Life in Prison: My Experience

04 Apr 2016

Everything was surreal; if you can relate to that disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream. I mean, never in my wildest dreams had I ever envisaged myself aboard a vehicle that is legally permitted to drive through red traffic lights. It all looked presidential, albeit scary.  The ride from the Extension II Magistrate Court to Gaborone First Offenders Prison (don’t be misled by the name, it’s not exclusively for first offenders) at Village was as traumatising as it was shocking. There I was, in that Police Nissan pickup van, handcuffed and leg-ironed to my co-accused as the officer behind the wheel utilised his duty-privileges that allow him to drive like a maniac under such circumstances. Sirens, red and blue lights warned other motorists to move out of the way.

The Police vehicle we were being transported in had an escort of at least two armoured Land Rovers full of Special Support Group (SSG) officers, dressed in riot gear, posing alert and brandishing AK47 machine guns. It all looked like a scene from the 1931 gangster blockbuster, The Public Enemy, featuring two young Chicago hoodlums Tom and Matt who rose up from their poverty-stricken slum life to become petty thieves, bootleggers and cold-blooded killers. In fact, one of the prison wardens would later say to us, “Your escort to this place was out of this world, I had thought you guys must have robbed a bank or committed murder”. As soon as the Magistrate sealed our fate, a Police Constable who had been standing by, ready with handcuffs and leg irons, wasted no time kneeling down to restrain us at the ankles. I held back my tears as my fiancé and my sisters walked out crying.

My colleagues, my family, friends and supporters wore sad faces but I knew I had to be strong, or at least appear to be so, just so they can get hope all was well with me.  My fellow scribes from Guardian Newspaper, Dikarabo Ramadubu and Calistus Botsaletswe rushed to buy us food as we waited to be transported to prison and we ate on transit. I had also requested they buy me cigarettes and Ramadubu honoured the request. On our way to prison, I informed the Police officers who were escorting us that I would want to have my last cigarette before they handed us over to prison officers. They debated amongst themselves whether to allow me to smoke in the vehicle or not, because one thing they were clear about was, no cigarettes are allowed inside prison and that I will not have the indulgence to puff once the vehicle reversed into the prison gates. I decided not to smoke in Mmuso’s vehicle lest I got the officers into trouble. I however attempted to hurriedly smoke as we disembarked; an action that earned both myself and the escorting police officers the wrath of the prison warden who was waiting to receive us. I stubbornly took two ‘gorilla’ puffs before stomping on my almost full-length cigarette. Prison life had now begun for me and my co-accused, a guy I must state, has been my friend since 1997, long before I answered this journalism call and way before he became a public servant.

I can never forget the humiliation of being ordered to strip naked in front of prison officers. I had to remove all of my clothing, including underwear, as the search for prohibited items was being carried on us. I have never been to a boarding school and as such being stark naked in front of another man was alien to me. Well, from henceforth it became a daily routine in prison as we queued to take showers in open bathrooms that have no doors and offer no privacy. Veterans walked freely naked at the showers, swaying their members (of all sizes and shapes) from side to side, with no care in the world. I did what I had to: when in prison, do what the prisoners do. Before being led to our cell on arrival, we went through an intensive interview and body inspection with a prison warden who noted down our birthmarks, tattoos, colour of eyes, weight and height and whether we were on medication or handicapped. We were then issued with three blankets each (ditonkana) and another thick blanket they consider as mattress at prison. First Offenders Prison Officer in Charge, Superintendent Modiri Nakedi came and gave us a word of comfort and assured us that he and his charges were always available to take care of us while in their custody. I felt a sense of relief from his consoling assurance, until we approached our allocated new home, Cell 5, where the prison warden told us he was now handing us over to a man they call, in Prison lingo, Sebonda. This is a prisoner who at school would be referred to as class monitor or prefect.

“Sebonda I have visitors for you”, he shouts from outside as he unlocks the door and immediately locks it once we were inside. It’s around 9pm and everyone in the cell is sleeping. The room is full. Inmates are lying on the floor like smartly packed bricks with no space in between them. Sebonda asks the inmates to each shift a little so as to create space for us. No one moves. A middle aged prisoner with tattoos all over his body suddenly wakes up and shouts angrily, “I’m not shifting for anyone. Some of us slept in toilets when we got here and those guys must just go sleep in the toilet”. I whisper to my friend, “We are fucked”. After some cajoling, some inmates heed Sebonda’s request and shift just a little bit. My friend gets space first and lays down his blankets. I’m still standing, holding on to my blankets. Sebonda forcefully drags the tattooed guy, wholly with his blankets and creates space enough to have me sleep in a straight posture, with no room to bend my legs sideways or turn and toss. How could I even fall asleep when I’m right next to the prisoner who displayed such hostility? This becomes the longest night I have ever endured in my life. The following day, Saturday morning, a prison warden opens the cell door at 7am and orders us to converge at an open area where prison officials are conducting a count of all prisoners. I get to see all the inmates as our names are called one by one.

The first prisoner I recognize is Thabo Masilo who is in jail for an array of alleged crimes including the murder of a St Joseph’s College student. We are divided according to our countries of origin. There are just few inmates from South Africa and Lesotho. There is us Batswana and as for our neighbours, you would be forgiven to think this is a Zimbabwean prison. Breakfast is served and each prisoner gets one slice of bread, one cup of tea and a plate of soft porridge. Tea gets you one spoon of sugar while soft porridge gets two spoons of sugar. The food is cooked and served by selected prisoners. If you have a friend at the kitchen, you can get more slices of bread, even half a loaf. Officer in Charge, Superintendent Nakedi comes over to check on us. I ask about the prison congestion and his explanation is that some prison facilities around the country are currently undergoing renovations and as such prisoners have been transferred here. Our cell, which is almost the size and shape of a train coach, had 31 inmates but it was said to be least congested. Actually I learnt through prison officials that there is an unwritten rule to the effect a prison is never full. They say only a hotel gets fully booked. Gaborone First Offenders Prison has a holding capacity of 170 but at the time of our incarceration it had 427 inmates.  Lunch time and we queue for dry samp, served with simply-cooked meat.

No vegetables or gravy. We pass time mingling with other prisoners in the court yard and chatting them up. Surprisingly, a lot of prisoners read newspapers and most of them were able to recognize me from the photo suffixed to my column in the Telegraph newspaper. They share their stories and implore me to write about the appalling conditions in prison. We have just had our lunch at 130pm and two hours later we are called to have our dinner. Dinner is served that early because 430pm is lockdown. At 430pm we are all expected to be inside our cells as doors get locked that early. 10pm all lights go off.  Even though I was told of incidents where prisoners have had altercations with prison wardens, there seems to be mutual respect and harmony between the prisoners and the wardens. One prison officer told me it was important that they have good relations with prisoners because reality is, they will be living and interacting with most of them for so many years. We get to learn that we were lucky to be placed in Cell 5. The inmates here are mostly elderly people who are well-behaved. Hygiene is also highly observed in Cell 5. There is an open toilet in the cell but inmates here have a common agreement to use it only for emergency calls of nature at night. It is therefore important to ‘offload’ during the day using outside toilets.

Luckily for me, I never had to use the toilet for ‘number 2’ during my entire 4 days in prison. My friend Joe Serema will be shocked to know that contrary to his belief, lice (dinta) are not extinct. I witnessed as one guy from the neighbouring cell sat quietly under the tree squashing them with his thump nails. Inmates also confirmed to me that anal intercourse, or sodomy, does happen in prison. Mostly it is said to be consensual as there are gays in prison who to them it’s all hallelujah.  I however never witnessed it or got any proposition for it. I must perhaps state that the copy of the Voice newspaper that I had brought with me became the darling of most prisoners as everyone wanted to have a moment with it. As to which page they were interested in the most, your guess is as good as mine.  Prisoners are very open to share their crime stories that landed them in jail. Surprisingly, the tattooed guy who gave us bad attitude on arrival eventually became our best buddy. There is an elderly man who has been in prison since 1982. There is another one who is serving sentence for murder. He found his wife in bed with another man and loaded his 3006 rifle and killed both of them. Another inmate confesses to have committed ritual murder.

The other one sleeping on my other side says he is here for rape but claims the sex was consensual and the woman just framed him. There is also a guy who is here for selling stolen cattle to one of Botswana’s most respected cattle baron and businessman. Another guy who is here for burglary and assault cannot stop laughing when he narrates events of the night they broke into a house, assaulted a man in front of his wife before making away with the couple’s money and other valuables such as cell phones. He confesses that he is a serial burglar but says it was the first time he met such a coward victim like the woman’s husband. He says while they were beating this guy and confiscating their belongings, one of them attempted to rape the woman but they prevailed over him for fear raping the woman might leave traces. The husband couldn’t take the beatings any longer and pleaded with them, “please take my wife and do whatever you want”. They were arrested the next day after a tip-off to the police by someone who had seen them spending too much at a shebeen and suspected it was proceeds from a crime. Sunday is a very busy day at prison. Religious prisoners converge at different spaces to praise and worship. There is ZCC and I almost shed a tear watching those prisoners jumping and stomping the ground, looking truly remorseful and repented.

There is also one for Islam where they use the Koran and of course there is a ‘fire’ congregation in prison. My friend joined the ZCC brigade while I opted to watch a football game. They have Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs in prison and they even wear those teams’ colours. I am not a football person but I enjoyed watching those prisoners play. I also picked some interesting aspects about prison matches. The language used by the coaches towards the players befits the place. The coach shouts out instructions swearing and insulting his players. The goal keeper, I was told, can let in a goal if someone who works in the kitchen can promise him more pieces of meat or if one of the spectators promises to give him a bar of soap after the game. Sunday, our last night in prison, the elderly inmate calls for order in the cell and asks all of us to pray. He implores other inmates to specifically pray for me and my friend to be released without further remand when we appear before court the next day. Another prayer is taken in the morning before we go to court. At court, the prosecutor does not object to our release and the Magistrate gives us conditional bail until the next hearing on April 26. We are transported back to jail where we are signed off to liberation. I give my fellow inmates all the clothes and toiletry that I had brought in prison. We shake hands, hug and wave goodbye. My family and friends pick me at the gate and we head straight home where I finally get to use the toilet, take a long bath and smoke a full length.