The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
When the warden of the Kafanchan prison poked his head in the doorway of the Bunker and asked whether I’d be coming to see him this week, I wondered whether it was an invitation or an arrest. I did a quick count of my recent sins and found few that were punishable by jailtime, so I smiled and said, “Sannu”, like I do in every situation. Even if I was guilty of something, I figured no one would lock up such a charming idiot. Sure enough, the warden returned my smile with one of his own and waved a quick goodbye before I had a chance to ask why he wanted me to come for a visit. Not that I would have asked him too many questions, even with the luxury of time. J.H. Dapak looks like someone who was born to be a warden. The size of a refrigerator (one of the big ones that make ice cubes), he’s large enough to exert his own gravitational pull, and the sunlight reflecting off the sheen of sweat on his dome produces a glare that demands the kind of protection afforded by the aviator sunglasses that he favours. In short, I get the distinct impression that he’s not someone to be fucked with.
I was still puzzling over our exchange when my Bunker mates returned and told me that they would be going to the prison to conduct HIV testing and awareness training for the guards. Even though this had nothing to do with my mandate at the Foundation, I found myself volunteering to go with them. I had never been inside a prison before, so my familiarity with them was limited to the images I’d seen from television and films, where tattooed convicts plot to shove shivs in each other while showering in their orange jumpsuits. Given the relative level of poverty in the local community, I expected conditions inside Kafanchan prison to be much worse than anything I’d seen from the safety of my living room.
From the outside, the prison doesn’t disappoint my expectations. Cracked and peeling paint in the national colours of green and white provides verification of the sign over the main gate that pegs the age of the prison at 75 years. I somehow doubt the staff and inmates will be celebrating this diamond anniversary. Walking past the “Prison Barbing Salon” hut set up outside the gate, we wave at the guards inside the prison and are greeted warmly by them as we approach. Opening the gate for us to enter, they welcome us to the prison and usher us inside.
Deposited in the warden’s office, we’re left to amuse ourselves while the guards finish up their morning briefing. No lack of things to look at in Dapak’s digs. I’m particularly fascinated by the board that lists the relevant numbers for the prison, including its capacity and the number of those currently in “luck up”, a mistake as notable for its irony as its misspelling. I also note the distinction made between criminal lunatics and civil ones and wonder how the two groups are distinguished. Maybe the latter group has better manners? Glancing around the walls, my eyes settle on a menu for the prison from 2004. As might be expected, the provisions are quite basic, with porridge, soup and rice making repeat appearances throughout the week. If the menu is to be believed, three meals per day are being served, though there is no guarantee of that. Faded calendars from past years remain on the walls, with my favourite coming courtesy of the “Wives of Prison Officials”, complete with pictures of two dozen women who look tougher than Dapak.
At the conclusion of the guards’ meeting, we’re escorted into the lecture room and thirty pairs of eyes follow us to our seats at the front of the room. The guards are all dressed in similar uniforms of tan and green, with men making up the vast majority of the group. Having already addressed the group before, Paul is at ease and jokes with a few of the guards he met at the previous session. Dapak begins the proceedings formally with the demand that the guards pay attention to what is being said, along with an acknowledgment that I’m a new face to them, so a brief introduction follows.
Picking up from where he left off last time, Paul opens his bag and scatters condoms over the front table. Showing the packets to the group, he asks how many have had experience using condoms. Next to no one puts up a hand, and I have to work to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor. Unruffled by the response, Paul carries on with his description of the condoms. Explaining that he brought many of them with him from Uganda, he points out that the condoms are extra-large because penises in Uganda are huge. A murmur runs through the audience at this comment, as though a penile challenge has just been issued to the menfolk. I have visions of the session devolving into an X-rated version of Show and Tell, but thankfully, Paul quickly moves on to the next topic and everyone’s pride remains intact.
An exercise in how to open a condom package without tearing the condom inside is followed by an appearance of the star attraction, Woody the Practice Penis, a wood carving in the shape of an erect penis. A volunteer is called up from the audience to demonstrate how to put the condom on Woody. Audience participation is encouraged, and shouted instructions echo through the room as the brave volunteer attempts to cover Woody properly. The task completed, he receives well-deserved applause, and Paul completes the session by giving a serious discussion about HIV and the need for everyone to take precautions and to be tested for HIV.
The lecture portion of the session being complete, an announcement is made that HIV tests can be performed on the spot by the Foundation’s lab technician. Volunteers are requested, and about half of the group put up their hands. “Don’t bother counting”, growls Dapak, “Everyone is going to be tested, including me.” One by one, the guards complete the consent forms and give the drop of blood to determine their status. As this is being done, I have a chance to survey the courtyard and see the inmates for the first time. A far cry from being in orange jumpsuits, they’re all dressed in regular clothes no different from those on the other side of the walls. The courtyard is actually quite well-kept, with a large tree forming the centerpiece of the grounds. The men mill about in groups or on their own, with most looking through the window at the oddity of the day, that being me. One guy motions for me to give him some money, but most just look and move on. I ask one of the staff what kind of activities the men do during the day, and I’m told that I’m looking at it. Beyond the basic chores, there is nothing for them to do but sit around and pass the time. A workshop does exist toward the rear of the compound, but qualified carpentry and metalworking instructors are nowhere to be found, so the shop remains idle. Some of the men who pose less of a danger do get assigned day jobs outside of the prison, but most are confined to their cells and the courtyard. I can’t imagine passing years of my life here. The boredom must be suffocating by times.
Once the queue for the HIV testing has been exhausted, the guards return to their posts and we huddle with the lab technician to discuss the results. Sadly, three of the guards have tested positive for HIV, and the difficult job of telling them falls to Paul, who has trained as an HIV counselor. All of the guards who have tested negative are confidentially given their results one-by-one before the three guards who have tested positive are told. Respecting their privacy, I excuse myself from the room and decide to head back to the Foundation. Dapak calls me into his office as I pass by and asks me to sign his visitor register. I note with some amusement that it’s set up like a guest register for a hotel, complete with a column for comments. I think about writing “Had a great time!” or “See you soon!” but Dapak’s close scrutiny convinces me to leave it blank. Walking out the front gate, I feel relieved to be outside again, but not as relieved as I expected to be. Not having been through the entire prison, I’m in no position to judge it, but the experience of being inside was not as oppressive or anxious as I anticipated. Having said that, I’m in no rush to return.
Back at the Foundation, Paul arrives after me and I ask him how the guards who tested positive received the news. He said one was quite shaken to hear his status, but the other two seemed to have a suspicion already. All three will now be referred to the local hospital for a confirmatory test and treatment, if the results hold. Next week, Paul and some other members of the Foundation staff will return to the prison to conduct the same awareness training and HIV testing for the inmates. I can’t help but think that the results of those tests will prove to be even more distressing than what was witnessed with the guards.