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27 April 2013 Written by 

Project Mekele: hope inside a prison

By Roberto Elefante

Writing about prisons is always a difficult job. And writing about an Ethiopian prison, even in the context of an exemplary project financed by international institutions and implemented by local partners, could present difficulties to a foreign journalist.

Before leaving Addis for this single-day visit to the Mekele Prison, I read on the internet the “Human Rights Report on Ethiopia 2008" by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, US State Department, which stated “severe overcrowding was a problem” in the Ethiopian prisons and “prison conditions have been reported as unsanitary and that there was no budget for ... maintenance”. Whether or not these statements were true, approaching any prison, wherever it is in the world, is a daunting experience.

On the contrary, entering the Mekele Prison, not far from the quiet, clean and active town, capital of the Tigray region, you immediately get a positive feeling. Of course, there is a wall around the prison, sentry boxes, and guards, but you don't get the feeling of a dark claustrophobic atmosphere, which is usually associated with prisons.

When the Toyota driven by Mengistu Belay of the DECSI stopped in front of  the administrative offices just inside the camp, I didn't actually feel as if I was in a detention center. The compound has large open spaces and you see people moving freely among the different buildings. The deputy commander Sisay Gebreab, head of the Mekele Prison, and commander Berhan, a gentle friendly lady welcomed me and Gifti Jihad, the programme assistant of ILO who accompanied me during this visit warmly. The director immediately showed us the new van they had bought with the funds from the project.

The project: yes, our trip to Mekele had the objective of verifying the progress of such an innovative project involving international and local institutions; the local government and the prison administration. The project, the first in Ethiopia and one of the first in Africa, aims at the rehabilitation of inmates through training and the development of different cooperatives inside the prison, through the  financing of some fundamental infrastructures in the prison and the training of wards. The ILO (International Labour Organisation) initiated the Project and was joined by the   Italian Development Cooperation that contributed substantial financing for the project.  The ILO is implementing the project in collaboration with  DECSI (Dedebit Credit and Savings Institution S. C.) and the Mekele Prison Administration.

Microfinance is considered a fundamental tool for economic development and social enhancement in developing countries, and DECSI is now an important agent for the development of poor urban and rural areas in the Tigray region. Regarding the project, Atikilt Kiros – the general manager of DECSI - affirms “DECSI has a role of providing savings, credit and microinsurance for the cooperatives and inmates in the prison.” As such, DECSI has recently opened a branch inside the prison, which is housed in a flashy blue and orange building at the entrance of the compound.

Today, 28 cooperatives of inmates operate within the prison which includes up to 500 members. This means that one fifth of the total number of prisoners (approx 2,500) participate directly in the cooperatives; other inmates are temporarily “hired” by the cooperatives to cope with urgent deadlines or to deal with peak workloads. In this way, the prisoners come into contact with the different cooperatives, experience work, earn money and can also eventually decide to participate directly in any of them. 

All cooperatives are owned solely by inmates. Some cooperatives distribute their products and services within the prison  but others have contracts with local authorities and private companies in the region. There is a committee of 10 members from the different cooperatives committed to actively participating in tenders and getting contracts outside the prison. The earnings are distributed by the members of the cooperatives and “profits” are reinvested in them. Savings are of crucial relevance to the prisoners, who need to help their families. Earning may also provide small capital to start a business once released from prison.  This is in contrast to the situation before the cooperatives were supported and became financially viable. In the past, prison inmates were receiving money from family and friends; now they have savings and are making remittances to support their relatives, thanks to the DECSI branch within the prison premises.

As Yirga Gebrehiwot – an inmate working with the cooperative engaged  in carpentry formed with the funds of the project – affirms “Working here has a double aim for prisoners: earning some money and, even more important, it teaches them to acquire skills.” The two things combined reduce dramatically the risk of recurrence in crimes; in fact, the director said, only six out of the last 1200 prisoners released are back in prison, an incredibly low percentage. More than 500 inmates also attend the school located inside the prison.

In the daytime the prison compound looks like a construction site or a village square; people work on cobblestones, metal and woodwork, bakery and in a beauty parlor but they also socialise with each other, chatting and joking. We can speak freely with them without any fear or limit and with no wardens, truncheons or firearms in sight. During our walk we also met a man, Hagos Hailemariam, who greeted us warmly; he's going to be released in a few weeks after a long period, as an internee he has started drawing and painting.

The project pays particular attention to women. In the Mekele Prison there are now only about fifty women (2 percent of the total inmates) from over a hundred at the start of the project;  but seven of them have their children with them. Currently, thirty two women are members of cooperatives - quite a high rate of participation - two of which (for cattle and food processing) are mainly female. Women also participate actively in training programmes for tailoring, dressmaking, hairdressing and beauty therapy; at the end of the training the inmates obtain an official certificate, a useful instrument when looking for a job outside jail. Here, and for women in particular, terms like “empowerment” and “capacity building” take on real significance.

The women – many are young girls jailed for petty crimes – sleep in two dormitories;  some sleep on mattresses on the floor but some of them have beds; and in the near future the project has arranged to provide them with a more comfortable accommodation with beds made by one of the prison cooperatives.   The atmosphere in the women's courtyard is really quite relaxed, some girls joked with us posing for photos, cheering up. We met  Ziad, a girl with a wonderfully cheerful face who smilingly told  us she is due to be released soon. In the courtyard, thanks to the funds of the project, is a communal kitchen, which avoids inmates having to do individual cooking outside the dormitories and so helping to improve food safety.

Outside the prison, another new building has just been built with the resources of the project. Fourteen dormitories will host 84 orphans and street children of the Mekele region. During their six-month stay there, according to the regional social services, they will be trained and encouraged to attend school and learn a trade, with the help of the prison administration. After six months the children will be sent home again but the social services will help them to complete their schooling and find a job. The aim of the initiative is mainly to give the boys an opportunity to free themselves from falling into petty crime and so it is all essentially part of a strategy for crime prevention.

The project will be finished in three months and some of the infrastructures are already operative – like the workshops, the health centre, the microfinance bank branch - others are yet to be completed like the showroom and the buildings for the street children, as well as the kitchen in the women's section and  the stables for cattle. At the end of the project, the infrastructures will remain property of   the prison administration and utilized to train and empower inmates, hopefully empowering prisoners to reduce crime and poverty among the prison population, 80 percent of whom are youth who ended up in jail for petty crimes arising from poverty and lack of social support. When we talked about the future, the director recognizes that there will be some difficulties in keeping all the activities going but he also proudly states “We will make it. Our cooperatives are self sufficient and many of them are well organised to meet market demands."  

On the plane back to Addis I thought about what Flaminia Battistelli of the IDC told me the first time we talked about the project “The Mekele prison project is an exemplary experience and one of the most significant activities of the Italian Development Cooperation happening at the moment in Ethiopia. The financial support to the Mekele  Prison will end according to the project time scheduled, however this unique experience will be transferred to the local authorities so that they can replicate it in Ethiopian prisons in other areas.” The hope is that in the future, many “Mekele style” experiences will spread across the country, and why not across, the African continent?

Ed’s Note: The writer was on an intetnship at The Reporter.