By Moses Magadza
GOBABIS, NAMIBIA – In June, 2019 Marvel (not his real name), an inmate, watched in fascination as John Francis Serwanga, a hydroponics technician, supervised the setting up of a hydroponic greenhouse at Gobabis Correctional Facility.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) initiated the greenhouse in close collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP) to support the facility.
The Gobabis Correctional Facility is one of 13 penitentiaries run by the Namibia Corrections Service (NCS) throughout the country. As of last week, it had 216 inmates. Of these, 76 including Marvel, were special needs offenders known as State President Decision (SPD) inmates. They are deemed mentally incapable of standing trial for their transgressions. The correctional facility was home, also, to five juvenile offenders.
Once construction of the greenhouse was complete, Serwanga selected 15 inmates (11 of them SPD inmates including Marvel) and four correctional officers for training in making water reservoirs, putting plastics to contain water, planting and spacing plants, pest control and other related tasks.
Ten days later, a significant portion of the greenhouse measuring 270 square metres, was under spinach. After setting up a WhatsApp group to enable constant communication with the correctional officers, Serwanga left for Windhoek, leaving the new project in their hands.
This partnership between UNODC and WFP has put smiles on the faces of many and is delivering food on the tables of inmates and staff at this correctional facility, located about 200 kilometres from Windhoek.
It took UNODC and the WFP in Namibia several months of meticulous planning and collaboration to set up the project.
Hydroponics is a scientific method of growing plants, including vegetables, without soil. In the face of climate change and water scarcity, a growing number of people all over the world are using it to grow organic plants faster and with less water throughout the year.
Marvel and most of the SPD inmates are now closely involved in this newly-set up project. Last week, only five weeks after the first spinach was planted, UNODC, WFP and senior NCS officers travelled from Windhoek to assess the project and witness the first harvest.
Assistant Commissioner Saima Edwig Kamwangha is the newly-appointed Officer in Charge of this correctional facility. She was nearly speechless with excitement and gratitude as she and her officers briefed the visitors.
“This project has brought a lot of joy among officers and all offenders. It has aroused immense fascination. Everyone wants to go to the greenhouse to see how things are being done,” she said.
She revealed that many of her officers had been so impressed by the project that they had expressed willingness to learn more and set up hydroponics greenhouses at their homesteads when they retire.
With respect to SPD inmates, some of whom – like Marvel – were temperamental and had anger management issues before the project was set up, the Officer in Charge offered anecdotal evidence indicating that the project had had a calming effect.
“This project has brought a lot of positivity to the minds of our SPD inmates. It is a pity that we can’t involve all of them because the project is still starting and is not big enough to accommodate all of them,” she said.
She added: “It has brought mental relaxation to many. Even I, when I a feel somewhat stressed, I just take a walk to the project. It is like a therapeutic process. It’s really wonderful.”
Superintendent Charles Mabulawa is the Rehabilitation Coordinator and works closely with SPD inmates. He concurred and said: “Some SPD inmates who hitherto had to be frequently attended to or referred to specialised services after presenting with some mental health crises before the project, have become noticeably calmer and cooperative.”
He added: “Whilst there are some noticeable glimpses of behavioural change amongst the inmates participating in the project, more data is still needed before we can draw any conclusions.”
Authorities at the facility have put Marvel and other inmates in charge of portions of the greenhouse. The inmates have become very attached to their portions and pay particular attention to them. It was a touching sight when Marvel and some of the inmates proudly stood next to their portions while the visitors admired their harvest.
Kamwangha expressed optimistic that the project would more than meet the facility’s vegetable needs and boost nutrition.
“We are able to sustain ourselves. UNODC and WFP have planted something very big in our minds and our lives. We really applaud them,” she said.
In less than half an hour and from a very small portion of the greenhouse, Marvel, other inmates and officers had picked more than 40 Kgs of spinach. Half of it was set aside for the inmate’s kitchen while the rest was sold to officers and the visitors who literally fell over each other to buy the first harvest.
UNODC provided funding and purchased materials to set up the greenhouse, while WFP rendered technical assistance in constructing it and training inmates and staff to grow the vegetables.
However, it was not all plain sailing. Twice, strong winds blew off the roof before a lasting solution was found. Now, a gutter on the roof will enable collection of rain water – a preference in hydroponic organic vegetable production – into a 10 000 litre tank next to the greenhouse.
Deputy Commissioner Mirjam Madhimba, Head: Mental Health and Special Needs Offenders within NCS, said the Gobabis project had exceeded expectations.
“We have noted a reduction in violent incidents involving offenders. Generally, SPD inmates do not have a lot of activities outside their cells. This project has taken them out and helped them to productively structure their days and engage in meaningful activities.
“This initiative transcends meeting of therapeutic needs of SPDs to empowering the facility to be self-sufficient. We would like to replicate it in other correctional facilities,” she said.
Serwanga attributed the success of the project to commitment on the part of inmates, the Officer in Charge and her staff.
-Moses Magadza is Communications Officer for UNODC Regional Office for Southern Africa.