosexuality is like witchcraft, those who practice it never do so in public, they never come out in the open.
Instead of asking ourselves on how to make homosexuality more pleasant and less dreadful, we must be thinking about how we combat it from the prisons, and the country at large.
The prison has three categories of prisoners: The first category is that of prisoners who will reform when they are released and can fit back into the society once they are out of here at anytime.
The second category is that of prisoners who are not sure about what they want in life or who they are and why they are here on earth, let alone behind bars. This category will definitely go out of here, and may come back here, because they are not sure of what they can achieve outside prison.
The third category is that of prisoners who are so hopeless about life. They don’t know the value of life and freedom. To them, freedom is everywhere, even in prison. They can’t differentiate between life inside prison and outside. In prison, they are home and dry, mostly they are referred to as kabwerebwere and they are trusted members to the prison authorities (nyapala or maso asilikali). These are the most privileged people here in prison, starting from accommodation to food and anything you may think of. This group targets the juveniles, since they too were juveniles when they found prison to be a better home. They also target less privileged prisoners, as they pretend to be extending a helping hand to them.
Victims of homosexuality in prison are also drug addicts. They are expected to do anything, for drugs. Drug addiction is one area the authorities must check, if they are to fight homosexuality, and other evils in prisons. Not condom distribution!
The kabwerebwere usually have such powers that not even the prison authorities can poke into their affairs. The warders give these kabwerebweres more rights and privileges, even at the expense of the other prisoners’ very fundamental rights and privileges.
Homosexuality is a crime. It is a sin. As we are dealing with this issue, it must be reckoned that there are psychological, mental and religious strings attached;

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