Friday, October 8, 2010

Learning Within Prison Walls

The inmates and the CIS officers at the Buimo prison outside of Lae welcomed me as an old friend in my visit to their space last week. I was there to facilitate a workshop on proposal writing and basic report writing. The workshop is a joint project involving the Bible Society of PNG, the Correction Institution Services and the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat of the Department of Education.

A year ago I facilitated a writer’s workshop. Out of the writer’s workshop the first anthology of prison writings is ready to be published. The book is a rare work as it brings together the writings of prisoners and warders who attended the course. In this year’s workshop I worked with them to come up with a tentative title for the book. The book is the first of its kind in the country.

Seeing the participants from the last workshop again was reassuring in a lot of ways. Since the first workshop a lot has happened at the Buimo penitentiary. There was a mass break-out, the former commanding officer was replaced by a new officer, one of the participants had passed on, one was shot during an escape operation, some were released, and some have a couple of months before their parole. Buimo prison is located on an ideal spacious landscape with a relaxed atmosphere. At least that is the first impression one gets on a visit to the prison site.

It was easy also to get to know the participants on an individual level. As individuals they displayed their intelligence, creativity, and cooperative spirit. In knowing them as individuals I realized that sharing with them my knowledge and skills of writing was one small way of skilling them to organize their own lives. Through the practice of organizing themselves they will take control of their own lives. I shared my knowledge of writing with prisons, warders, and others as a fulfillment of a higher calling.

Inmates like Apollo Kesu, Malum Nathan, and several of the CIS officers like Jill Tulo and Arnold Juvai make working in prison very rewarding. Our learning environment was more than just a workshop environment. We started off a day with fellowship before moving into the training sessions. I appreciated the mornings of fellowship with beautiful gospel music and inspiring choir performances.

In each session of the workshop we learnt to adjust to the flow of things in the classroom and in the prison environment. By noon on Thursday a new development occurred in the main prison compound. The inmates had staged a protest against the authorities in prison. It was revealed later to me that the inmates have been living in overcrowded conditions and wanted to get out as quick as possible. The prisoners took the liberty to register their complaints by hijacking the officers during a lunch hour. This strategy was a new dangerous development in the prison system. Something is not right.

We waited in patience for any changes to the situation. Nothing changed in the afternoon. Most of our participants belonged to the main compound of the prison. They were disallowed from returning to the workshop. It is not in our favour to complain. Most of the things that I wanted to cover were done in the morning session. I have to make adjustments to the program for the next day.

Teaching in a prison environment requires a lot of patience, respect, and understanding. Transmitting useful values to help people live a purposeful life is a challenge. So many people take life for granted. Many people live a life imprisoned by negative values and false sense of themselves. The obvious display of this crisis is evident in the way people disrespect others, ignore basic rules of cohesion, and break the laws that govern our conduct, behaviour, attitudes, and collective will to create a better world for ourselves.

The Bible Society of PNG runs the prison literacy project in several prisons around the country. The project has helped many inmates to see light at the end of the tunnel. The prison literacy project is led by Doris Omaken and assisted by Jill Pijui. They are supported by Augustine Huaembukie in Lae. I became part of their team because Doris and Jill were at one point students in my class at the University of Papua New Guinea. The important reason for working on this project with the Bible Society of PNG is that the work we do is one little drop of water in a bucket of developmental challenges we face as a people, a nation, and a Christian country.

The Bible Society works in partnership with the Correctional Services, the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS) and other stake-holders such as the University of Papua New Guinea and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). This work is supported by international charitable organizations associated with the Bible Society of PNG.

The government must not turn a blind eye on the importance of this rehabilitation work. It has the potential to transform troubled individuals with burdens to become better and productive citizens after they are freed from the penitentiary. The prison literacy project is a beacon of hope and courage. The hope is that inmates will find a new path, direction, or destiny. The courage is that it takes few courageous individuals to work with people the society considers dangerous.

My hope is like that of the prisoners and CIS officer during the recent workshop. They want classrooms to learn in and a multi-purpose resource centre. These particular needs were expressed in some of the proposals written during the workshop. Instead of spending money on high powered firearms for the CIS the money should have been used for the purposes expressed above.

The final point I now make is that we all must do our part to help others who need our help most. We must do our part in supporting organizations and groups working in literacy programs within the walls of PNG prisons.

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