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Stabroek News

Literary Arts - Undercover inside a prison
published: Sunday | April 29, 2007

Clarence Chance, Contributor

He was wearing a spanking new white shirt and the black pants he had worn to his high school graduation two years before. He had his bible, too, albeit hidden in a scandal bag under his arm. He couldn't afford to be seen with it, because if Thready or any of the boys from fifth form saw him, he didn't know how he could defend it. He who had blasted the bible as being written by white men to oppress blacks, he who had described church people as mere hypocrites doing the bidding of Rome, to be caught in black and white with a bible in his hand! As he turned onto the road where the prison was, he sheepishly took it out, looking nervously around him. He was early. He stood a little distance away from the gate of the prison. This was something serious he was doing. He could be found out; perhaps they would lock him up, perhaps worse. But if his brother was alive he wanted to know, and if he were dead he wanted to know. He better be alive for Mama's sake, he was thinking now, because any bad news would stop that frail heart for good.

A car drove up and stopped next to him. He turned his face away, towards the playing field beside the prison. A lovely voice said, 'Morning, brother,' and he swallowed hard and said, 'Morning, sister.'

'Are you from the ministry?'

'Yes, yes,' he said. 'Actually, this is my first week.'

'Glad to have you.' She extended her hand, asking at the same time, 'So what's your name?'

'Marlon Burrows.' He took her hand and shook it. She asked which denomination he belonged to, and he named the denomination he'd planned to use.

A Toyota van drove up and stopped, and the people emerged, saying, 'Morning, Sister Susan,' and took turns to hug and embrace her. This, he thought to himself, is what they call being saved by the bell. And for the first time he got to really look on Sister Susan. If this were a less than pious affair, he would have told her she was ridiculously sexy. Then she said, 'This is Brother Burrows. He will be joining us today.' Twelve pair of eyes bore down on him and he expected the interrogation to begin again. But the guard at the gate stepped out and asked, 'Church people, unno ready?' and Susan said, 'Yes, sir, we are ready.'

One by one, the warders frisked the men. When it came to Marlon's turn he wondered if the warder would turn him back. But the warder said, 'Good to go, Brother.'

He was in, then, in one of the nation's maximum-security prisons. Who would have guessed it? Rain must have fallen because it was sodden underfoot and this gave the prison yard a sort of war-ravaged look. The prisoners were out in their numbers. At one end, a throng of men were lining up for breakfast. There was a huge pot of tea, and bread, sliced up in a massive container. Marlon's eyes searched for callaloo, cabbage, liver, anything, but he saw nothing. He saw the men instead receiving their enamel mugs of tea and bread. And to himself he said, 'Oh Lord.' Over to his left a pipe stood erect; under it now was a tall man, his genitals swinging before him as the water cascaded his body. Four men stood nearby, waiting patiently for their Sunday morning bath. To his right a football game was on in earnest.

His eyes searched rapidly through the men lined up for breakfast, at the pipe, at the football game, and among the knots of men gathered in the prison yard. There was no Ernest. Where was he? His letters had abruptly stopped, and Marlon saw that it was killing their mother, and that was how he'd come to hatch this plot, to enter the prison as if he were a Christian man.

As they walked up to the meeting area his eyes settled upon a man, Marlon made him to be in his early 20s, like his own brother, and he wondered what he was in for. Had he robbed, raped, shot somebody? Or was he innocent? Were they all innocent, as he was sure his brother was? He saw when the man looked at him. Marlon raised his hand in greeting and the man walked over swiftly and said, 'Morning, Brother.' Marlon nodded and then became alarmed, wondering if he had remembered to bring the picture of Ernest. He tapped his shirt pocket and it was there in the envelope. And the man said, 'I want to talk to you after the meeting, Brother.' Marlon nodded again, but he was saying to himself, 'I want to talk to you even more.'

The service was held under a little shed. Sister Susan led a lively session of choruses. About fifteen prisoners came; they clapped and jumped and sang, and Marlon wondered how they did it. Locked down in this rat hole, in this God-forsaken place, and jumping and clapping like that! And there was testimony, too. One man, slim and lively and eloquent: 'They are saying that I bow because I came to prison to find Christ; you know something, they are right. I bowed to the Lord Jesus and his Father, and I am glad I did it now, because a day is coming when all men will bow whether they want to or not.' Shouts of 'Alleluia!' went up from the Christians and from the prisoners. 'Praise the Lord,' Sister Susan said, and Marlon felt a funny feeling, and he wondered at it.

The service was over. Marlon watched admiringly as Sister Susan hugged the men. Every man she hugged could have been a rapist, and yet she was not condemnatory. He liked her for it. Every man she hugged could also have been Ernest, whom some woman had lied on and had gotten sent to prison for rape. From the halls of the university to the halls of prison - that's what had happened to Marlon's brother, and Marlon held it against the university. For the university, he thought, had been overzealous in its follow-up, and had brought undue pressure upon the police and upon the young lady to get the man, some man, even if he were the wrong man; as long as closure came quickly. And so it was seven years for poor Ernest.

The man Marlon had seen earlier came up to him and asked, 'Yu couldn't carry a radio for me next week? Mi want it bad, man.' Marlon pulled him away from the crowd of believers and prisoners and told him, 'You will get yu radio next week; just tell me if yu know this man.' The man took a look at the photo; then he took his time answering. Marlon said: 'He's been in for four years and for the last three months he hasn't shown up for his Wednesday visits and he's stopped writing to his mother. Tell me if you know him.' The man had a disappointed look on his face. 'That is Scratchy. Him 'round a' the mad section. Him mad, man. Him mad.' Marlon felt his legs were going to fail him; he held onto the man's shoulder. So: they had brought Ernest into prison to mad him, he thought. And suddenly he thought about his mother. He wouldn't tell her that. Not with her failing heart, not with her hypertension, not with papa just gone.

They came out onto the road. Sister Susan's drive had come for her. Marlon wondered if it were her husband but he said nothing. Sister Susan said, 'Next week, then?' and he said, 'Yes, sister.'

He arrived home around 2:00 and was glad to find his mother had not returned from church as yet. He went into Ernest's room and pulled out the books from his year at university. He studied the writing and made an 'a', then a 'b', and then the whole 26 letters. Over and over.

Then he wrote his letter.

Dear Mama

I know that you are worried about me but I am quite okay. I am taking some time off to do a correspondence course so you will find I am very busy of late. Please do not come to see me on Wednesdays anymore for the time being. I have found a very rich friend in here whose family provides everything I need. Please don't bother to say that no cooking can match yours because I know that already. It is just that I know that sometimes you are very tired and want to rest. Some time in the future I will again start to write to you.


When he had told his mother about his plan to visit the prison, she had denounced it as wicked Anancyism, and evil. But when she started reading the letter he noticed a slight smile; and the smile became wider and wider, until it almost covered her face. 'Yu find him, Marlon!' And Marlon said, 'A' told yu a' would, Mama.' Her face glowing with happiness, she said suddenly: 'Write him a letter for me.'

Marlon had not expected this. 'Why bother with that, Mama?' he asked.

But she was insistent. 'Get the pen and the paper and come write.'

Marlon had the pen and paper in his hands now. Mrs. Burrows said: 'Tell him how much a' love him. Tell him a' still sure him innocent, cause a' didn't raise him to rape anybody. Remind him next week make one year since him father gone, God rest that good man soul. Tell him my heart getting stronger.' Marlon looked at her to suggest that that wasn't true, but she said: 'Tell him that, man. What else now, Marlon?'

'I will fix it up, Mama.'

That night Marlon wrote two letters, the one his mother had asked him to write and the one he planned to give her when he returned next Sunday. He locked both letters in his drawer.

Susan was in her element, singing and praising like an angel, and Marlon was admiring her, admiring her in more than one way. She couldn't be more than 23, he thought, and yet so mature and trusting! And he wondered if he were getting to like her in a special way. Marlon sang lustfully, too, and the feeling he'd had the week before was coming back.

After the service, the young man came up to Marlon. 'A' hear that the man getting better; him taking him medication. I hear that them even reviewing him case, something 'bout DNA evidence.'

Even as Marlon was handing the radio to the man he wondered if he had made up the story just to get it. The man noticed it and said: 'A' wouldn't lie to you, Brother, a' swear it.'

Back outside, Marlon decided to ask the question he had asked himself all week. 'Susan, the man who picked you up last week - was he your husband?'

She smiled, revealing the whitest teeth he had ever seen. 'I'm not married. That was my brother.' Marlon's heart beat hard in his chest. 'Why don't you tell him not to pick you up and let us chill in Hope Gardens?' But as he was saying that the Honda was pulling up. Marlon looked on Susan, and Susan looked on him, and then she said, 'Hop in.' Then: 'Kevin, please leave us in Half Way Tree.'

At Hope Gardens he was sitting beside her, smelling her perfume. 'Why does a sweet girl like you choose the prison ministry?' He asked her.

She sat erect, her legs together, her back straight. Marlon knew it was not pride but training. He was listening to her now.

'Firstly, because God has been good to me, and secondly, because of a prisoner.'

'What about him?' Marlon asked.

'He is innocent, I think, and finally there is a re-examination of his case, and when it is completed I am sure that the DNA evidence will absolve him. But you see, on the same day this prisoner was arrested I fell very ill. I was ill all through the trial and sentencing. He doesn't believe that. So you see, he has problems believing I care.'

Marlon asked her: 'Work or school?'

'School,' she said. 'Fourth year of law school.'

Marlon could have said then that his brother had been in the first year of law school when they lied on him, but he didn't say that. Instead, he asked: 'Like it?'

'Well, both my parents are lawyers, so it was just natural. You could say it was in my blood.'

Marlon was silent for a while. Then he said: 'This man, do you love him?'

'Sure I do. It's just that he doesn't believe I do. Something terrible has happened but I am still hoping for the best, but enough about me. Now, tell me about you.'

So, she could not be his. But something nonetheless encouraged Marlon's heart. Here was a heart of gold, in the form of a beautiful Christian woman; and Marlon had previously thought all Christians hypocrites.

He felt an urge to tell her the truth, that he had deceived her from day one in order to find his brother; and he promised himself to tell her the following week.

He was almost home now. Giving the letter to his mother would be a deception, but not giving it to her might mean her death. He didn't know what to do.

His mother was sitting on the verandah. She promptly asked, 'Yu carry any letter?' And he went into his pocket and handed it to her and saw her face glow with gladness.

For all of that week Marlon wondered how to stop the deception, how to tell his mother that Ernest was mad. But he couldn't come up with an answer. Then on Friday afternoon a horn blew at the gate. He was coming outside when he realized that his mother had already reached the gate, and he was going back into his room when he heard her shout: 'Lord, Jesus, yu send home mi boy to mi!'

Ernest and Sister Susan were standing outside, smiling.


-Clarence Chance

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