ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

‘For I Was in Prison’

A chaplaincy program brings hope to prisoners in Ethiopia

From the editors: The crimes of all the prisoners interviewed for this article are unknown. A condition for access to the prisons was that no questions concerning the crimes or home lives of the inmates could be asked.

Every Tuesday and Thursday of the year, a jeep makes its way out of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa and heads into the mountainous scrub surrounding the city. Carrying members of the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy of the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa — the only pastoral organization dedicated to the country’s prisoners — the vehicle tackles the rough road that spans much of the 34-mile trip west of the city.

“The Gospel of St. Matthew says: ‘I was naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me,’ ” says Fita Tulu, the tall, strapping coordinator of the group.

“It’s our mission to visit those in prison because so many of them have no one.”

Mr. Tulu was a major in the Ethiopian army during the Derg military regime that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie and seized power in 1974. When it fell in 1987, he left the armed forces and reflected instead on how he could dedicate his life more to his church. The reflection led him to several volunteer positions and eventually to a career as an advocate for prisoner rights, both within the bounds of his archeparchy and on the national level.

Seated near Tulu are the other members of the four-person team: Zeritu Bulti, the team’s health officer; Tigist Zeleke, the chaplaincy’s secretary; and Bekele Haile, the driver. As the vehicle winds its way through the dramatic landscape, the team discusses its plan of action for the prison today, what needs may arise and what possible challenges they may face.

Within an hour and a half, the jeep comes to a halt at Addis Alem Prison.

Addis Alem, as with many of Ethiopia’s 125 government-run prisons, is a much more porous affair than those in North America. Armed guards control the opening and closing of the none-too-foreboding main gate and patrol the interior of the compound. There are watchtowers at various spots along a perimeter wall topped by barbed wire. Yet despite these ostentatious security measures, there is a significant flow of people in and out of the prison, often coming to trade with the prisoners.

Beyond the separation of the sexes, the interior of the prison compound shows little differentiation — young mix with old, and those in prison for minor misdeeds, such as theft, rub shoulders with inmates convicted of much more serious offenses, including murder and kidnapping.

While Ms. Bulti is busy restocking the medicine cabinet of the prison clinic with supplies the team brought today — antibiotics, antifungal creams, vitamin supplements and sinus medication, to name a few — the first patients start to form a line outside the clinic door.

“Since arriving here four months ago, my epilepsy has gotten worse,” says 30-year-old Terassa Girma, who has eight more months remaining of his sentence. “So, to avoid epileptic fits, I come here to get medication when I run out of it.”

Finished stocking the medicine cabinet, Ms. Bulti dons her white coat, prepares her stethoscope and blood pressure reader and swings the door out to signal the clinic has opened.

Since beginning its work in Addis Alem around 12 years ago, the chaplaincy has rendered significant service to the prison’s population of 1,000, and not only in terms of healthcare.

“We place a huge focus on education and skills training,” says Mr. Tulu. “We came to an agreement with the government that if we built a school in the prison, they would provide teachers.”

Skills programs, such as woodworking, construction, sewing and weaving, have become popular among inmates.

Mr. Tulu swears by the power of education for enriching prisoners’ lives, both in the short and long term. In the present, he says, it gives a sense of purpose and pride, boosting morale and reinforcing positivity — crucial weapons against the depression and despair that very easily envelop the mind facing incarceration. In the future, it offers a new means to provide for themselves and their families once released, improving the quality of many lives and reducing the risk of recidivism.

“Since I started to sew seven years ago, I have gotten to the point where I can make a living from that one skill alone,” says Gadesa Bayesa, 33, sitting behind his machine, surrounded by garments both finished and in progress.

“Now I can make an entire suit from start to finish in just one day.”

A small transistor radio, suspended among the garments around him, blasts out tinny pop tunes that help bring a rhythm to his work and to that of the dozens of other men seated at their respective sewing machines or looms in the large hall.

Mr. Bayesa has several clients from outside the prison who order tailoring and sewing work from him. When he started, he had only a needle and thread. But when his family saw potential for him in his newly acquired skill, they bought him a sewing machine. This changed the game, he says, and put him on the road to becoming a professional tailor after release.

On Thursdays, the chaplaincy team drives to Shano Prison, 50 miles northeast of Addis Ababa. At this site, too, the team’s efforts enhance prisoners’ post-release prospects — and help to make enduring the present more tolerable.

Shano, which houses 750 inmates, has a similar internal structure to Addis Alem.

A group of more than a dozen women live in a separate compound, in which a handful of toddlers may be seen running around. The children of incarcerated women are allowed to live with their mothers until they reach the age of 18 months, at which time they are transferred to the care of family members. In designated areas for cooking, prisoners tend their own fires, fanning and stoking to increase the heat on their pots.

Around the corner from the cooking area, a group of men participate in a construction workshop. Because of the nature of the work, some lessons take place indoors, while others require the open space just in front of the building, where prisoners have ample room to construct frames for houses, or lattices for mud walls.

They focus presently on a piece of lattice sitting parallel to the ground on pegs about a foot high. Its frame is crisscrossed precisely by twine, which serves as a guide as they learn to transform the frame into a structure and eventually make it the wall of a home.

“I’m learning how to make both windows and walls,” says Kisa Teresa, 28, one of 30 inmates in the workshop. “I didn’t have a job before coming to prison and now I can be a builder once I leave here next year.”

A few buildings away, a carpentry group is in full swing, moving around partially completed pieces of furniture and stacking new, raw pieces of wood for the sawing and carving to come.

Some eight years ago, the chaplaincy provided a modern woodcutting machine, which has accelerated participants’ efforts considerably. However, the machine broke down a few months ago, much to the consternation of those who have discovered an enthusiasm for the craft. Though it is scheduled for repair, students have had to go back to practicing woodwork the old fashioned way: manually.

“It can take a month now to make this cross by hand,” says Masresha Tilahun, 25, as he holds up a large, intricately-carved, traditional Ethiopian wooden cross. Sandwiched between the cross and his hand is the small chisel he has been using to carve out fine details.

“If we had the machine back working again, that same job would take only two days.”

Of the various projects undertaken by the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy, its correspondence course in Bible studies holds special significance to Mr. Tulu. He oversees the program in a number of prisons, including both Addis Alem and Shano.

“I am an Orthodox Christian, and I wanted to understand my faith more deeply,” says Wefdafrash Firke, 28, of why he decided to do the four-year correspondence course from prison.

“But also, I wanted to understand, through the course, the differences between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christianity.”

He has since learned these different traditions have more in common than he had expected. “Worshiping is worshiping,” he concludes.

Mr. Firke sits in the prison library near the catechism books. At another of the three tables, two other prisoners pore over Bibles for their catechism course. Each month, students are assigned a section to study. At the month’s end, they complete tests, which Mr. Tulu collects and grades.

An initiative of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy makes its Bible study program open to all, and people of all faiths have shown interest. Once outlawed in the traditionally Orthodox country, Catholics today make up a tiny minority in Ethiopia; Addis Alem and Shano prisons count only two Catholics among a combined population of 1,750 inmates.

“We have no Catholic church in either of the prisons. Instead of building a church, we are building schools, clinics, workshops,” says Tulu. “We don’t look [at a prisoner] as Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant. We are all Christian.”

A commotion erupts outside, breaking the silence of the library. Sounds of young voices and of furniture being dragged around announce the “monthly quiz” — a longstanding, prison-wide event where two teams of two, each from a given class, go head to head answering questions.

With lightning speed, students place two desks facing one another in the sun-drenched courtyard. Adjacent to these desks, teachers administering the quiz sit at a panel table.

A crowd quickly amasses around the configuration, made up mostly of younger inmates — boys and young men from 12 to 20. In Ethiopia, the legal age at which people can be sent to adult prison is 16. However, in practice, many younger people — some as young as 12 or 14 — end up in the country’s adult prisons either as a temporary, stopgap measure or because the child does not know his true age.

The crowd cheers heartily as the two teams of classmates take their seats at the desks. The ruckus dies down to a respectful hush when the panel of teachers ceremoniously emerges into the courtyard and sits.

The battle commences.

“How old are you?” the English teacher asks, enunciating carefully. There is a tense silence among the participants, matched by giddy whispers among the spectators.

“12 years old,” comes the hesitant response.

The teacher nods and smiles. The crowd erupts in applause. Most of the onlookers are boys about to become men. As with teen boys the world over, they try to appear tough and reserved. However, their self-conscious poise cracks from time to time, when they relapse into moments of childish horseplay and giggles.

The commotion dies down rapidly as the next round of the quiz commences. The Amharic teacher is about to pose a grammar question when, all of a sudden, the entire group’s attention is broken and redirected by a simple sound: the clear, high-pitched giggles of teenage girls resonating across the prison wall.

A new watchtower, still under construction, lies just outside the perimeter wall, and a number of girls are climbing the scaffolding for fun.

Their laughter changes the dynamic inside the prison courtyard entirely. Concerns about schooling and the quiz are instantly usurped by their reality, reasserted: They are incarcerated, unable to have the normal, carefree life many other teens are having beyond those walls.

For the members of the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy, their week’s on-site work has ended. They bundle their things back into the jeep and take the road from Shano back to the city.

The jeep winds back through the mountainous scrub, finally making its way to the familiar urban edges of Addis Ababa. While Fita Tulu and the team wait for more funding to materialize, their keep their focus squarely on the current challenges at hand — helping the prisoners to stay healthy; to grow intellectually and spiritually; and to build the potential for a better lives, once they are released.

“Our work is one of construction,” says Mr. Tulu. And while the physical structures constructed for prisoners are modest, “the most important construction work we are doing does not depend on money or material.

“In the heart of each prisoner we come into contact with, we are building love, a love for God and a love for his church.”

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.

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