Officers, Boys, and Three Men on a Rock Pile
Over Chai tea and Kenyan donuts our Crossroads team met with two Kamiti Prison Officers and got educated.
Abrahaim, Offer of Human Rights, and Francis, Officer of Operations said they were expecting us, they welcome us, and want us to feel at home. We sat around a large table sharing chai tea and mandazi (a fried dough made with coconut milk and cardamom). Pastor Kenneth discovered connections with the officer about places and people they both know. An easy camaraderie was established in the room as we once again sign the guest book with our name, our place and a word of appreciation.
Some of the chaplains we met on Monday are stationed here. They join us for tea. Today I learn the difference between a medium and maximum security prison. Medium is for people who are sentenced between one month and fifteen years. Everyone in Maximum has a minimum sentence of fifteen years, their crimes more severe. Today there are 800 men in this medium security part of Kamati prison. There will be 900 by the end of the day. The 100 on the way are being transferred from another prison in Kenya.
Officer Francis, who has worked inside prison for over 25 years is eager to answer questions and teach me a thing or two. One of the questions I brought along was, “Why do people end up in prison?”
Before I tell you what he said — what do you think the answer is?
I also asked Officer Francis what he would say to an audience if given the opportunity to talk to the general public about prison. Here is his message word for word:
“Prison is not a good place.”
“If you can, avoid crime.”
“Prison takes you back from where you are.”
“Crime, is NOT GOOD,”
Later, we see this final statement painted on one of their prison walls. I ask permission to take a photograph and Officer Francis approves.
He continues our conversation by telling me about the wise men and women, smart men and women who are officers in the prison. He wants people who read this story to know that the officers are compassionate, caring and trying to change the mindsets of these men in prison.
Pastor Jefferson explains later that spiritual nourishment makes a difference. Team Kenya brings in Crossroads lessons which often lead to lives being changed. The team later becomes an advocate for those students when it’s time for re-entry.
Here are the officers answers to why people end up in prison:
- Lack of Education
- Peer Pressure
Boys will be boys, smell like boys, slump like boys, mumble like boys, smile like boys. Even boys in a Kenyan prison. Officer Margaret is the Chaplain of 10 years in this Remand part of Kamiti prison. “My boys,” as she fondly refers to them are between ages 14-21 and stay in this section of the prison for an average of four to five months. They are dressed in teenage boy clothes as they wait for sentencing. Once they’ve appeared before the judge and know their length of stay, they wear a bright blue sweater.
The thirty or so in the room start singing, rhythmic clapping and moving and translating English to Kiswahilli. This time, our group gets to sit among them instead of in front of them. I prefer that. We are welcomed with clapping. It’s pretty typical teenage boy enthusiasm for strangers…and apparently not enthusiastic enough for Margaret. She knows what they’re capable of and gives them ‘the look.’ They sit up a little straighter and clap a little louder. She rewards them with a smile. Even now she is teaching them a better way, respect, pay attention. They boys respond to her.
Two boys share their testimony. One begins the way almost every speaker so far has begun our time together:
Call: “Bwana Asifiwe”
Call: “Praise the Lord”
I love this natural greeting we share again and again. JR brought it back to the USA and
Taught it to the Tot’s we lead at our home church. Three and four year olds can do it too.
One boy shares humble words: “May God bless you so much. May you come back here many times. I believe God works miracles. We did mischief. In ourself, we know God. Without God is bad for us. Now we change. We believe our relatives will accommodate us, appreciate us when we return home, because we are saved.”
The room slowly fills up, more than doubles in population as Beth stands up and speaks to the room about respect for parents and the promise that comes with that in Ephesians 6:
“Children obey your parents because you belong to the Lords for this is the right thing to do.
If you honor your father and mother, things will go well for you and you will have a long life on the earth.”
Pastor Jefferson encourages the boys to use this short time wisely, and to be faithful.
Brenda opens her time in front of the boys by telling them: “You won’t be young forever. You won’t be here forever.” She asks them questions and they engage.
“Do you want to live well? Do you want to have your families be proud of you? Do you want your mommas to stop crying for you?”
Boys: “Yes. Yes. Yes.” They didn’t need Chaplain Margaret to give them a look. Their answers are genuinely enthusiastic. They don’t want to be here.
Brenda continues: “Choose Jesus. Follow Jesus.” She looks them in the eye as if they are her boys, her brothers, her friends children and tells them “You are not alone. We are praying for you.”
With these boys and later with hundreds of men in the outdoor yard, Brenda shares an article written by a colleague, Dr Trulear, assistant professor of Theology at Howard University, who spent time in prison. He was someone who knew the Bible but didn’t apply it to his life. When he got out of prison he found out that people treated him differently. He returned to teaching and had an encounter with a student who said she just did not like inmates at all. The professor asked the student for her Bible. He told her that if she doesn’t like inmates, he is going to have to tear out sections of her Bible as much of it is written by people in prison. The professor lists person after person, story after story, passage after passage from the Bible, written by people in prison. He tells the student if she doesn’t like inmates she needs to stop saying: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It was written by an inmate.
Brenda asks the boys if they know of people in the Bible who were in prison. The boys are able to identify many. They shout out the answers. I know those answers too. But I can’t say I’ve ever put all these pieces together – the people, the passages, the message written in prison, written by an inmate. Its rather profound that I am sitting here in-between these boys who are just like teenage boys I’ve known and hearing Good News – with inmates, that was written by inmates.
THREE MEN ON A ROCK PILE
Thick grey bricks are laying in a pile next to a taller pile of chunky broken stone which is right next to an even taller pile of rocks. After tea we are led to the medium prison yard where the piles are, the tallest covered with sitting men and three men standing at the top. Hundreds more stand against the brick walls or sit under the Kenyan sun on the brownish grass.
Officer Francis introduces us to the men.
The men clap appreciation and welcome. We are thanked for loving the men by coming long distances; by sacrificing time out of our schedules to visit. They speak a blessing on our families.
We worship in song together.
Bwana Asifiwe. Amen
Once again Brenda speaks a message of hope and encouragement. Pastor Kenneth interprets. Her words apply to everyone who hears her including those of us sitting in the shade: be honest, forthright; walk in love; be an example so men around you want what you have. “The way to be strong is down on your knees.” She shares the article from her former professor. Brenda leans toward them, assuring them there are people who know their value in the eyes of Christ, and who pray for them. Her tone, her sentiment, her compassion towards the men on the rock pile, the ones who sit on the grass and stand against the wall comes from somewhere deep. She sits down next to me in tears.
On our way out I walk next to a female welfare officer. Her role is to serve as counselor, to listen and advise and instruct. Joyce, one of the Crossroads Kenya team asks her if she is ever afraid working here. The officer tells us: “Only at first. Not anymore. Now they are my friends. I meet with them one on one, sometimes in groups and council them. I wonder, what happened to them out there because in here they are obedient.”