Kathmandu's Central Women's Prison isn't a place criminals do time. It's a place where grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and children languish.
Mary is a 24 year old Filipino who was a domestic worker making an honest living in Hong Kong. Enticed by a friend to move to Kathmandu with the promise of earning a better living, Mary is now paying the price for her innocence.
When she arrived in Kathmandu, Mary moved in with her friend, another Pinoy girl, and her friend's African boyfriend. Realising that there was little or hardly any prospect for a job in the Nepali capital, Mary idled her time away in the rented apartment. Mary and two other African housemates were in the house when the police barged in one day to find 7 kgs of heroin. Mary is thankful Nepal doesn't have a death sentence.
When I entered the prison compound, Mary walked up to me with wide eyes and a bright face. "Sister, where are you from?" She was eager to converse in Tagalog, and she thought I looked Filipino. I disappointed her.
She says she gets to call home once a month but her father refuses to talk to her. She feels intense regret. The other feelings that she has, I have no words to describe. Mary is one of seven prisoners with foreign nationalities that have been locked up in Kathmandu's Central Women's Prison because they were either naive, or at the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I'm trying to appeal my innocence." The local Pinoy community in Kathmandu sends her gifts to comfort her and some money to support her trial, but she's run out of money. She's got one shot left. If that fails, she'll be doing seven years in this small and squalid prison because someone wanted to get high.
Mary's friend, and her friend's African boyfriend were never found. There was no need to find them. Mary had been convicted. Case closed.
Mary sits quietly next to me beneath the large bodhi tree that is the courtyard's centerpiece. Prayer flags the colour of earth, wind, sky and water radiate from the trunk of the tree to the roofs of the prison's living quarters.
Mothers and grandmothers have gathered around the tree to twist together candle wicks.
In some countries, prison offers a potential reprieve from life's harsh realities - a bed for the homeless, food for the hungry, clothing for the impoverished, light for those who live in darkness. This prison is a shelter for no one. When the sun sets, darkness arrives and the women call upon the candles they make with solid parrafin and cotton fibres given to them by the wardens. Like toys to animals in captivity, these raw materials serve as a token form of enrichment within an otherwise unstimulated environment.
Other women tweeze together animal fibres that will be knitted into clothing for the winter that's approaching faster and harder than usual.
A big yellow dog comes to sniff me. Her legs tremble beneath her. "She's very old!" A smile extends across Mary's face as she reaches out to pat Baby on the head. "She's been here since she was a puppy. She won't leave. We've tried to open the gates to set her free, but she just sits at the open gate and looks outside."
Perhaps like many of the women here, Baby has grown accustomed to captivity. Returning to a world that has grown unfamiliar, and to a society that was the incarcerator seems harsher than embracing the solemn hopelessness that has gripped the women in this compound.
The women believe Baby stays because she loves them and that this is her home. For several of these women, this has become home. Many are here serving time for crimes their loved and trusted family members said they'd committed. Who do they have to return to?
Although Mary was not faulted by her family, her father has rejected her for bringing shame to him and her family. She's no longer welcome home.
Society does not welcome these women back. They've been tainted. Some of them, pawns for their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Like a rag used to soak up grease, these women are no longer of use and need to be disposed of.
For Mary and many of the women here, the border between prison and the world beyond is not very distinct. It is not a border between imprisonment and freedom, just a matter of degrees of captivity. Previously, she was a hostage to poverty, now she is ensnared by injustice.
"Goodbye. You're so lucky, Debby." Mary's eyes well up as I leave the compound and the iron gates close between us.
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