Rehabilitation and creative progess with prisoners in Agadez, Republic of Niger
Agadez is a city with 170.000 inhabitants at the edge of Sahara in Niger. This is where nomads like the touareg and perl come to trade camels, goats, food and crafts. In this place I made a cooperative project to set up a rehabilitation project for inmates in the Prison Civile d’Agadez. In December 2006 i traveled to Agadez to research for a possible art project. I interviewed the Sultan of Eire, one of his sons Prince Lacombe, his koranic and legal advisor, Fatima, the head of the women’s craft association, a taxi driver, a waiter that came to be a central figure in the project, the head of the court house and the prison director of Prison Civile d’Agadez. I did not succeed to enter the prison then, but the prison director, Djibrill Noma Sina or The Lieutenant as he is called, and his vice-director, Issof, gave a two hour long interview where they e.g. said the following: The prison has 250 inmates of which 80-90% are there due to crimes related to being poor. The relapse into crime is 90%, they have nothing to do at all in the prison and get one meal a day. The guards close the gate at 19.00 and opens it again in the morning. In this period the 250 inmates are together without guards in one big room only with partition walls. Luckily there is no violence.
This information made me decide to work towards a project that recognized and meet the urgent needs but also created a platform to use art in a more vitalising manner. Through my locally based and context related art projects I have developed methods to work collaboratively within the “space” of art – this in order to suggest art as a profession that parallel to other professions could enter a situation, analyse it and suggest models or solutions for changes. With these methods and a small funding fee from DCCD I went to Agadez again. The 27. marts 2007 I went to the capital Niamey. Before going on the 12 hours long bus ride in the 43 C heat to Agadez I first had to get a permission from the Ministry of Justice to enter the prison. I arrived at his offices at 15.00 in the afternoon. The next morning at 9.00 I had a written permission to make a rehabilitation project in a prison in Niger! At the same time as I was very happy about this it was depressing to learn that a “white” (I am a mix of Spanish, Moroccan, Israeli, Dane and Latvian) man can just walk in from the street and be allowed to make radical changes in a state institution!
The next day I stood in front of the great prison director, with a former career in the special forces of the Niger military, and had to convince him that I, a social-political artist from Denmark, should reform his prison! But we very soon agreed and had a common idea of what was needed. Then I had to enter the prison. I was nervous, it was the first prison I had every entered. It was horrifying. The inmates looked at me with scepticism. But when I began to ask them which profession they would like to learn while in prison their eyes began to light up. The crowd quickly grew around me to around 30 inmates. Carpenter, Mechanic, Taylor, Carpenter, Carpenter, Taylor, Taylor, Mechanic, Carpenter… From this started two weeks of the most intence work I have ever performed. From early morning to late at night in the Saharan summer heat me and my translater Alhassane Halido walk from place to place, talked and arranged, organised, coordinated, bought equipment, got more than normally frustrated but ended up with a great program. The amount of things we managed to get organised is such a short time were absolutely amazing and due to an enourmous engagement from the local community. Alhassane knew of an old carpenter who had learned his profession in a prison a long time a go. We went to see him but he said he was old now and we had to talk to his son Mahamat Nakacho. This was a gift to the project. He had lots of ideas himself and had even employed minor ex-prisoners. He became a close friend and a partner in the project.
Mahamat Nakacho (left), owner of Aïr Meubles and Issouf, carpenter and teacher at the rehabilitation project of Prison Civile d’Agadez
Mahamat offered his best carpenter and found a taylor and agreed to supervise their work. They all work for a minor fee to cover food and transport. We also went to Prince Lacome as he was the leader of the local football union. He decided to do the training himself three days a week. When he arrived and entered the prison gate the inmates spontaneously began to applaud him. For the opening of the workshop the Sultan sent a representative, his Prime Minister, The rehabilitation project consist of the following – a carptenter education 4 days a week for 4 hours – a taylor education 3 days a week for 4 hours – football training 3 days a week – spiritual advisor – HIV/AIDS Sensitizing – advise on and help with sale of craft (women) The people selected for the educations where prioritized from the among the poor, uneducated, illiterate and minor.
(from left) Issouf, vice-director of the prison, Alhassane Halido, translater, The Lieutenant, director of the prison and “The Big Boss”, spokesman for the prisoners and gardener.
Short video presentation of the project
My translater Alhassane Halido wrote the following text about the project:
PRISON PROJECT : CHANGING THE MIND OF THE COMMUNITY TOWARD ITS PRISONERS
On march 2007, a Danish citizen named Kenneth A. Balfelt sponsored by DCCD (Danish Center for Culture and Development ) came to Agadez and in collaboration with local members of his organisation Pensée Sans Frontier and the contribution of community leaders (Sultan, Kadi etc…), the civil society organization and the prison administration settled a project within the prison under the appellation : PRISON PROJECT. The whole idea of the project is based and centered around a social collaborative philosophy of making the community change its mind toward the prison system and see it as a place where prisoners with little assistance could come out with a tool to reintegrate the community.
So what are the objectives of this project? Broadly speaking, the objectives of the project are various, short and long terms and are all aimed at creating a kind of social equilibrium in reducing the rate of recidivists. These objectives are educational in a sense that they put much emphasis in the teaching of a craft (job) to prisoners in one of the two fields (tailor, carpentry) available to them and get them specialized. In so doing we guarantee them a secure job thus making their social reinsertion easy and effective.
This idea of handing down prisoners a craft has short terms objectives in one hand because it primarily concerns the prisoners directly during their prison journey and then long term objectives in a sense that it will continue and will serve them as a useful tool after they are released. Another objective is the will to make interaction possible between the community and its prisoners thus creating a reconversion of mind toward the whole system. Through this interaction, people will consider the situation of prisoners with more human feelings. So, this human harmony (interaction) is possible and can be built around the buying and selling of the prisoners’ artistic creations.
Finally, the central idea of these objectives is to humanized and change the mind of the community toward the prisoners and the prison system in general. So what did concretely the project do to achieve the above objectives? I.e. the realizations of the project. After many meetings and mutual discussions between the different parties engaged in this project, the following realizations have been made:
Two (2) well equipped workshops : Carpenter workshop ; Tailor workshop ;
Football team ;
Sensitizing courses on H.I.V, Aids , tobacco etc….
Women handicraft etc….
From these realizations aroused a need of a solid and local organization to keep things going well. So how the project work ethically? The ethic of the work is based on a mutual exchange between the different participants that are: “Pensèe Sans Frontier“ through its members (Kenneth, Alhassane Amoussalé, Mahamat Nakacho, Prince Lacombe, Alhassan Halido the interpreter etc…), community leaders (Sultan, Kady), Fitimata representative of women organization.
Along the way we held monthly meetings where we take note of all the imperfections and we prescribe remedies to them. Also there is a regular control over the works by an effective distribution of role played via a process of supervision by supervisors such us Mohamat the supervisor of the teacher in the workshops and the lieutenant due to his position as the chief of the prison assumes a great role in watching up the whole works. So, such a work organization is likely to meet success at the end of the day due to fact that tasks are commonly shared among the different parties.
The philosophy of the whole work goes around a more humanitarian thinking aimed at making change possible by the use of good will love, and thrust in the prisoners as human beings capable of change. The achievements of such philosophy is that at the point where are now with the prison project are incredible thanks to the use of wisdom and the potential in man ( prisoner ) in making good will permits the creation of social interaction between the community and its members behind doors (prisoners).
In so doing the philosophy of the project builds a kind of bridge of hope with more pity and confidence between the community and its prisoners. However, at the beginning things have note been easy because such a way of thinking is not well developed in the local conception of the community toward the prison system. So, imposing such a radical change to the local population demands a lot of talks and negotiations. As I am concerned, my opinion about the whole thing (project) is that as far as I knew, such a way of acting by the use of a humanitarian philosophy and good will in keeping hope in the potential in making change possible in the life of prisoners has never existed as such in our prison’s systems. The only known forms of assistances to prisoners are limited to immediate action such as food, cloth and medicines distributions. Hence, from my understanding of the whole philosophy behind the PRISON PROJECT and how it functions locally, I can say that it is a good, welcome and praise worthy action.
This project is revolutionary in a sense that it has changed the mind and the everyday relationships between the community and its prisoners. Finally, the possibility of making change possible and the hope that life could be better after prison by giving a prisoner a new personality (craftsman) make the project a way to follow up.
– Alhassane Halido
Images from the prison
A web site for Pensée Sans Frontière and the Prison Civile d’Agadez Project has been set up at www.psfniger.org.