The Mercy Ships Dental Team at work in Mornoviaprison. With no electricity or running water, mostly they were pulling rotten teeth using novacaine, implements and flashlights. They saw over 100 patients in one day.
Most people never set foot inside a prison, never to visit anyone, much less someone they don’t know. But regularly, people from Mercy Ships go on their Saturday mornings to go visit those forgotten in Monrovia’s central prison. Working with Prison Fellowship of Liberia, they go to be with the people there, listen to them, talk with them, pray with them. They go to show the love of God to them.
If you see how bad Liberia’s services are for law abiding individuals, I could only imagine the conditions the prisoners must live in. When I got there, I was surprised that, as sad as it may be or may not be to say, it was about the same conditions as an orphanage I’d been to the weekend before.
View of prison yard from room dental team was working in.
Because the very capable dental team had everything under control from the start, they didn’t need our help and gave me time to wander. A crew member, Mary Lou, who has the gift of a warm, generous heart for everyone, asked if I wanted to go into the women’s section with her to see the women. I don’t have the gift to talk with total strangers well, not in the way she does, so I felt my self saying no, but knowing that God calls us to our weaknesses as well as strengths, I fought against my instinct to avoid this uncomfortable situation, and went in.
It was a small area with a hallway and several rooms off them. Women sat on a bench in front of the gated area. There were about 20 women there, total. A few looked despondent, many were friendly but shy, and some avoided us. Mary Lou is one of those people who goes every weekend, and so some women came up to her and talked. I attempted to make small talk, I wondered how I could ever ask ‘what got you in here?’ and so I asked them how long they’d been there and their name. Most people don’t want to talk, so you have to be a strong socializer to get them to open up. Mary Lou walks right over and puts her arms around two women’s shoulders and says, ‘how long you ladies been in here?’ (I should mention that Mary Lou is from Georgia, so you should imagine a nice southern Georgia drawl with that statement). She is so perfectly suited to the ministry to meeting these women where they are at. She talks with them and I ask a few questions, but mostly listen. We prayed for the women at the end.
We only saw the women’s area — not the men’s –but I can say the conditions were decent in relative liberian terms. They had a washing place inside the building and mattresses to sleep on the floor. The rooms were lit with light from windows which were open to the outside. We do not bring them anything as it causes fighting and expectations of them reciving us with only open hands of ‘give me’ which is so common here, and not see us for who we are — people visiting to care about them, not bring them things.
One of three cells shared by the twenty women.
On top of this, the prison barely feeds the prisoners — they are given one cup of dry cornmeal a couple of times a day as their meal. If they have money or family that is providing them money, then they can buy food at the prison, which is cooked in an outdoor area in the courtyard. If you have no money, then its cornmeal and the savory smell of what money can buy others.
The bowl of dry cornmeal given twice a day for meals.
One of the women prisoners.
Most of the women are in for small crimes — stealing a cell phone, fighting, or other misdemeanors. I’m sure others did do more serious crimes too. But the judicial and criminal system here is corrupt, and completely unable to handle processing prisoners. People are brought in for crimes and left in jail with no trial. Sometimes they are literally brought in because they were in town and police needed someone to bring in for a crime. A sense was needed by the village that someone had to pay. They are brought in here and forgotten. Their family may not know they are there.
And then, people come out too, for all the wrong reasons. If you are innocent or guilty, it seems as if you pay the right person, you can get out of jail. The process here is murky, as there are court systems and people say there is a process, but yet no prisoners really know what is going on. For all of us in the ‘western’ world, we know we have due process — all those things that the US Bill of Rights stands for, for example — saying we have a right to a trial, not just eventually, but a speedy trial. This is why. These people have no trial to speak of.
Mercy Ships crew member Gordon Tyler, left, works with Francis Colley of Prison Fellowship to do what they can for the prisoners to help — from making calls to family members to finding out court dates or status of prisoners. This day, they had gotten permission from the prison to uncover a cell window that was covered for no reason, allowing light and air into the dark cell for the prisoners inside for the first time.
If the families know the person is there and care about them, they may pay down ‘fines’ owed in order to set the prisoner free. This was the case of one of the ladies who still owed an outstanding $12 to go free, which her family had paid down during the months that she was there.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’