In which I’m an Honored Guest at the FTown Prison

It’s Month of Prayer time again – a time that begins a day after the the completion of Month of Ramadan and ends just before the Jewish High Holidays begin. During Month of Prayer, which is a nationally implemented event, Batswana organizations such as our District AIDS Office, the Botswana Defense Force (BDF), Botswana Meat Corporation (BMC), and other official groups of people either collaborate or put together their own “Month of Prayer Launch.” The purpose of the launch is simply to announce that Month of Prayer  is here, and that we should keep praying to end HIV and to support our churches. Some organizations continue with MoP services throughout the month. The launching events consist mostly of multiple songs of prayer, opening remarks, speeches, a sermon, closing remarks, and more songs. At the end of the month we’ll have a  “closing” which will announce the end. Our office held a successful collaborative launch with the BDF and Ministers Fraternal (an organization of Francistown Pastors) on Thursday, September 1st , and last week Tuesday my co-worker, Mma Habangana, and I visited the Francistown Prison to be honored guests at theirs.

I had been to the prison once before – it was for a similar “Month of..” event – I want to say it was “Month of Youth Against AIDS.” The experience visiting and being a guest at an FTown prison is something I only wish I could capture with stills or a video, but along with cellphones, cameras are strictly prohibited.

So I’d like to paint a verbal picture of what I saw.

The prison is basically a small compound of single story, narrow hallway buildings, surrounding a dusty courtyard with a large and burgeoning mango tree. White walls, dark green rooftops, and sandy dirt. One of the buildings was marked “Leather and Upholstery Workshop,” and though I haven’t been inside I would assume the prisoners make and sell items to collect money for the prison for things like uniforms. I’ve also heard of prisoners carving and selling wooden frames, and that day I was surprised to see a few artistic metal sculptures stacked up in a corner of the courtyard.

We first entered the main building to sit in the Commander’s office and chat while we waited for the event to get started. The Commander is a tall man with high cheekbones, a constant smile, narrow eyes, and sort of reminded me of my friend Edward from back home. His uniform was simple brown and green with a few decorations. On his bookshelf he had a few plaques and oxidized trophies, photographs, flags, and several copies of the Bible.

Mma Habangana and I sat in the room with pastors and other guests of honor, and about an hour after the launch was supposed to begin we were escorted out to the courtyard with the mango tree.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I left the building and stepped out into the courtyard, only to see the entire group of around 250+ prisoners sitting on the ground with their backs to me. They were facing the large tent we were headed toward, but they had no restraints, no guards at their sides, and no barriers to keep them from us. Some of these men are alleged rapists and murderers. A petite female usher walked us through the group, but no one made any lewd comments or tried to make any physical contact. They seemed excited about the upcoming event, and it dawned on me that, compared to prisoners in the States, they are treated more like school children at camp.

That’s not to say the guards are probably not hard on them, but the inmates are obviously allowed, at least during events like this, to somewhat go about their business within the prison walls. On these occasions they also wear what they want – most wore a combination of half uniform half ratted t-shirts or pants, and many had their own accessories like rasta hats and funky sunglasses.

Out of all the prisoners, five were women. These women sat separated from the males on chairs off to the side, next to a female guard. It seemed as if they are never allowed to mingle with the men. Two of the women had babies in their laps, and one started breastfeeding during the show.

So at the start of the event the guests of honor sat under the large tent along a table decorated with a lace tablecloth, jugs of water, and plants. We watched as a choir made up entirely of inmates and a couple of guards marched out to perform beautiful baritone hymns. They were all very talented, and seemed truly dedicated to putting on a remarkable performance. The choir looked like a hired group – wearing ironed lime green collared shirts, matching ties, and dark pants. One choir inmate personalized his outfit – wearing dark aviator sunglasses and suspenders that pulled his pants up comically high and exposed his pointy-toed tan leather boots.

Another inmate was clearly mentally disturbed. He would interrupt speeches and wander about unpredictably. He wore big, Run DMC style glasses, and made the tongues of his sneakers flop over the tops of his feet. He stood up during the Commander’s welcoming remarks, and started on a loud rant about how the honored guests had come to release them from prison. Instead of using force to get the inmate to calm down, a female guard walked over and held his hand for a few seconds, and he quickly sat down and got quiet.

It seems there is more of an effort to truly rehabilitate the inmates here. Though they don’t have access to the best educational or medical resources, they are sometimes sent to workshops where they can learn to become pastors, carpenters, gardeners, skilled in upholstery, and even knitting . During the previous event, another group of inmates put on a drama and the rest of the inmates had a chance to enjoy watching their peers speak out about HIV/AIDS through a funny sketch.

The morning wrapped up with a sermon from an Anglican pastor who for 10 years had also served time in prison.  He spoke about how the guards are there to protect the prisoners from the dangerous outside world, and that it was God’s intent to make them the chosen few so that they could have the opportunity to receive these messages about Month of Prayer. The inmates loved it, and from then on wanted nothing to do with their choir. They started yelling  for an encore from the pastor (“Re bata moruti!” or “We want the Pastor!”), and when the choir came out instead, many got up and left to go about their business.