8: 40 am, Saturday, 11th August, 2018
The prison guard shoves a thick hand-held rod into the lock and pulls the gate open, with efforts intense enough to crack diamonds. Christy enters by lowering her height, protecting the baby at her back from striking his head against the heavy metallic work and convoluted lockage that secure the entrance of the Sekondi Central Prison. This is how everyone make their way into this place.
She empties a polythene bag of assorted food items onto the table, and awaits further instructions. The guard runs a thorough examination: pressing, shaking, opening each thing one by one, and anytime an item completes the inspection and ends up on the other side of the table, Christy would pick a piece to taste. She knows the routine.
Her fingers are soiled with a potpourri of food and she licks them while waiting for the sound of the opposite gate.
Mary and I sit adjacent the scene and look on, with both anxiety and impatience. We are waiting to get confirmations from the officer-in-charge about our medical outreach scheduled that day. A clinical team of 10 others is waiting outside in a bus, or finding food inside the community or maybe sightseeing.
Christy’s person is presented to her, accompanied by a warden. He is made to stand at a distance without making contact. They engage in an open talk, in an unknown language that seem like Hausa. The prisoner is smiling — a lot of relief dwell on his face. But Christy becomes sober and weaker as the convo advances. Her face turns red. She distracts herself from weeping by bouncing the baby into sleep, but hard as she tried, tears ran down her face like water from a broken dam.
This prisoner, an unsuccessful stowaway is spending 9 months in jail, and like all other 800 inmates of the Central Prison have to anticipate rare moments like this in order to eat anything standard.
The Western Regional Command oversees the operations of 4 other prison units in the region, which adds to the 47 prison establishments in Ghana. Today, our journey from the capital is intended to care for prisoners homed by this Central Prison, the Female Prison, and the Ekuasi Camp Prison; all in Sekondi.
Do you fix a broken television before you throw it out? You don’t. But we do, because…
Our phones are confiscated. For 8 hours or more, we don’t get to monitor our Facebook “likes” or answer our calls. Identification tags are hurled around our necks; something like a move to distinguish Gentiles from Jews.
We’re led to the prison infirmary. It is manned by a nurse who takes care of hundreds of convicts, deportees, debtors and persons on trial and remand who have filled this building to the brim! He shares his ordeal with being unable to cater for inmates due to unavailable resources.
Life in prison is a disguised slow, miserable, painful death! Life in prison is death floating like a butterfly but stinging like a bee. Being thrown behind bars can soften the heart of the most obstinate man.
We set up. The clinic session begins. The men are filed in like they have been arrested all over again. Each takes his turn through the process. Sounds of our time, including “CCTV“, Ebony’s “Aseda” and something from Shatta Wale emanate from a radio in a corner of the room.
Some team members are losing focus: they are doing less of the clinic work and more of the story telling. How do I know? Emotions have besieged their faces. Kobby Blay goes round to sound cautions, “We have little time guys, stop listening to stories!”.
It’s both fascinating and terrible that high blood pressure prevails in over half of inmates, even in younger folks with no risk factors. The infirmary here, however is unable to supply medications to manage these cases. At the Ekuasi Prison, skin infections are as common as pillows on beds.
Overcrowded rooms pose high risk of contact infections to these incarcerated youngsters. Ointments meant for an individual now had to be shared by multiple men, lest we ran out of supplies.
In these parts, a capsule of Amoxicillin is such valuable that inmates would trade it for money, food or anything worthy, the nurse in-charge revealed.
A lad in his twenties (a convicted robber) has a bump on his forehead. He sustained the swelling two years ago when a Police Officer slammed the barrel of a gun on his head. Seeing his face slammed distress into the most tender places of my soul.
Everyone here battles chronic body aches and insomnia. 74 year old Mensah is one of many other prisoners who has to survive without pain medications and his routine antihypertensives.
He lands heavily in the chair in front of me. He doesn’t speak until I beckon. He’s got a solemn look, a subdued demeanour and carries a dispirited spirit. He possesses the eye of a frog: huge and bulging, like they want to jump their way out of the man’s head into a place where there’s freedom. His shrill voice cannot emphasise enough how much meaningless life is, to him. Fatigue has drawn outlines of torture on his face. And age has the privilege of stamping its sagging mark on the supple contours of Mr. Mensah’s countenance.
It’s his thirty-sixth year serving a life imprisonment sentence (since 1982). In the past three or four years, he has had only one visit and is abandoned by relatives. His pain is unflatteringly plain. His hopelessness is flying through the roof like his blood pressure readings.
“Even if I walk through the valley of death, I no dey fear. Everyday be Jah guide O!”, King Promise’s CCTV continue to play in low volumes from the radio.
The female prison hosts only a handful of women, a little over 20. It’s a calm, serene environment with more discipline and orderliness abounding. Their rules of engagement are more stringent: they allow absolutely no form of contact with inmates, drugs are to be kept in the infirmary instead of given to the inmates, no photography — not even of a passing insect!
Under the auspices of the Rebranded Lady NGO, Karen has joined us to spearhead proceedings at this centre. Her foundation donated sanitary products.
She exhorts them, intermittently allowing her emotional side to subdue her. Her Akan is broken and limping, and once in a while when she struggles with the language, the prisoners would laugh slyly for comic relief.
Like basic healthcare, every prisoner too deserves a laugh.
Public Health Education Officer, Ofosuhemaa moderates a brief menstrual hygiene talk and taps out for Kobby Blay to speak on depression and mental health. And when he cautioned them against thoughts of suicide, a lot of “hmmmmm” echoed across the walls of the prison. A woman about the age of my mother drew a part of her clothes to wipe away tears. Every fresh tears had molecules of despair.
Being thrown behind bars can soften the heart of the most obstinate man.
But one thing is a common denominator for the young squad at Ekuasi Prison — their sense of optimism and hope for a brighter day is huge. On the walls are various countdowns to their days of freedom. For people like the old man Mr. Mensah, there are no guarantees in life; not for the present, not for the future.
But for Kobina, everyday is an opportunity to count down to his brighter days. He writes his blessings on the walls…
142 days to freedom.
Sometimes, there are guarantees in life. Maybe not for the present, but certainly for the future. Freedom is coming in 142 days! It may linger, but time heals all wounds.
Our clinic session lasts several hours. Bottles of water save us from the stress and dehydration. They are treated for hypertension, diabetes, malaria, hepatitis, pain, infections of different focus. We stocked their dispensary with medicines
and our galleries with selfies.
When we were about to bid farewell, a well educated man called Washington returns to my table. He has been convicted of embezzlement when he worked as a Purchasing Officer at a popular government agency. He wouldn’t let us leave without something in return for our service. So he shares with me the story of how a friend tricked him into diverting company funds to him and then sublimed into thin air. He has regrets. He wishes for people like us never to experience that which he has undergone. “Don’t trust anyone”, he stresses and repeats earnestly.
“I said, don’t trust anyone!. And anything can bring you here”.
I freak out. Reality has hit me like an airbag in a car crash. Kobby notices my fright and draws near to capture something for the records.
It’s indeed true there are no guarantees in life. Not for the present, not for the future. We’re all vulnerable humans, just as prone to questionable judgement as anyone else. We’re no better. We’re all prisoners. We’re all Gentiles. It’s just by grace.
Before Washington sat here, the radio in the corner had said the same thing: “Adom bi n’asɔ me mu, adom bi n’adi m’anim, adom bi n’adi m’akyi…”
Author: Patrick Fynn
Photography: Kobby Blay
Healthy Behind Bars is a prisons medical outreach program engineered to give basic healthcare to prisons and correctional centres across the country. Donations and enquiries can be made through 0548628978, 0240487945.