BY ALEXANDER NARA
Three long and perfectly timed dongs of the 9pm bell split the stillness of the night followed by a commanding voice from the guard house ordering silence.
The lights had blacked out about an hour ago and the half moon partly hidden by the clouds cast its dim yellowish glow through the open barbed windows painting the worn out brick wall inside the cell to pale white.
Most of my cell mates had already curled up under the blue and red stripped government-issued blankets while a few others whispered and tiptoed around probably in search for a last roll of “brus” before calling it off for the night.
A continued cough somewhere in the blackness signaled the presence of tuberculosis as I turned to face the wall and struggled to make myself comfortable on the three folded blankets beneath me that had been my mattress for the last three and a half years.
The number of blankets a prisoner has come with the number of years he had already served.
Sounds of heavy breathing followed by footsteps came from the outside of the cell block as a night-shift guard flashed bright spotlights on the barbed windows above to make sure all prisoners were securely confined.
The night was Sunday night, August 15 2010, only a few hours remaining to my final discharged time at 9am on the following Monday morning, after serving a prison term of three years and four months inside Lakiemata Prison Jail in Kimbe, West New Britain Province.
It was a hot afternoon on April 17, 2007 when I first stood at the Lakiemata prison gate to be thoroughly checked before I would be escorted to my cell to start serving my court sentence.
The day I still remember like it happened just a few minutes ago.
The hot scorching sun showed no mercy as I quickly wiped the dripping sweat off my bony face to cut off its usual journey down into my heat-affected red eyes.
Blood rushed up my spine and sweat ran down my chest and down my long thin legs inside the faded blue jeans as I shakily forced a smile at the tall correctional officer who showed no intention of smiling back at me.
His hawk-like eyes searched my face to catch a sign of panic that would tell him I am hiding a contraband item somewhere within the clothes I am wearing or amongst the three trousers and two shirts which I packed in a little blue school bag.
Around the fence perimeters, tower guards watched carefully with their guns aimed down into the precinct monitoring every movement.
As the gates of the heavy iron cell doors swung closed that evening, I succumbed to the painful thoughts that I have failed to repay back countless amounts of money embraced with love that my parents spent to see me through in my entire schooling life until I passed out from Divine Word University in 2003.
As days grew into months, the thought tortured me as suffering and desperation grew inside of me.
It is like being under water without being able to breathe and the more time that passes, the more you need to breathe; but you can’t. Or like having your hands in fire without being able to take them out and every minute that passes, the pain gets stronger.
Life, in many occasions, does not give second chances and can be lost in many ways, at times without dying. Being locked-up is one of those ways. Sentenced to prison to serve a good number of years is like being buried alive authenticating the truth that prisons are cemeteries for the living.
Your impression of life behind the tall barbed wires fences and brick walls of a prison may be shaped by movies, books and probably stories you hear from friends or family members who have done time.
The impression that came with horrifying stories of dangerous cell fights, food shortages and deadly diseases developed from contaminated water and lack of hygiene.
Much worse is the escape nights when all inmates would have to pile out through the open cell door into the unforgiving and merciless hands of those tiring angry warders.
It will be 20 years in August this year since I walked out of that place and looking back I am humbled that being in prison has made me a better person.
I’m not proud of what I’ve done or why I went to jail, but I can’t change the past: it’s who I am and I have to embrace it and use the experience to make something of my life.
Prison had an unexpected, profound influence on me and gave my life a sense of purpose I could have never predicted.
It is entirely different from that of the movies, books and what people think.
It is a very educative place – in its own dark way.