A Crisis of Silence

by Behrouz Boochani, March 1, 2016

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In the Manus prison, a skinny man with a pale and petrified face is leaning against the wall of a completely empty room in SAA solitary confinement. Deep down, he feels utterly hopeless while biting his nails. This man who has been kept in the prison for nearly three years and has lost 30 kilograms of his weight was recently transferred into the solitary confinement at his own request. He could not endure the drowsiness of marijuana anymore and had desperately pleaded to the officers to provide him with marijuana. Until recently, this solitary confinement was called the Green Zone.

A few meters away, at Foxtrot compound, a young man is collecting the cigarette butts spread over the mass of soil next to the dirty toilets of the prison, in order to roll them in paper and suck in the smoke.  He is also addicted to marijuana and does not have any cigarettes to smoke. There are many like this vanquished and addicted man in the quadrangle of Manus prisons. In other words, they are experiencing a life similar to persons sleeping in cardboard, people who have inadvertently become slaves to addiction and are unable to live without marijuana in the cruel and harsh atmosphere of the prison.
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The life of these forgotten men in this place reflects a crisis of silence; and the dominance of this crisis over the prison develops everyday, threatening the lives of this group of people in an even more apparent way.

Everything, however, refers to the weekly shopping points. If a person receives a double positive decision, which means, at the first stage he is recognized a refugee and at the second stage the Papua New Guinea accepts his resettlement in the country, his weekly points are cut. These refugees who are, at the moment, 450 people are loath to leave the prison and resettle in this country. They do not want to risk their lives in PNG as all they have seen, experienced and been taught so far is that this country has a tribe-like atmosphere where kinship ties demand allegiances that exclude ‘others’ and where safety is at its lowest possible level.

This policy precludes people from buying cigarettes and telephone cards; and also causes them to experience blatant discrimination and additional pressure. The other point is, according to this policy this group of people has practically become dependent on the others. In order to force refugees to live in PNG, the authorities make them reliant upon other prisoners. This discriminatory policy has had serious repercussion for refugees who smoke cigarettes and marijuana as they make every endeavour to provide them with substances to smoke.
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Apart from that, a cigarette in the prison effectively plays the role of money and makes it possible for people who do not smoke to receive many of their needs in return for cigarettes from the local officers who smuggle many goods into the prison.   An obvious business is carried on by people who do not have anything other than some cigarettes in the small city of Lorengau – just twenty kilometers away from the prison.  Those who have cigarettes buy different kinds of T-shirt, mp3, perfume, cups and many other small objects. This has formed economic class divisions over the course of time in this prison. Additionally, when a prisoner has bought everything he needs, he usually exchanges his cigarettes for little sums of money. Currently, many people have access to money at this hellhole; however, the amount of money is not much.

On the contrary, those who smoke cigarette and marijuana have nothing, no possessions. They are not even able to buy a telephone card to call their families. Since this policy was implemented last year, the deprived prisoners, those who cannot buy cigarettes and telephone cards, have sold their shoes, clothes, dictionaries, MP3s, and other useful possessions to the rest who still have cigarettes. Accordingly, they have become like people with nothing, like wanderers sleeping in cardboard.
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There is a relevant question. Why are the rest of the prisoners not assisting and supporting the deprived ones? The answer is clear. Despite the fact that they had helped their fellow detainees on various occasions in buying cigarettes or telephone cards, it is within the bounds of possibility that sooner or later, the same destiny lies before them. By receiving the double positive decision, they will too will be deprived of the weekly points; hence, every single wise person in their shoes would save his cigarettes so as to be able to smoke or speak with his family; particularly those who are a father and need to always know how their family is doing.

Here in this prison I know some prisoners who have not spoken even once with their families for nearly a year. Similarly, I know a number of men selling their rooms and beds to have marijuana. Some addicts prefer to smoke marijuana even at the price of living in crowded rooms.  Therefore, they sell their rooms to people seeking a quieter and cleaner place in return for cigarettes.

Sexual abuse incidents and slavery cases have also been heard of where people use the supplicants, in practice, as slaves to carry out their personal work such as washing their clothes, getting food for them, etc. This rampant corruption has even spilled over into the kitchen. By paying amcigarette to the kitchen staff, many have milk, nuts, juice and snacks in their rooms. On the contrary, many others have limited access to quality food, as they do not have any cigarettes to offer.

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Another vital question to ask is why Broadspectrum (Transfield) turns a blind eye to the catastrophic consequences of this policy. The response is crystal clear: With this policy, Transfield kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the company exerts mounting pressure on the refugees to make them resettle in the island; and on the other hand, this policy yields an excess economic profit for the company since there is a close correlation between the economic profit and the number of people attending various classes and engaging in sports activities. To clarify, if a person participates more often in activities, he can buy more cigarettes. A kind of direct relationship has formed between cigarettes and the activities in the prison. This relationship has caused classes to be busier, and the dirty ground of the prison full of people who are forced to run for a few minutes everyday to receive points and eventually, cigarettes. As a result of an increase in numbers of people engaging in the activities, Transfield has recruited dozens of teachers and trainers these days that bring about ambusiness boom for this company. In fact, if the refugees decide to impose a sanction against all the activities one day, the first loser will be the Transfield company; the company which develops its business more than before through cutting the weekly points of 450 people. In this scenario, Transfield will be compelled to dismiss its employees, similar to what occurred during the big hunger strike in January last year, when the company sustained heavy financial losses.

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Prison is a filthy and inhuman place. It can cause people to be on the verge of distrust and hatred of fellow beings. For those who have experienced prison, an accepted reality is that a prisoner needs to reduce their dependence on the others; otherwise, he will simply become a tool in the hands of jailers and anyone else.  A dependent person becomes like a slave.

What should be emphasized is that what has happened in the Manus prison is the collapse of social relationships and moral values through bringing cigarettes in the form, not only a consuming object, but more importantly as a functional tool that plays the role of money. A prisoner has very basic needs, and sometimes, having a simple cup could be a manifestation of power. The operating system in the prison engenders distrust in social relationships among the prisoners that leads to humiliation, pessimism, anxiety and ethical collapse. In short, these days at the Manus prison, the cigarette is used  “as an element of control and domination”. At the moment, the authorities fear a public protest, even a peaceful one, being mounted.

By cutting the weekly points of half of the population, the authorities have created division between the detainees. Whereby, unlike before, they have been split into various groups.  The prisoners are also aware of the fact that they do not have the previous sense of unity and, more than ever, they have become too weak and too obedient to confront this system that has stripped them of all human dignity and whatever they had as a human. There is no doubt that the cause of this division, rift, and even hostility is the discrimination that dominates the small society of this prison.