Incarceration: Life On The Other Side – by Bernadette A Adjei

One might have heard the words “I will change your sleeping place” being uttered and this is not a friendly invective. It is a phrase often uttered in anger to the recipient to indicate that such person will suffer a negative change – that the comfort of bed and hearth will be altered to one’s disadvantage.

In my second year as a law student, as part of my criminal law course, I went on a class trip to the Nsawam Maximum Security Prison. I went on the trip with some trepidation, I thought I would encounter crazed criminals and I would have to guard my facial expressions all through. The Prison is sited a bit of a distance from the main road and does not have public transport running that route – not that I noticed any. After the formalities at the entrance, we were given a guided tour of the prison. It was an eye opener, crowded sleeping cells, beds and personal possessions sparse as they were jostling for space.  We started off at the male section and I was struck by the very large number of men, some young, some old and mostly slim. I do not remember seeing many pot bellied men. The fresh looking ones, I assumed were new inmates. I noticed vegetable gardens and we were informed it was owned and managed by inmates, so you see even in that state there are property owners!

We visited, the chapel, very neat and orderly. Here many a convert has “seen Christ” and some have come out as pastors. We visited the work shop where those who were willing learnt a trade, and then the class room where we were told that a stark illiterate with a willing soul can be taught and may earn O/A Level and SHS certificates. The teaching staff sometimes included incarcerated teachers. We were proudly told of the passing/success rate of candidates.
Our last stop was the condemned cells. It was crowded, windowless and the men there were mostly despondent. The place was quite bare to prevent people who might want to commit suicide getting implements so to do. There was a small ‘akasanoma’ radio set up high on a shelf – their only contact with the outside worlds. It was tuned in to BBC.Those here had taken lives, and as we toured some of these “murdering bastards” (a phrase I had read in a joke) screamed their innocence. Most wore only shorts and were bare footed it was a sad thing to see how the dignity of man can be so reduced.
We then went to the Female cells. The places were very much less crowded, airier and infact better maintained.  They had the same facilities as the male cells with the women looking very somber. Many would not look into our faces. But I guess since our class trip was an annual event for second year students, they had seen enough curious fresh faces! I wondered about these women. What had they wanted in their lives? Some had children with them and I wondered what they wanted for their children.

Then I thought of what had brought these people, male and female to this place – a microcosm of many other prisons in Ghana.
A clenched fist, an angry scowl, a premeditated act, anger that was feed and festered. Unforgiveness, goading from unprofitable friends to act wrongly, jealously and envy that will lead to hitting out at a rival, maiming a rival, killing a rival or a spouse. A mother seeking to protect a child and killing a defiling husband. Envy and greed that will lead a young man to dupe, defraud, rob at gun point and take a life.
Many are the paths that lead to prison and I remembered a story told of a banker lady who got innocently caught up in the thieving schemes of colleagues. She did not take a pesewa but could not give a plausible defence. She landed in prison for some years. I thought of this lady in such a place, a well groomed lady at a place where salons do not exist. She will have to make do with basic hygiene then! As a friend once said, if you dye your hair for beauty and vanity, wait till you are on a hospital bed or in prison. 
The first administrative steps to prison are the police cells. Many of us have only seen police cells  in our local movies, but it is an unpleasant thing indeed. It gives special meaning to “changing your sleeping place” because if you have never experienced it, be ready for a time when your eating and defecating place are the same. During times when a suspect is taken to court, the mode of transport is a “container van”. It gives you a glimpse of confinement. Conviction will see you in a Medium or Maximum Security Prison depending on the extent and heights that your own acts took you.
But you see there is another aspect of this issue that many do not see. The spouses and relatives of the incarcerated. They now have to travel paths and go to places they didn’t know existed. Mothers, wives, daughters who cook and carry food to inmates. Some marriages do not survive a spouse as inmate, but a mother or siblings will mostly stick by the inmate. For long prison terms, initial visits may be frequent but may fizzle out. The financial worth of the one incarcerated, family bonds and ties may indicate visit patterns. Society may sometimes forget about these people. A child may grow up being told her father has died – he may have gone in for a life term and is dead to the family.
Interestingly for those in there -on the other side, whose sleeping places have changed, it a community with its own structures and nuances. Sexual behaviour of necessity may develop and may alter the life – medically and socially of many an inmate.

The relationship between the prison inmate and prison officer is a curiuos one and in there, they find their common ground and co exists. Many wonder why about five (5) to ten (10) inmates may go out to work under the supervision of one (1) prison officer and they do not bolt? Stories are told of prison officers who get drunk and are carried back into the prison by the inmates! They have their common grounds and maybe an insight to that was given by the American singer whose song espoused who “Mr. Jailor” is to him?

So changing of one’s sleeping place may be changing of one’s destiny. Thus before we act in a rash manner, before we clench our fist, before we scheme and lash out, let us think of the changing of our sleeping place, it may be our undoing.

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