I recently returned from a 5-week visit to Togo in West Africa to provide psychotherapy in a prison. The Galway based organisation Friends for the Support of International Prisoners (FSIP) sends psychotherapists to provide emotional & psychological support to prisoners; and as a board member I decided to make the trip myself to get a better understanding of the work.
Togo is a small country about the size of Ireland. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been ruled by the same family for almost 50 years. The justice system is severely under-resourced and the prison system a direct reflection of that. The Central Prison of Lome was built for 600 people. It currently holds over 2,000. Each cell, roughly the size of your average Irish kitchen, holds about 80 people. To sleep only some prisoners get to lie down, side by side like in a sardine can. For this privilege you pay. The rest have to sit around the edge of the room or stand. There is one toilet and shower (i.e. bucket) per cell. Prisoners are served one meal a day. On average prisoners wait 3-4 years to receive their sentence. Legal representation is mostly absent. Aggression, violence, rape, abuse, bullying and intimidation are the norm. One man described inside as being like a war zone.
Added to this, non-Togolese prisoners cannot speak French (the official language of Togo) so cannot communicate. Having no family in the country they lack emotional, financial and practical support. Thus, these people are extremely isolated and most at risk of a deterioration in their mental health. It was upon identifying this need for mental health support that psychotherapist Jeni Whittaker founded FSIP, and the decision made to work specifically with those most marginalised: the international prisoners.
Psychotherapy works to support people who are distressed as a result of events in their lives, whether recent or more longstanding, as well as look at problematic patterns of behaviour, so a person can lead a happier and more fulfilling life. FSIP provides psychotherapy to prisoners so they have the opportunity to talk to someone about how they are, how they are coping in the difficult conditions, to reflect on the decisions they made that resulted in their imprisonment, to help prisoners to remain hopeful, and to prepare for life after prison.
FSIP is very clear that it does not condone criminal behaviour, but works with prisoners to meet them as people and respond to their emotional & psychological needs, often compromised by poverty, abuse, lack of appropriate care as children, and conflict, amongst others. Through receiving support and gaining awareness a person can make changes which positively impact their lives as well as those of their families, friends and communities.
Non-Togolese people are imprisoned mostly on drug charges. They come from countries as diverse as Colombia, Ecuador, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Malaysia and the Philippines, to name a few. I provided psychotherapy through English and Spanish, seeing both male and female clients, twice weekly, Monday to Saturday. When first meeting the prisoners I expected to be met by hardened criminals; my experience was quite the opposite, however. I met people who were beaten down by life, who mostly came from disadvantaged backgrounds, where options are a luxury and hardship the norm. They were people who were ashamed of what they had done and ashamed they were in prison. Some presented as very depressed & displayed signs of post traumatic stress. The men in particular suffered a lot from anxiety, panic & fear. They felt alone, forgotten and unworthy. It was this that I responded to as a psychotherapist. It was their humanity that I spoke to and addressed by helping clients to reflect on and re-evaluate themselves and their lives, to come back to who they are as people, to not only survive prison but to create hope for their future, and eventually move on and make more positive choices for themselves. In the midst of despair and misery were also opportunities to laugh and connect on very common human issues.
Common themes among prisoners were despair and hopelessness, not knowing when they would be released, lack of contact with family, and trying to parent from prison (a particular feature of female prisoners who were often parenting alone). Due to boredom, lack of resources and being enclosed in a small space conflict is prolific, friendships unstable, jealousy & backstabbing rife and trust almost non-existent. Food would sometimes be shared, other times hidden, or stolen, from friends. The stakes are so low that it comes back to that very basic point in life: survival.
And yet, I also witnessed huge kindness & generosity. A group of 10 men from one country decided to group together and share all supplies of money, food and toiletries therefore ensuring each man got something. Banding together was also a protective measure against the violence and abuse in the prison, a reason they took another very young & vulnerable man under their wing, not from their country but who spoke the same language. One woman shared what food she could get with another woman. They couldn’t communicate but they ate together. Another woman paid for a pregnant woman to be brought to hospital after witnessing another woman’s baby die during childbirth, because of lack of medical attention and because the cell doors are not opened at night.
I was limited in what I could do, and yet I saw clients who began to smile again, who were grateful to be able to talk to someone, speak their own language, speak about their pain and struggles, and speak about their crimes and still be accepted as people. One man I saw had no visitor in 12 years; I was his first.
My experience of Togo was an extremely positive one. People are very friendly and polite, and driving home by motorbike along the seafront in a balmy 28 degrees was a nice end to each day.
FSIP is looking for psychotherapists to volunteer in the prison. The ability to speak Spanish or Portuguese in particular is a huge asset so as to work with the international prisoners; for all other dealings in the prison and in Togo a basic level of French is essential. For further information please email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Clara Slattery on 087 7810951 or Jeni Whittaker on 087 4329466.
Clara Slattery is a psychotherapist in Ennis, Co Clare, Ireland. Telephone 087 7810951 or visit her website here.