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Lome Central Prison – from first glimpse to last

My first experience at Lome Central Prison was in October 2014 when I was called to do some interpreting for a prisoner from Guinea Bissau who spoke no French or Ewe (the local Togolese language).  My job was to interpret from Portuguese to French for the Clinical Psychologist who had been called upon to assess his case and provide a document for his dossier detailing his state of mental health.

My first glimpse of the prison after walking past the stray goats and chickens outside, being checked by security and then entering through the gates, was a large grubby peach coloured building surrounded by sand that was almost black.  There were loud shouts in and around the building, and as I looked up to the second floor, I saw several pairs of hands gripping the prison bars…but no faces seemed to belong to them.

The interview took place in the Psychology building – a structure built by HANDICAP international.  I later found out that all of the structures at the prison had been contributed voluntarily by HANDICAP, including the handicraft workshop in the yard where around 25 inmates worked daily – able to come out of the main prison block each day to work on bracelets, bags, shoes etc – to sell to other more well-off inmates or visitors, in order to pay for their daily needs.  One inmate told me that he had been divinely blessed by his handicraft abilities, and that being able to come out each day for a couple of hours to the workshop had ‘saved his life.’

I was struck by the energy of the prisoner who was interviewed.  He was calm yet desperate, serene yet distraught and angry yet passive.  He had been in the prison for a year and a half, without having received any sort of trial or any verdict of guilt.  He had been targeted by other inmates due to being a foreigner and had to learn not to rise to insults in order to not create chaos inside the cells.  He and a group of other men from the same country would share food each day.  When they had no money for anything else, they would buy a packet of nuts to make themselves thirsty, so that they at least drank the water they needed to survive if they were not eating.

I later conducted therapy sessions with this man and found him to be honest and extremely reflective.  He was not asking to be freed, but to be transferred to his own country, so that he could understand what was happening and could follow his case and his legal procedure openly.  He was afraid in the prison – and with reason – for the first time we had a session, we both witnessed another inmate being carried out dead.

My experiences with not only this inmate, but all of the prisoners with whom I worked for a short time – both male and female – were enlightening.  I found each person to be in need of support – not only therapeutic support, but any support.  They needed to know that they still existed. They needed to know that there was hope.  Simply showing up was important.

I would encourage any therapist in search of a new experience to volunteer in Lome.  The prisoners are ready and willing clients, who will test your boundaries, your experience, your outlook and more…but will certainly be ready to test themselves in the same way.

My last glimpse of Lome central prison was the same as my first – multiple pairs of hands gripping bars, with no sight of the bodies or people to whom they belonged.

Written by Jeni Whittaker, a Psychotherapist based in Ireland and recent founder of FSIP.  

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