If would-be criminals knew what awaits them in prisons, would they think twice before committing their crimes? Probably not if the prevailing justice system gives a twisted sense of confidence that not all crime-doers pay.
I grew up in a penal colony where my grandparents, dad, aunt, and several relatives work. I remember childhood days when I played “assistant” to my grandmother and aunt at the infirmary, waiting in my grandfather’s office while he was busy auditing, watching civilians and prisoner aides fixing vehicles at the motor pool where my dad worked as an engineer.
I developed an aversion to guns despite growing up seeing gun-totting prison guards all the time. Perhaps it was a fear instilled by some irresponsible guards who fire their guns into the air when they get drunk. I remember nights when we scrambled to the house’s ground floor where the concrete walls would hopefully provide more safety than the wooden walls upstairs.
And I think it was the exposure into an environment where constant alertness and quick responses are necessary that I began cultivate a sense of awareness in everything that’s happening around me. I can still recall midnight clanging of bells that signaled riots. My grandmother leaving at odd hours to attend to wounded prisoners. At one point I remember being told to go straight to the infirmary after school because no one’s home since both my grandmother and aunt still had work to do. When I arrived at the infirmary’s big hall, I saw this dead prisoner on a table with machete wounds all over his body. It was the first time I saw a dead body and one brutally murdered at that. I guess after that experience, nothing much fazed me anymore.
The penal colony can either be a beautiful or ugly place depending on which side of the fence or the level of freedom you have. Looking back, I now realize that most of the ugliness was hidden from me during those childhood years. I got used to dealing with prisoners on minimum security or those that served as live-in helpers for government employees qualified to staff their homes with those serving light sentences or who will soon be released from prison.
My grandmother was good at choosing the ones who eventually ended up living in the quarters built in our backyard. Some had their families living with them while others lived alone. There were always groups of at least three prisoner helpers who stayed with us every time. The ones who left after finishing their sentences were replaced by others. The only ones my grandmother believed had no place in our home were those serving sentences for rape, murders, and other extremely dangerous cases.
And that’s how I mistakenly thought that prison life wasn’t that hard after all. The penal colony was a peaceful, quiet place despite being home to probably a lot of violent criminals within the fortified walls of maximum security prison. It was basically a small rural town where everyone in the neighborhood knows everybody.
It’s been decades since I left that place and the connection has grown very faint over time. It was only a recent conversation with my aunt who still works there that made me realize that there’s more to every prison’s story that most people don’t know.
There was the story of the old man who lived in the quarters in my grandparents’ backyard for some time. He was just waiting out the last days of his sentence. He’s been in prison for almost 5 decades for a crime he said he didn’t commit. A lot of prisoners would probably sing the same tune. Anything to profess innocence in their bid to be set free. But there was something about the old man that made me wonder if he was actually telling the truth. If he were innocent, he just spent most of his life languishing in jail while the (influential and rich) person he said to have committed the crime went on with his life.
I used to believe that criminals deserve to be punished. I still do. But probably the most critical part of the whole crime and punishment thing is the justice system itself. For true justice not meted out means more criminals enjoying the good life outside the prison walls while innocent lives are torn inside the hellish world of prison.
Prisons are about gangs, random riots, meager rations, and some corrupt prison officials and employees who make money from prisoners who barely live as humanly as possible. Such is the ugliness of prison revealed to those with eyes and senses open. That is why I sometimes ask myself if people thinking of committing crimes even know what kind of life they’d get to live if they end up in jail. It’s also the reason why I advocate true justice. One that money or influence can’t buy.