The Gambia: The catastrophe of a prison culture and the mind-numbing incarceration crisis
By Mathew K Jallow
A last week's indignant headline in the Daily News casting the godless Gambian judiciary and Kangaroo court system as unbearable embodiments of Yahya Jammeh's imperial regime, might to some seem pietistic, or it may even have appeared as an ostentatious political grandstanding, yet no one will equate it to a canting expression of ecclesiastical pontification. The paper's unequivocal indictment of the growing culture of incarceration of young, productive Gambian men is a challenge for political introspection that goes beyond the trivialities of narrow political self-righteousness. The sweeping criminalization of Gambian society for even the most innocuous and trivial, deriving from the mean-spiritedness of a clueless regime, deserves our collective condemnation; a sentiment recently reechoed by more harrowing news of even more incarcerations. Under Yahya Jammeh, the acculturation of a prison industrial system as the panacea and convenient copout for his regime's pungent administrative failures, effectively demonstrates the tentativeness of a political system ardently blinded to its own ideological waywardness and dank criminality.
The most recent victim of this Orwellian gulag, Lawyer Lamin Mboge, whose letter castigating the Gambia Bar Association could have been written by my Medina Sering Mass primary six students, did not endear himself with the broader Gambian population. In a futile effort to appease Yahya Jammeh, Mr. Mboge, the cantankerous epitome of a truly hopeless and demoralized society, brilliantly displayed a less than lawyerly betrayal of a cause Gambians are demonstrably invested in. Yet even this cowardly exposition of his inglorious self-preservation campaign could not save him from the cruel excessiveness of Yahya Jammeh's political apostasy and peerless shiftiness. The hapless lawyer, whose pharisaical subordination to the avatar of boundless political power, Yahya Jammeh himself, now stands as the newest guest of the notoriously oppressive Mile 2 Prisons. The regime's lethargy to even the most innocent criticism is manifested in this jarring incarceration epidemic that is now on the cusp of mindless absurdity. And just this week, the Daily News again lamented that the further deterioration of the regime's apocalyptic exercise of power has reached a new milestone with the arrests of innocent citizens whose crimes was to have failed to salute Yahya Jammeh's speeding militarized convoys.
Today, with an unprecedented number of citizens incarcerated than ever in our history, the political abuse in our country has reached the crisis point and is headed towards the breaking point. The use of incarceration as an instrument of political control is a willful violation of citizen rights and demonstrates an insensitivity and rank stupidity almost unmatched by any other country in modern African politics. The total lack of accountability for the succession of egregious crimes that range from extra-judicial executions to witch-hunting deaths and now the arrest of citizens who fail to salute Yahya Jammeh's convoys, is a pattern that has progressively worsened to embolden Yahya Jammeh to further push the boundaries of unacceptable behaviors to new extremely intolerable levels. The recent spate of arrests of citizens for not saluting his speeding motorcades is indicative of the senselessness of relinquishing infinite power into the hands of a single individual. And with the docile opposition totally disengaged in the midst of such an oppressive political climate, Yahya Jammeh has all the latitude he needs to expand the broad reach of his power, further posing an even greater danger to the future stability of our country. This dangerous descent into political chaos and anarchy continues to seep into the consciousness of a people alive to unforgiving transgressions of this ruthless regime. On Friday, the Point Newspaper carried ten court case stories, all poignant reminders of a dysfunctional regime that has perfected a tradition steeped in the art of juxtaposing political intimidation with mindless platitudes designed purely to bamboozle a people already scared out of their wits.
And now, buoyed by the results of the fraudulent November elections, and consumed by a need to demonstrate the burdensome arbitrariness of power, Yahya Jammeh's capacity for injustice easily comes through with the establishment of a tax commission that excludes his vast local and international holdings. Yahya Jammeh's arrogant display of absolute power knows no boundary and the extreme asinine nature with which he has thrown his weight around is further indicative of a regime in a league all its own, left to perpetuate the social and economic asymmetry that has plunged our country in a miasma of potentially explosive political quandary. But there is always a glimmer of hope and the recently concluded weeklong TANGO celebration of Gambia's charitable organizations, offer new possibilities for political rights hitherto casually dismissed as inconsequential to the political health of our country. The TANGO resolution to inject issues of human rights into the broader development agenda is a natural progression of the need to tie economic empowerment and political freedoms, and could not have come a moment too soon. Kanjiba Kanyi, a former CRS employee and Omar Barrow, formerly of the Gambia Red Cross Society, both arrested and disappeared in 2005, have largely been forgotten not only by the Gambia's media, but by even by the nonprofit community they so admirably served.
But now, with the parliamentary election fast approaching, and the ICE still lukewarm to the idea of electoral reform, it is conceivable that the opposition is down for a most humiliating defeat that could easily reduce The Gambia into a single-party rule under an AFPRC military regime. The opposition parties that should serve as the bulwark against the overreach of the regime have largely been incapable of subsuming their political interests for the greater good. Typically, the level of sacrifice this demands would be a no-brainer in the civilized western world, but Gambians the lack the sense of country; consumed instead by the individualism that has given rise to the banalities of the overbearing over-reach of a regime slowly choking on its own vermin. Clearly, Yahya Jammeh is expending a political capital he does not deserve by dint of the fraudulent elections corrupted by an elaborate scheme of intimidation, coercion and vote-buying. The outrageously impossible results that Yahya Jammeh is shamelessly boasting about are not atypical in dictatorships around the world; in fact, they are the norm. Yet there is a revelation of hope in this perennial political quagmire, and it is that even Saddam Housein was voted back into office by ninety-nine percent of his subject before they turned on and hanged him. Saddam Housein, Moumar Ghadaffi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad are metaphors of how not to rule. Yahya Jammeh could have learnt from the error of their ways. Now it is too late. And what fate awaits Yahya Jammeh too, only time will tell. But with so much pent-up anger and rage, the end will likely be ugly; really ugly. There is no easy escape form a tragedy waiting to happen. You can take that to the bank.
THE GHOSTS OF MILE 2 CENTRAL PRISONS (2009)
Posted on: 27 February 2014
By Mathew K Jallow
I saw rusty, shriveling skeletons
In those listless silhouettes
Drowning in misery
Where flatulence smells like aroma
And reality exists only in the mind’s bubble
No time to be afraid
Hope dipped in paranoia
The restless ghosts of Mile 2 Prison
Narcissism a distant memory
A bearded didactic Mullah
Stole my faith for a moment
Call me Mustapha now
If only for a little while
Until I escape the misery
Where death rules the night
In this hellhole of Mile 2 Prison
Impenetrable steel doors captured my resolve
Looking for a miracle within tall prison walls
Surrounded by an eclectic crowd in utter despair
Captive to a nebulous rationale
Now a state of morbid disinterest
Abandoned by our countrymen
In this reign of fear
The ultimate terror of Mile 2 Prison
Between the high walls they wither away
Memories of Auschwitz and Gulags
Spell hedonism of an evil mind
Dark dinky halls of pain
Come feast little mosquitoes
Tender skins turned to crocodile leather
Blistering and bloody, hard to the touch
The painful memories of Mile 2 Prison
Had an epiphany one summer day
And nirvana came rising like a mountain
Exhaling the sweet taste of freedom again
Owning the night one more time
And like giddy kids they giggle and laugh
And innocence lost so long ago
Comes roaring like the ghost of Hamadi Hampateh Bah
In the hearts of Mile 2 Prison’s children of mercy
This is a place of utter misery
As blood stained walls shine a ray of light
The gruesome stories of agony
And the nexus of power and evil
Where fickle minds go to die
Once they were vibrant and full of life
Now but pitiful shadows without hope
Praying for a miracle at Mile 2 Prison
The Gambia: Mile Two Central Prison; we have failed them; our own Wretched of The Earth (published 2013)
By Mathew K Jallow
The setting sun cast its reddish glow over the white-washed perimeter fence where the shadow of the tall crimson wall struggled to stretch far out across the highway. An aura of serenity and melancholic somberness surrounded the place which was at once strange and awe-striking, mysterious and frightening. As darkness set in over the imposing metal gate facing the surging sea where the Gambia River empties into the mighty Atlantic Ocean, across the Sere-kunda highway and beneath a canopy of lush green brush, a reluctant female agamidae lizard scampered hurriedly into the underbrush, pursued closely by a larger yellow headed male lizard in much need of reptilian affection. And barely visible in the growing darkness, an eerie sign festooned on the imposing metal gate, which had long ago begun to rust out of age, spoke loudly even in its stoic silence. The menacing sign on the gate said it all and then some; Mile 2 Prison. Today, the dreaded name Mile 2 Prison conjures up images of brutality unheard of elsewhere on the African continent; images of torture, and of physical emaciation, of death and dying and of extra-judicial executions. For Mile 2 Prison is now a place where dying has become so routine, and where visible despair and hopelessness have reduced a once vibrant people into mere skeletons of apathy and despondency.
To the scores of Gambians and non-Gambians locked up behind the menacing walls of Mile 2 Prisons, it is as if time has long ago stopped. For behind the impenetrable concrete walls, a desperate population is held captive; a population whose reality is confined to what their tormented minds can dream up, dreams that are as real as the ghosts of Mbulumang or better still, as realistic as the witches of the whispering hills of Sare Hella. But maybe, just maybe, time has stopped for them after all. Maybe theirs is not a world of illusions and make-belief, but a world far removed from our own world, our real world. But whatever it is, however much we try to bring their predicament to life, give meaning to the senselessness that engulfs them, draw attention to the helplessness that tortures them, and scream misery from the mountain top, one thing is certain, Mile 2 Prison is a curse to our collective national conscience. It is a cruel aberration, debasing and immoral, and deriving from the dark underbelly of sadism and misanthropic. It is a wound that has found its ugly place in our unwritten history, there to remain engraved into our collective consciences for the rest of time.
Mile 2 Prison is a colonial-era relic, but the genesis of its world-wide notoriety today, is a new phenomenon. The new Mile 2 Prisons is a creation of the Yahya Jammeh military regime. Only a little over one decade ago, Mile 2 Prison did not strike fear in the hearts of Gambians, but today the prison complex has come to life for all the wrong reasons. And around the clock every day, as tens of thousands of commuters and hundreds of vehicles ply the Banjul and Sere-kunda highway completely oblivious of the suffering behind the tall oppressive walls of Mile 2 Prison, the prisoners inside are subjected to unbearable agony and the unfathomable cruelty for which the prison has become synonymous with. For within those tall prison walls are hundreds of prisoners, the walking dead if you will, who have given up on living, because no one can help them, no one can save them from the stranglehold of a madman whose regime has brought so much disrepute to a once peaceful nation. The Gambia today is a changed country. It is a country that has turned into a place where its people once so full of hope, no longer think for themselves or pursue their dreams free, secure and un-afraid of the sanguinary power of tyranny. More than any other institution, Mile 2 Prison represents the inveterate canker of a regime whose era came and went so long ago, and whose hysteria and panache for the dramatic, lies smoldering in the graves of those cruel men who gave us an era we will never forget; Idi Amin, Sekou Toure, Mobutu Sese and “Emperor” Bukassa.
But as these long dead murderous dictators of a by-gone era rot in their graves, and the living of their kind face a hostile world, The Gambia is one of a few countries resurrecting to life the evil and cruelty of an era remembered for its waste of human life and the martyrdom of its political dissidents. It was an era boldly represented in murals and tombstones carved in the blood of those who sacrificed their lives that others may have freedom, and today, their spirits speak to us in our waking moments and in our dreams. Yet, Gambians have failed to live up to the causes for which they gave up their lives, the political awakening they bequeathed to us, the exemplary lives by which they lived and died, and the freedoms we inherited from their dying. For, high above Mile 2 Prison, the troubled ghost of Jallow Union floats in perpetual agony, the mortified soul of Steve Biko remains paralyzed by disbelief, and the eloquent spirit of the venerable Stokely Carmichael roams in restless frustration. For even as their bodies turn into the salt of the earth, they remind us of the freedoms for which they fought, freedoms taken away from us, not by accident, but by the calculation of a despot who has left behind us a trail of agony and suffering throughout the length and breadth of our country. But in their ghostliness, the long-gone warriors of freedom command us to take back our lost freedoms; the freedom they championed until they each drew their last dying breaths.
Mid-morning around Mile 2 Prison plays out much like nature's theatre in all its awesomeness. To the east, where the mighty Atlantic Ocean hugs The Gambia River in a million-year embrace, the gentle, lazy waves flap incessantly against the serene coastline, slowly eating the bright Banjul sands away to create small fragile sand cliffs that melt easily away with the touch of a drop of water. And in the distance, across the grayish sea, the Barra slave fort, in all its medieval allure, is clearly visible below where a swarm of sea gulls in hunger driven determination, dive ceaselessly into the warm waters to pluck out unsuspecting fish from beneath the rippling waves. To the west of Mile 2 Prison, wide expanses of swampland teeming with marine life stretch eastward towards Bakau, Talinding and as far as the eye can see. But neither the solemn demure of nearby Palm Grove Hotel nor the enchanting unpretentiousness that surrounds Wadner Beach Hotel can exorcise Mile 2 Prison of its latent deadliness. In a strange yet familiar way, there is a strange uniqueness about Mile 2 Prison that mirrors the images of Dachau, of Auschwitz, of Tainanmen Square, and of Treblinka. For even from the outside, Mile 2 Prison’s fortified and seemingly innocent walls betray a cold deadliness that in a strange way is captivating in its unforgiving cruelty. And inside, everywhere one looks, the invisible scars of prison life exemplify a place where dreams go to perish; where hope goes to die. And as darkness slowly engulfed Mile 2 Prison in a solemnity only it can exude, inside the prison proper, a thousand eye balls as bright as the stars, stare listless into the nothingness. In a far corner of the prison yard, an emaciated human body, with skeletal bones visible from the distance, stared at the concrete wall, giggled, and muttered barely audible gibber to himself.
In that oppressive environment, Mile 2 Prison has turned a place where people go not to pay their dues to society, but a place where they go to die. In the mind’s eye they are visible; mere shadows of their former selves; the hungry, the sick, the hardened skins, the listless, the big, bright sunken eyed, and the frightening look of despair that has spelt death a million times before; in Treblinka, in Auschwitz and this God-forsaken place of darkness; Mile 2 Prison. Many have died here, more in one decade under Yahya Jammeh's dictatorship, than the entire history of the prison. As of today, more than one hundred prisoners by the last count have died there, and still they die; of hunger, of sickness, and of the unbearable burden of prison life. There are the executed whose gravesites still remain unknown, unmarked, and out of sight, and there are the other dying whose families are silenced by the terror of death; their own death. And as for the suffering prisoners, they are our friends too, our brothers, sisters, neighbors, family and fellow Gambians. But we seem not to care. For we have turned our backs on them and so they continue to suffer in silence, as time passes them by. They are our own "wretched of the earth," defeated and stalked by death. They are Gambia's forgotten, left to their own devices, without hope and waking up not knowing if they will ever live to see another day. Yet in spite of the pain or rather, as a result of it, in their hearts, they keep praying to an unknown deity for one more day. Just one more day of life.