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‘For I Was in Prison’

Uplifting faith and hope for prisoners in Ethiopia

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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From the editors: The crimes of all the prisoners interviewed for this article are unknown. A condition for access to the prisons was that no questions concerning the crimes or home lives of the inmates could be asked.

Every Tuesday and Thursday of the year, a jeep makes its way out of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa and heads into the mountainous scrub surrounding the city. Carrying members of the St. Paul Prison Chaplaincy of the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa — the only pastoral organization dedicated to the country’s prisoners — the vehicle tackles the rough road that spans much of the 34-mile trip west of the city.

“The Gospel of St. Matthew says: ‘I was naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me,’ ” says Fita Tulu, the tall, strapping coordinator of the group.

“It’s our mission to visit those in prison because so many of them have no one.”

Mr. Tulu was a major in the Ethiopian army during the Derg military regime that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie and seized power in 1974. When it fell in 1987, he left the armed forces and reflected instead on how he could dedicate his life more to his church. The reflection led him to several volunteer positions and eventually to a career as an advocate for prisoner rights, both within the bounds of his archeparchy and on the national level.

Seated near Tulu are the other members of the four-person team: Zeritu Bulti, the team’s health officer; Tigist Zeleke, the chaplaincy’s secretary; and Bekele Haile, the driver. As the vehicle winds its way through the dramatic landscape, the team discusses its plan of action for the prison today, what needs may arise and what possible challenges they may face.

Within an hour and a half, the jeep comes to a halt at Addis Alem Prison.

Addis Alem, as with many of Ethiopia’s 125 government-run prisons, is a much more porous affair than those in North America. Armed guards control the opening and closing of the none-too-foreboding main gate and patrol the interior of the compound. There are watchtowers at various spots along a perimeter wall topped by barbed wire. Yet despite these ostentatious security measures, there is a significant flow of people in and out of the prison, often coming to trade with the prisoners.

Beyond the separation of the sexes, the interior of the prison compound shows little differentiation — young mix with old, and those in prison for minor misdeeds, such as theft, rub shoulders with inmates convicted of much more serious offenses, including murder and kidnapping.

While Ms. Bulti is busy restocking the medicine cabinet of the prison clinic with supplies the team brought today — antibiotics, antifungal creams, vitamin supplements and sinus medication, to name a few — the first patients start to form a line outside the clinic door.

“Since arriving here four months ago, my epilepsy has gotten worse,” says 30-year-old Terassa Girma, who has eight more months remaining of his sentence. “So, to avoid epileptic fits, I come here to get medication when I run out of it.”

Finished stocking the medicine cabinet, Ms. Bulti dons her white coat, prepares her stethoscope and blood pressure reader and swings the door out to signal the clinic has opened.

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