Shaping Liberties

0 comments Posted on April 27, 2012

by Naomi Zacharias

I was twenty-six years old and walking into a maximum-security prison. I was in Africa and visiting a friend who, together with her husband, had launched a prison ministry in Cape Town. Victoria is petite, with blonde hair and brown eyes, and looks like Christie Brinkley. She was once a model in New York City, successful in her career and surrounded by people and an industry and community that sought to make her life comfortable. Now she lived with her American husband and three young children in a gated community in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world. I believe both environments required strength of a different nature.

The prison guards knew her when we walked in the door, and they greeted her in a friendly manner. I signed a piece of paper that I think was probably absolving anyone of responsibility should anything unfortunate happen to me.

We walked down a long hallway and stopped outside a cell door. We paused to wait for the buzzing sound that would alert us that the door was open. We walked several paces down another colorless hallway and stopped at another cell door. Again, a buzzing sound. When we entered through a third door, we stood in a cell block that contained hundreds of female prisoners.

Some were guilty of crimes; others insisted on their innocence. Many were from foreign lands and said they had come to work as housekeepers—or so they believed. When they were ill-treated, they tried to run away. But they did not get far. Their employers pressed charges, accusing them of crimes, like stealing or even breach of contract. Without knowledge of a common language, they were unable to defend themselves. They were arrested and placed behind bars, the door loudly shutting behind them. A court date was set, and each woman’s innocence or guilt would be determined at that time. When the court date arrived, a prison guard tapped on the cell door and called out a name. The woman would not know where she was going or what would happen when she got there. She would not understand anything they said, and no interpreter would be provided. She would be guided into a courtroom, where a judge behind an imposing bench would speak additional words she could not understand.

She would shuffle to the podium to stand before the one who would decide her fate. She would use the language she knew, because there was nothing else she could do. The judge would shake his head no; he could not understand what she was saying. She would become more and more desperate, feeling helpless to do what we do every day without thought—communicate. Her future depended on it. The judge would slam down the gavel, pound a stamp on a piece of paper, and dismiss her. She never really had a chance for freedom.

And thus each cell was filled to maximum capacity with despair, with anger, with hopelessness, with a desire for revenge. Some were guilty of committing crimes; others were victims of unfortunate circumstances or exploitation. Some of the stories of violence perpetrated on each other inside the cell were horrific. With a shortage of space and an overwhelmed justice system, these women would be there for years, just awaiting a trial.

There was a separate section reserved for women with children. If they were pregnant when they were arrested, they gave birth in prison. The child would remain for up to five years before the mother had to find a family member or friend to take custody.

I was trying to take it all in, trying to comprehend what this life was like. But in truth, I absolutely couldn’t. I could feel sympathy, sorrow, anger, or fear on their behalf; but I had not experienced the poverty and the desperation to find food and to survive that may have led to theft, or the anger and sense of injustice that may have led to murder. I stood with them behind bars, but I had the power to determine when I was leaving. And they did not.

When it was time to leave, the buzzer sounded to indicate the open door. We walked back down the colorless hallway and stood at the second door. We called out to the guard who was supposed to be there, but all we heard were the echoes of our own voices. We looked through the bars of the door and saw no one. Victoria was perfectly relaxed and explained that the prison was understaffed. The guards were making rounds, and every post was not always covered. We would have to wait until he came back.

I had not been nervous—but that was when I thought I could leave any time I wanted to. Suddenly, knowing I could not get past that door on my own, my view limited to the frame of metal bars, my departure dependent on the mercy of someone’s return, eternal minutes passing, my anxiety increased. I kept reminding myself that the guard would return, that he would let us out. But there was something about realizing I had lost an element of control in this situation that was enormously unnerving.

In time—in what seemed like a very long time—the guard appeared, and we proceeded to make our way out of the prison.

Enclosed between two locked metal doors, I had been powerless. I had language; I had my own clothes; I had the confidence that justice would be served. And I could not imagine the physical absence of everything that made me feel human.

It is easy to feel pity for the one trapped behind visible and imposing bars. We feel sympathy; we call in psychologists; we diagnose reasonable, responsive behavior with terms like post-traumatic stress. We witness almost animalistic behavior at times as a human being resorts to employing basic instincts for pure survival. The scale has changed. They aren’t even seeking happiness or gain or contentment; they just need to survive. Backed into the corners of cages, they are ready to brawl, ready to destroy anyone or anything that threatens their security.

For those who exist in an internal and relentless prison, we find it easier to come up with answers far more black-and-white. We can sentence another to a life we have not lived or experienced. Even when this must be so, it should be done with compassion and careful thought and an awareness that there are times when all that lies out there are two evils and the suffocating task of determining the lesser. This, I have found, is one of the hardest parts of learning about life. I assumed there would always be one right answer and one clearly wrong answer, and my task was just to recognize this fact and choose the right one. Life does not let us get away with something so formulaic, so elementary. It asks us to be more than that, to recognize something beyond our simplistic answers, but it does not rest just there. For in giving us the dilemma and the options, it affords us power. And in our chosen resolutions, we can preserve life, or we can crush the spirit of another trying to live it.

Naomi Zacharias graduated from Wheaton College. After working in sales for Coca-Cola, she joined RZIM and launched Wellspring International, an initiative devoted to providing financial grants to international efforts working with at-risk women and children. Naomi has spent time in red-light districts in The Netherlands, India, and Thailand; foster homes for children affected by HIV/AIDS throughout Asia; hospitals providing surgical treatment for women who have been victims of violence in the Congo; women’s prisons in South Africa; displacement camps in Indonesia, Uganda and Pakistan; areas of the Middle East offering aid to Iraqi refugees; and areas of Southeast Asia devastated by the tsunami of 2004. Naomi recently met and married her husband, Drew, in Florence, Italy. They currently live in Oxford, England. Author Website:

Taken from The Scent of Water by Naomi Zacharias. Copyright © 2011. Used by permission of Zondervan.


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