Not far from the hotel d’Abomey was the local prison. A leisurely 5 minute walk to the gates of the compound, we passed the prison daily on our way to dinner. The large metal gates would sometimes open as we passed, groaning loudly on hinges badly in need of oil, allowing a prison vehicle out on business. In the middle of the left gate was a door for pedestrian access and egress. It too, needed oil.
We would alternate days between Maison de l’Espoir (House of Hope, the orphanage) and the prison. On prison days, a group of four pastors would meet us for devotions and prayer before we discussed the activities of the morning. When we were ready we all walked to the prison and asked permission from the guards to enter. This usually did not take long, except on the first day when the prison director met with us first. He was hesitant to let us in, but after some assurance he relented, having warned us to not take pictures.
Why he did not want us to take pictures is hard to know for sure, but given the conditions in the facility the guesses narrow down pretty quickly. The prison was originally built to house about 400 people and when we arrived there were some 1,200 men, women and boys housed there. Like a busy market day, we had to make our way through the press of men to reach the boys section which was walled off from the general population. If there could be such a thing, it was a bit of an island in that sea of humanity.
The pastors focused on the boys section. There where about twenty between the ages of 12-18 and they were being held on a variety of charges (many of them theft). One pair of boys we talked with had been in the prison for four months and had yet to see a judge. Due process is slow in West Africa.
We used our time there to sing, pray, listen to stories, watch the boys perform skits for us and play games. The boys loved it, and we loved them. But there was another aspect to the prison: the women’s section. Pastor Pauline decided that someone needed to visit the women, for as rough as the boys have it, the women have it worse. Sue joined Pauline three times and each time her heart broke for them. Yet each time she was so glad that she had gone because it was a visible reminder to the women that they had not been forgotten. God knows. There remains hope.