Prison Visiting Egyptian Style
If we ever think about prison visiting, the picture is probably one of permits, imposing buildings, locks and keys and people seated across a table.
Recently I visited a men's prison in Egypt, where none of the above applied.
Along with my three friends, I arrived at the rather narrow gateway to the prison. We pushed and shoved our way in as that seemed to be the cultural way of doing things.
If it were not a depressing situation, the scene could have taken on a joyous hilarity. The visitors were mainly women bringing food for their men. Huge cooking pots, still steaming with spicy smells, wicker baskets overflowing with bread, eggs, vegetables and other more dubious offerings. One lady brought really fresh food. On her head was a large metal tray. On the tray were six ducks contentedly gazing around as the tray swayed in rhythm with the woman's hips. We speculated; were the ducks for breeding, for eggs, for slaughter? Were the ducks frisked for illegal substances?
Frisking was something we soon found out about. Two at a time we were taken into a broom-cupboard size, black and terribly smelly room. Being Oh so sensible, we had left our bags of gifts with our friends, but we were not careful enough.
When the two 'friskers' village women, found a tiny pink packet in my friend's pocket and pulled out two small cartons, we laughed. The women didn't. They pulled the cartons apart, sniffed them, shook them and shouted at us. Using our very limited Arabic we explained about the 'Red Flower' as a period would be called. In vain I gave an 'almost' practical demonstration of the function of tampons. Getting annoyed and somewhat pushy, one of the women called the male guard handing him the offending object. To our dismay he put it in his mouth. We could only imagine what would happen should his saliva cause the tampon to swell and make him choke. To our relief he spat it out and we were allowed to continue.
Our visit was to see five men; all in prison for drugs related offences, and all from the African countries or Sri Lanka. They were serving a mandatory twenty-year sentence. The visiting took place in a large outdoor cage. Thirty men at a time were brought to the cage, then the visitors; mounds of food, packages, ducks and babies were taken in to join them. Unnervingly, the metal grid gate was locked and the guards watched from outside.
Take away the cage and it could have been a picnic in the park. Sandwiches of brown beans were shared around. Coke appeared from under black cavernous swathes of clothes worn by the women. The Ducks? They continued to sit on the tray as if being offered to an unknown god.
In talking with two of the men, they explained that they were in prison because they had made a wrong choice. Before going to Egypt they had been nominal churchgoers. Since being in prison they remembered the long ago Sunday School lessons, the lessons that had taught of God's love for them and that He had sent Jesus Christ to be their Saviour, and to 'arrange' their forgiveness.
They had carved out a role for themselves which included looking after new prisoners, helping them to adapt to prison life and the loss of freedom. I asked, 'When someone new comes, there must surely be a lot of anger, bitterness and lack of cooperation. How do you get the new person to believe you and to accept the offered help? Help both supportive and spiritual.'
Ohense told of a time in Africa when he was asked to take a blind lady to the shops. He was nervous as she was so positive and pushed ahead of him, 'Be careful, how do you know where you are going?' Her reply was 'I know my environment well and make it my business to know every kerbstone and crack in the road.'
Ohense and the others use this illustration to teach the new prisoners. 'We know our environment well and make it our business to look out for danger, so we can tell the truth about Jesus Christ.'
Sixteen to eighteen men share a cell; they sleep on the floor, top to tail, with no space between. They sleep, work, study and cook in this cell. There is a daily allocation of ten pieces of bread and a bowl of lentil soup or rice. This food is supplemented by prisoner's families, or in the case of these prisoners, by Christian organisations. They also make and sell beautiful beadwork.
When it was time to leave, the prisoners asked if they could pray for us. They knelt in the dirt but insisted that we sat on the bench. We all clasped hands as the men prayed openly in front of other prisoners and the guards. The other prisoners stopped talking, some joined in. We left in tears recognizing we had seen something akin to a miracle.