By Chris Cunningham
Local Outreach Coordinator
Serving in Fiji’s Prison
We spent nearly two weeks in Fiji, on ground, helping the locals with their jobs. Our group split up every morning and went out into the city to give a hand at one of the several locations. Most of the team helped out at schools, while another few spent time at a retirement home.
My friend Oscar and I spent five hours every day at Lautoka Corrections, a prison that housed roughly 500 prisoners in various cell blocks.
Our minivan shook to a stop on our first day at the prison. The demeanor and overall aesthetic of the prisoners caught me off balance right away. Smiles on their faces; some working outside with machetes; others sitting down laughing.
Seriously, holding machetes and laughing.
I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t uncommon among Fiji’s prison system. While more serious criminal offenders are treated in accordance with the severity of their crime, over our two weeks spent at Lautoka Corrections, I came to learn just how unique Fiji’s justice system is.
I talked to countless Fijians and for them, America is a tall tale. After learning that I was from America, one of these Fijians asked excitedly,
“America?! You know Sam Smith? Wiz Khalifa? America is great; everyone singing, making money. It’s a good time!”
Prison in the U.S.
For Sam Smith and Wiz Khalifia, America is mostly singing and making money. But in reality America’s justice system gives little to sing about. As of 2013, America is home to 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but houses 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. An overwhelming majority of that population is made up of black and Hispanic men (Walmsley).
Multiple employees at Lautoka described prison as a place of reflection and redemption. This was a chance for offenders to gain the tools that they needed to re-enter society and become who they were meant to be.
One of the guards quoted a statistic saying 90 percent of offenders who spend time in a correctional facility won’t return. According to the National Institute of Justice, 67 percent of American prisoners were re-arrested within three years of their release, while 76 percent were re-arrested within five years of their arrest.
Prison in Fiji
Walking around Lautoka Corrections, it didn’t take me long to understand what made the justice system in Fiji so radically different. Yes, Fiji has a lower population than America. Yes, that population is less diverse. Yes, Fijian culture and government are overall very different than they are in America. All these things are true, but as I watched the guards and prisoners interact, as I listened to the hopeful laughs of the prisoners, I couldn’t help but notice:
This prison hadn’t lost its sense of humanity. Run a Google search and you’ll quickly come across the countless horror stories pouring out of American penitentiaries. Stories of abuse, neglect and death. Stories that highlight what happens when we stop treating humans like humans and start treating them like prisoners, criminals and statistics.
At the heart of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God was a radical insistence that the presence of God was hiding in the overlooked. In one story, Jesus goes so far as to suggest that in caring for the imprisoned, you’re actually caring for Christ himself (Matthew 25).
I thought about this a lot in Fiji. Maybe it wasn’t just the humanity I saw in the prison – maybe there was something more, something divine hiding beneath the barred smiles…
Miss part 1 of Chris’ journey to Fiji? Check it out on our blog.
- National Institute of Justice. nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/pages/welcome.aspx
- Walmsley, Roy. “World Prison Population (Tenth Edition).” prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf