By Lawrence Kadzitche
The fax message from the Head of Prisons was brief and to the point. It gave the Prison Commandant exactly 24 hours, either to arrest the escaped prisoner or get the boot.
Victor Tsembwe, the Commandant, read the fax for a third time, and then threw it on the desk. So it had come to this, he thought bitterly. Just because one thing had gone wrong, they were prepared to dismiss him, regardless of his long service!
He had joined the prison service more than two decades ago as a Prison Warder. Serving obediently like a dog, he had crawled up the ladders to become Commandant at Walapa Maximum Prison.
Walapa was the biggest prison in the country. Behind its walls were the country’s most notorious criminals – the type that would kill a person like an insect and think nothing of it.
To ensure that these dregs of society remained inside the walls of the prison, the most efficient and able officer was appointed its Commandant. And Tsembwe had been Commandant for the past six years, bearing witness to the high estimation the prison authorities had in him.
For five of these six years, only two prisoners had attempted to escape. None of them had got away or returned to the prison alive.
But things had been that sweet during the autocratic rule of the Iron Man. The conditions in the prison made it almost impossible for prisoners to escape. Ill-treatment coupled with poor diet and disease, reduced the prisoners to mere shadows. Furthermore, if the “shadow” attempted to escape, the warders were allowed to shoot him at sight like a rabid dog.
Now things had changed. The Iron Man was gone and the country was now a multiparty democracy. Human rights groups were now talking of the rights of prisoners. No more overcrowding them in cells, no more leg irons, no more treating them as the whim took you. It was a guard’s nightmare and a prisoner’s sweet dream.
And the result? Lots of breakouts. Since last year only, about twenty prisoners had escaped from the prison. All of them were captured but it had put a dent in his smooth record.
But was it his fault? To accommodate the demands of human rights groups, a lot of changes had been made by the prison authorities. Dangerous prisoners were no longer gang-chained or crowded in cells or only given food that could barely sustain their lives. This meant the prisoners remained healthy and posed a danger to the guards. The guards were not even at liberty to shoot escaping prisoners.
What did they want him to do? Before they reformed the prison conditions, his name and prison had featured constantly in the newspapers and local radio as the worst combination of a prison and commandant. But at that time, no prisoner escaped.
Then the reforms came and dangerous prisoners started escaping. His name was in the media again, this time as the most inefficient Prison Commandant and society was baying for his blood.
Then Tsembwe’s mind clicked to a decision. He was employed to keep prisoners behind the prison walls and not to please human rights activists. If he failed to do his duty, it was his neck that was on the chopping block, not theirs.
He was going to catch the run-away prisoner within the specified 24 hours. He immediately responded to the Commissioner of Prison’s fax, confirming that he was taking immediate action to comply with the given instructions.
Tsembwe called out what had transpired. The criminal, a notorious killer called Sidana, had escaped on a foggy morning five days ago. He had knocked out a guard and noiselessly slipped away under cover of the blinding fog.
When the guard came to report, the killer was long gone. The guards and tracer dogs mounted an intensive search but the escapee was not found. Tsembwe was not worried. He was convinced that it was just a matter of days before the prisoner was re-arrested.
What worsened the situation was that the run-away convict murdered two elderly women two days after escaping. The third day, he raped a teenage girl. Worried, citizens began calling for his dismissal. And as the Head of Prisons’ fax message showed, the prison authorities were prepared to throw him to the hyenas to cover their own mistakes.
After thinking carefully for an hour, he summoned his best officers and the search for the escaped prisoner resumed in earnest.
Three hours later, they arrived at a house belonging to Nsikwa, an ex-prisoner, who had been Sidana’s close friend at the prison.
Ten minutes later, with some of the ex-convict’s teeth missing and his body badly bruised, the whereabouts of Sidana were revealed to the commandant.
“He is in… In… in the house,” Nsikwa groaned, bleeding profusely.
Tsembwe lashed out suddenly. The blow hit Nsikwa on the jaw and the ex-convict crashed against the wall then slid down to the ground unconscious.
“Come out, Sidana!” shouted Tsembwe. “Hands crawling the sky!”
The front door creaked open and Sidana came out with raised hands.
“Shoot him!” Tsembwe ordered a guard.
“Sir,” the guard faltered. “He has surrendered.”
“He is a dangerous criminal, escaped from prison after knocking out a guard and killed two women while on the run. He is trying to trick us by feigning surrender,” Tsembwe said grimly. “Carry out my orders, warder.”
The guard still hesitated. Tsembwe grabbed the guard’s rifle and shot the criminal in the chest. Sidana’s lifeless body tumbled head long and crashed to the ground.
The Commandant kicked him over to make sure he was dead. Then he returned the gun to the shocked guard.
“He should just have surrendered but I guess he didn’t want to be taken back to prison. You shot him when he attempted to attack you. I’ll back up the story,” he said, giving the warder a stony stare.
“Yes, Sir,” the guard said, saluting.