It was in 2013 that I first became interested in the unique lives of prison inmates.
I learned that in recent years, many countries around the world have chosen correctional methods that focus on isolating criminals from society, essentially punishing them for their sins. This is in sharp contrast with other criminals—in the same penal systems—who have money or high social standing and are punished with relatively light penalties.
However, the Makandi prison in Malawi is different. These inmates are not isolated from society but rather are able to pay back their debt by working for both themselves and their communities. For example, each day, the inmates work on growing corn and soybeans, which are used not only to feed the prison population but also sent to the surrounding schools and kindergartens nearby.
With this, the hands of the prisoners, once marked by violence, are turned towards a new purpose: providing for the children and enriching the community. Of course, the labor is not easy and the conditions in the prison could certainly be improved, but there are productive outcomes rather than solely punitive ones. Especially in a country with frequent food crises and well over 6 million people going hungry, the story of these inmates provides some inspiration for the kinds of social cohesion that we could help create in our own societies.
To produce this work, I stayed with the prisoners for 15 days in February 2014. I then returned for a month in August 2016 to deepen my approach. I met about 700 inmates during the two shooting sessions, and conducted in-depth interviews with more than 10 of them (including home visits after their release).
This work was carried out with the permission of the Malawi Correctional Authority and the corresponding prison. The inmates who were released during this period were allowed to negotiate their portrait rights individually after their release. Preparations for follow-up work are underway.
I hope that people’s interest in this subject can be used to make even more of Africa’s prisons better for both the inmates and the surrounding communities. The project “Beyond the Wall” is still in progress.
During the filming period, Lee interviewed a few prisoners and photographed the way they returned home with permission from the prison and their consent. Here is the story of one of them returning home after 3 years and 8 months in the prison.