Prison: Part 1: The Experience

Friends, it’s been a long time since I’ve written about prison.  This is a real shame. Today, I plan to correct that.

Each week I visit both jails in Guadeloupe.

The one in Basse-Terre is very old. Originally, it was built as a convent and after 100 years of serving that purpose (if I remember correctly), it was sold to France and transformed into a prison. It is right next to the courthouse in Guadeloupe, so it’s a very convenient location.

This prison is generally for non-violent offenders and those who have shorter sentences. A significant number of the prisoners in Basse-Terre are from Dominica and St. Martin (approximately 20-25%) and are in prison due to drug related situations. This prison is all men.

Life there generally appears to be more laid-back and easy going than Baie-Mahault, but the prisoners there also have access to fewer resources and activities. The process of going inside the jail is cumbersome, but a bit less intimidating than Baie-Mahault. When I arrive, I ring the doorbell for the guard to open the big gate. Once inside the big gate, I stand outside a locked door and hand a guard my passport. He or she reads my information and looks me up on a list of “allowed persons.” Then, the guard presses a button and I am able to go inside. Once inside, I receive a vistors badge and then go through a metal detector and pass my things through a scanner. After that, I can fully go into the jail. I have to pass through a few doors where I have to press buttons and wait for the person at the control panel to let me in. Once I reach the control panel, I say, “Je suis de l’aumônerie protestante. Je suis ici pour l’étude biblique en anglais.” Then, they let me through to the area where the prisoners are.

Once I am inside, I find a guard and tell them that I’m there for the Bible study in English. Then, they’ll take me to an available room and alert the inmates on my list that I’m there and ready for the Bible study if they want to come. I have a few regulars, but it’s almost never the same group of people. As many of the prisoners work or have other obligations, sometimes many of them aren’t available. Usually I meet with them for an hour or an hour and a half then we let a nearby guard know that we’re finished, the men are taken back to their cells, and I exit the same way that I entered.

Baie-Mahault is different. For one, it’s significantly larger. Basse-Terre has approximately 200 inmates while Baie-Mahault has over 800. Also, Baie-Mahault prison was built in the 90s, so it’s newer and perhaps slightly less bleak. This prison houses both men and women, although out of the 800+ prisoners, only 18 are women.

I spend most of my time in the women’s quarter. The women’s cells are pretty nice for cells. Each cell has a bunk bed, a desk, and a bathroom. Each cell also has a door that closes, giving the inmate privacy. Prisoners can also pay a monthly fee to have a TV (with cable) in the rooms and a mini fridge. Outside of the cells, the hallways are decorated with paper garlands and there are some baskets that were made by the women and a local artist. The women have an arts room and a general meeting room as well. There are other resources like a gym, library, etc. that the women have access to, but usually it’s just once a week or so. (Although they do get outdoor sports time almost every day, I believe.)

I have never visited the men’s quarters, but I get the impression that they’re quite cramped. The jail was not built to hold 800 men and apparently sometimes there can even be 4 men sharing one cell. At some point I likely will visit the men’s cell areas, but so far I’ve just seen the recreational areas like the classrooms, gym, and library.

Getting in and out is the same as it is in Basse-Terre except that you also need a signed letter of approval to enter Baie-Mahault in addition to being “on the list.” You also have to get through several more doors and check points before you’re in the inmate areas. Baie-Mahault is a bit more intimidating as it’s so much larger. Also, I’m not sure why, but it feels more “prison-y” in certain areas than Basse-Terre does.

It’s funny, though. I’ve now been visiting both prisons regularly for the past six months now and so it no longer feels like a big deal. It’s just part of the rhythm and routine of my life here. However, because it such a significant part of my life, there are certain thoughts and ideas that have been running through my head about prison and prisoners. For that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part 2… 🙂 (Coming soon!)

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