Prison life in Cueibet: This, too, shall pass
Ralph* is a 28-year-old student and police officer in the Gok area of the Greater Lakes region.
But there is something wrong in this seemingly promising picture of a gainfully employed young man making progress in life. About a week ago, Ralph began to serve a six-month-long prison sentence in Cueibet. The young bachelor was caught committing adultery.
As another two men were involved in this unlawful sexual encounter, the customary fine for adultery, seven cows (paid to the woman’s husband), was divided among the culprits, with Ralph requested to provide three of the bovines due.
“I could only afford two cows, so now I’ll be here in prison for the next six months,” Ralph says, adding that finding a wife of his own would probably have been a better idea.
The latter admission elicits howls of laughter amongst a group of fellow inmates and a couple of prison wardens surrounding us.
Considering the dire conditions of those forced to spend time at the Cueibet Prison, the predominantly male prisoners are jovial and in good spirits. Ralph, who has been a police officer for four years, is hopeful of a successful return to his work, and to his community.
“I’ll use myself as a warning example. What happened to me, as a police officer, will show people that nobody is above the law.”
The prison in Cueibet, recently renovated by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan as part of its Quick Impact Project programme, holds more than 200 male and juvenile inmates and nine women.
Some 120 of them are crammed into two cells in a building measuring approximately 120 square metres in total. The no-frills structure (bare walls and a roof) was intended for 30-50 inmates, which goes to show that, with its current population, swinging a cat about is hardly an option. Another 100 or so prisoners inhabit a similar abode, with the nine women enjoying a comparatively spacious hut.
Yet, conditions used to be worse. The UNMISS-funded renovation included fitting windows (with bars) onto the cell walls.
“At least now we can breathe and not worry about suffocating or picking up respiratory diseases from each other,” one relieved inmate says.
Serving one meal a day, a late 3 pm lunch, offering no leisure or educational activities and with fourteen hours a day (from six in the evening till eight in the morning) spent inside, a night at Cueibet prison is still not likely to feature on anyone’s bucket list anytime soon.
The precarious facilities may offer an insight as to why a number of inmates have wanted, and successfully attempted, to make a dash for freedom. They have managed to escape despite the inclusion of a two-metre-tall fence, topped with a bit of barbed wire, in the Quick Impact Project renovation, and despite the eleven armed and watchful prison wardens lurking on the outside of the perimeter.
“This prison needs a higher fence, actually a high, proper wall,” Ralph says, with his peers behind bars voicing their agreement.
Prison Director Ambrose Marpel pinpoints the problem:
“The people of this area are Nilotic. They are very tall and can jump very high,” he says, adding that two prisoners escaped just a couple of days before our visit.
Overly congested cells, not enough food, insalubrious sanitary conditions, a lack of sports or other available outdoor activities and the absence of possibilities to use their time in prison to learn a new vocation are all items featuring on the inmates’ long list of grievances.
“Prisoners need to pick up new skills, like carpentry or something similarly useful, to prepare themselves for their return to civilian life. The rehabilitation part of being imprisoned is very important,” Ralph stresses.
Other, primarily younger, inmates miss being able to study, and want to go back to school.
Chol*, an 18-year-old boy, is one of them.
“I have to go back to school, because I want to become a politician and work in the local government in my area,” he says.
There is a hitch, however: Chol has been sentenced to capital punishment for murder.
A group of other prisoners approach us with a different kind of problem. Displaying a variety of skin rashes and vigorously scratching their genitalia, they are unhappy with the hygienic standards of their seemingly infection-infested ablution units.
“We want them to bring doctors to circumcise us. This will help us keep diseases away, as we share the same urinals,” one inmate believes.
According to Isaac Mayom Malek, minister of local government, better times lie ahead for those in captivity, with both sports activities and vocational trainings being considered.
“Insecurity was our biggest problem in the area. Now that we have peace, many government programmes will be implemented, including activities for the prisoners who are here,” he says, admitting that he does not, as of yet, have a time frame for this to happen.
“We have talked to doctors and they are organizing to come here to circumcise everyone who wants it done,” adds Mr. Marpel, commenting that two inmates underwent the procedure during the last medical visit to the prison.
The incarceration facilities in Cueibet hold a number of people on remand, charged with but not convicted of murder and other serious offences. Some of them have been here for more than two years without appearing before a judge, and they share a sentiment of “justice delayed is justice denied”.
The root cause of these extended detentions is that, till August this year, Cueibet did not have the kind of high court needed to try these cases.
As we are about to leave the prison, Ralph asks us for a pen. Equipped with an “UNMISS – Your Partner for Peace” writing device, he looks his happy self again.
Bumping along the dusty, 54-kilometre-long road back to Rumbek, with pot holes so old they have grown into gullies, it is hard not to marvel at the resilience and good spirits demonstrated by those forced to stay behind.
*Ralph and Chol are fictitious names, used to preserve the anonymity of the prisoners.