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Liberating the Captives

It started with a family feud and then Zanele Dlamini found herself in prison. When her half-sister accused her of stealing, Zanele fervently protested her innocence. But she couldn’t afford legal representation and under duress she confessted to the theft. Now she and her baby were facing ten months in prison because she couldn’t pay the fine of just $30USD.

Unfortunately, Zanele’s story is not unique. Many of the prisoners in Mawelawlaela Women’s Correctional Institution in Swaziland are serving time for minor, non-violent crimes merely because they did not have access to a lawyer or they couldn’t pay their fines.

PF Swaziland volunteer Armstrong Dlamini discovered the plight of these women when he visited the prison with the intent of delivering Christmas presents from his church. While there, he began a casual conversation with the duty officer. “In this prison we do not have hardened criminals, but most of the women are in for petty crimes,” she told him. “In fact,” she added, “if you are a man of means you can get them all out.”

Armstrong thought of the offering his church had provided for the prisoners and realized he was indeed a ‘man of means.’ He explained the situation to Ethel Nhleko, PF Swaziland Executive Director, and soon they began the process of determining which prisoners they might be able to help. The officer in charge provided them with a list of prisoners she believed were the best candidates for release. The PF team decided to focus first on juvenile and those women whose children were with them in prison – there were seven children under three years of age living with their mothers in the prison.

After PF received the required permission from the Commissioner of Correctional Services, Armstrong headed back to the prison to free some of the prisoners by paying their fines. “I remember the first day he went to the women’s correctional centre to release the ones with small fines,” says Ethel, “He called me to say there was one who is sick and hi didn’t want to leave her behind.” The sick prisoner was not one of the prisoners they had planned to release, so Ethel asked if he had the money to pay for an additional fine. “I’ll have to pay for her as well,” he responded, “because I can’t leave her here.”

Armstrong was able to obtain the release of Zanele, the sick prisoner (who suffered from TB) and several others. “All the ladies [released prisoners] were grateful to Prison Fellowship,” Armstrong reports. “In fact there were just overwhelmed by the kindness shown to them.” PF immediately connected Zanele and the other released prisoners with churches in their hometowns.

The women who gained their freedom on that day were the first in a new campaign that PF Swaziland has begun to help people who cannot afford legal representation or do not have the means to pay the small fines required to keep them out of prison. In Swaziland, 50% of the prison population is serving sentences of less than one year, and the majority of them are between the ages of 16 and 25. Since first-time offenders with short sentences are housed together with violent and long-term offenders, those with minor convictions are likely to turn to more serious crimes as a direct result of their incarceration, due to the influence that prison and more serious offenders can have on them.

With PF’s help, fewer young people will face the harsh realities of prison because they lacked legal and financial resources. Funds for the project are still needed, but PF is confident the project will proceed. “The Lord blesses us with all sufficiency to do acts of goodness,” Armstrong notes.

March 2007

This article first appeared in Prison Fellowship International’s Global Link in March 2007.

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