The Togolese prison system is in a chaotic state. A startling quantity of prisoners have not received a sentence. There is a backlog of dossiers reaching back years, and no such thing as innocence until proven guilty.
If you are suspected of a crime, you go to prison. Some inmates end up in prison due to sheer reportage from their own families, neighbours and friends, i.e., “my neighbour said this about me.”
For example, if a man steals some bread to feed his family (poverty affects more than 60% of families in Togo and it is thought to be the 9th poorest country in Africa), he will probably be in the same cramped cell as a man who murdered 50 or more children to perform a series of rituals. Likewise, a woman with an undiagnosed mental health disorder causing violent aggression, may sleep by a woman speaking another language, who has been abused her whole life and either bribed into transporting drugs under threat of death or fooled into travelling with somebody else’s suitcase through sheer naivety.
In other words, there is no effective system of organisation, and mental as well as physical health issues often go undiagnosed. There is also no computerised system held by the prison with detailed information on the inmates and their cases. Instead, a barely readable chalk board exists in each room showing who is inside at any one time.
Prisoners in the male section usually sleep 80-90 to a cell which in Europe may sleep 4 prisoners. They pay for a space on the floor, and if there is no space to lie, then they pay for a space to sit, and if there is no space to sit, then they pay for a space to stand. They pay for food, for water, for showering and for everything else. If they have no money from family, then they must do jobs for prisoners who can pay them.
‘Food’ consists of a lump of dough in a watery ‘soup’ which has actually caused many foreign prisoners who are unaccustomed to local foods, to develop severe stomach cramps, migraines and convulsions.
There is no education system in the prison. Voluntary organisations ATPOAD and HANDICAP have taken steps in a positive direction in terms of both health and medication, and the provision of building materials for handicraft workshops and a future library.
But progress is painfully slow. With these conditions as a backdrop, inmates are more and more likely to suffer serious mental health issues over the course of their stay in prison, and later on upon their release into society.
One of the prisoners we worked with in 2015, passed away of a heart attack in his cell in 2016. He was only 35 years old. Sadly, young deaths due to inhumane living conditions are a common occurrence at the prison.
It is the work of the therapist to help both local and international prisoners (depending on languages spoken) to see their time in prison as an alchemical pot in which positive transformation can begin to happen despite the circumstances.
Therapists generally work one on one with individual prisoners, although it is also possible to arrange mini groups. Prisoners are pre-selected for particular therapists, depending on therapist qualifications, experience and languages spoken.
An induction into prison life and a walk around the inside of the prison upon arrival can also present new opportunities in terms of inmates keen to start therapy (i.e., those to whom news does not travel from outside the gates).
Therapists are provided with an FSIP / ATPOAD badge for entry to the prison. A ‘helper’ will then go to find the relevant people and will bring them out of the main building into the psychology building where most of the therapy will be conducted, unless therapists are working on weekends in which case therapy will usually take place outdoors in the prison yard. Prison visiting hours must be observed at all times – these are on shifts from 8am to 12pm and from 2pm to 4:45pm.
Therapists commit to work every day during the week and on weekends if they wish. From our perspective, the stronger the commitment and motivation, the better, though we do recommend taking at least a day off a week in order to relax, refresh and to get to know the city.
Therapists can only enter the male prison yard accompanied by a guard or one of the resident Clinical Psychologists. They may enter the female yard unaccompanied. Neither of the latter possibilities are required or expected and are entirely at the therapist’s own risk.