African prison chaplains learn about Canadian jails

  • June 4, 2009
{mosimage}Sr. Josephine Eke is quite impressed with the prisons in Canada and Anglican priest Rev. John Ngabo is surprised by the access and support various non-governmental agencies have in Canadian prisons. But the two African prison chaplains,  in Canada to learn about Canadian restorative justice efforts, may have as much to teach as they have to learn.

From the city of Jos, deep in the interior of Nigeria, Eke is used to working in overcrowded and underserviced jails where the food is poor and some prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor. But she’s also used to prisons where prisoners are in constant contact with their prison guards and wardens.

“That helps to remove tensions. Here, everybody is so... there is a lot of isolation here,” she said.

In Eke’s view nobody is healed or restored to citizenship by isolation or the cold hand of official authority. “The human touch” is what creates the possibility criminals can be rehabilitated, said the Congregation of Our Lady of Fatima sister.

She also notes that once African offenders are released from prison, families and communities are more likely to welcome them back and reintegrate them into their old jobs and homes.

“If they see that he is really changed they will be happier to see him,” said Eke. “Whereas here, the stigma is very much.”

In Rwanda, the central African nation has been forced into a vast experiment in alternatives to the usual penal system all because of the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis — 100 days of slaughter that involved almost every Hutu at some level, whether they were wielding machetes, conspiring with the killers or sheltering Tutsi neighbours.

By 2000 there were 120,000 Rwandans accused of participating in genocide stuffed into Rwanda’s few, tiny, inadequate jails. Human Rights Watch estimated it would take 110 years to try them all.

Rwanda responded with the Gacaca system, a kind of traditional law enforcement which gives offenders the opportunity to confess and ask for forgiveness.

“The first aim of Gacaca was not to punish,” said Ngabo. “It’s based on community — the participation of the community in the justice system, the judgment and the trial — which is about truth-telling.”

The difference between Canadian and African restorative justice is the difference between theory and action, said Ngabo.

“Restorative justice is rooted in interconnectedness, but in African community we are living that concept,” he said.

In Canada the restorative justice movement has done a very good job of elaborating a theory and translating it into policies and procedures, he said.

The driving force behind prison ministry is the same everywhere, according to Eke.

“The prisoners are another arm of Christ. They are humanity, created by God, just like myself,” she said.

Ngabo takes his inspiration from Isaiah 61 — “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed... to proclaim liberty to the captives.”

“I am a prisoner also. A missionary is a prisoner,” said Ngabo. “When you are sent you don’t have alternatives. You have to go.”

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