An Angel Sent Me. According to one prisoner, that’s how I came to be at the Prison Civile de Lome in November 2015 as a Psychotherapist hoping to understand the psychologies of prisoners more deeply in order to help them to positively transform their lives, and also, selfishly, for some challenging work experience that would inform my future career.
This act of ‘selfishness’ was not something that bothered the prisoners – one of them in particular. When I first met Pedro, his eyes were filled with tears, and he was so overwhelmed at being finally able to offload his feelings to somebody who spoke his language, that ironically, he hardly spoke at all the first session, simply crying and repeating that an angel had sent me.
To be remembered…
The problem for many of the prisoners we work with in Lome, is that they feel they have been forgotten and will therefore never have a chance to repent their crime, nor to change the person they are inside (whether they committed the crime or not).
Prisoners often report feeling ‘herded,’ like animals, into a crowded marketplace, where nothing and nobody knows who they are nor how long they’ll be there. For prisoners like Pedro (whose family is on the other side of the world and could never afford a flight to Africa), they may not receive visits for over a year – or ever. Before I arrived, Pedro had last received a visit from his embassy six months previous. The embassy campaigned to move him from a cell of 90 men to a ‘nicer’ cell of 30, but would be unable to get him repatriated until his ‘dossier’ was moved up to the top of the judge’s pile.
During several years therefore, there is no ‘punishment,’ as such, for prisoners like Pedro. This is because the crime has not yet been named and a clear punishment or sentence given. Instead there is just a long, drawn out, tortuously slow waiting period during which the inmates feel as though they will never again get to see their loved ones, nor to dance to the sweet rhythms of freedom.
When death beckons
Pedro’s reaction may sound extreme to the boundaried and wise psychotherapist who has ample experience in working with this ‘client group.’ It may even sound manipulative, over the top, or with hidden agendas…and it certainly drew me in. After all, who doesn’t want to be an Angel?!
However, his reaction was not really so extreme. He was simply expressing a reality. Many overseas prisoners feel such intense hope and relief when they are introduced to a new visitor, that their emotions flood to the surface and they can express nothing but gratitude the entire session – albeit to the detriment of ‘doing the work‘ but still a necessary part of their personal process given the ordeal in which they find themselves.
The psychological reality of being imprisoned in Lome became all too real earlier this year when one of the prisoners with whom I worked passed away in his cell. I never forget the hope I saw in his eyes during our sessions, and the sadness I felt when I heard of his passing. Yes, he had done wrong in his life. But he had so much life left to live, and so much desire to put things right.
Sometimes, working in Lome will push your boundaries. It will make you question where your professional self starts and ends, and where ‘you’ come into play. It may even bring up questions around your own faith and your own natural judgments.
A light in the distance
Throughout these painful periods of feeling abandoned, forgotten, numbed to life and terrified of death, what gradually keeps the prisoners going is the strength of their individual Faith.
By Faith, I do not mean the mystical angelic appearance of overseas therapists who shine a light in the darkness for as long as they are able; nor the tireless work of the local psychologists who make every effort to have a positive impact. Instead, I mean the gradual experience of turning inwards and discovering a form of truth and hope that perhaps they had never known before.
It is Faith which provides solace day and night to the inmates in Lome. Faith is their friend, their protector, their cellmate, their adviser and their hope for the future. Faith can also be their enemy in moments of despair, when they feel betrayed by life, hopeless and deserted forever. Faith can disappear in the dark hours of a prison night, only to be found again in a moment of prayer. Faith can arouse suspicion when it fails to get them anywhere but the same 4 walls. But above all, many of the prisoners know that without it, they would not survive.
By Faith, I am not talking about a specific religion, though many of the prisoners we work with are devout Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, etc, or have strong indigenous beliefs such as Ancestor Worship and Voodoo.
Exploring Faith in Lome
To volunteer in Lome as a therapist, we recommend that you have a keen understanding of the importance that Faith plays in the lives of the majority of the prisoners.
You will need to be curious about how Faith comes into and out of prisoners’ minds and hearts, as well as how they practice it on a daily basis. The ability to explore their state of Faith, their beliefs and their spiritual self together with a neutral outsider, can help prisoners to re-think their lives and to grasp a deeper understanding of what their time in prison might mean.
Conversations around Faith in therapy sessions are often brought in spontaneously by prisoners, either as a key component of their reality which they wish to explore, or instead as a strategy to avoid talking about something more ‘here and now‘ that they are afraid to discuss or face up to.
In either case, this type of conversation can eventually act as an anchor which can help prisoners to understand themselves better, and to re-establish a sense of personal identity, responsibility and confidence. Conversations around Faith, when introduced by prisoners and then expanded upon carefully with the therapist, can also help foster self awareness and a more conscious attitude to life.
If you are a qualified therapist interested in volunteering at the Prison Civile de Lome, please contact us here for more information or to download the application form.