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Published: Tuesday, 12/20/2005

Toledo minister plans new program to help prisoners in Africa

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

A Toledo minister who has been working to improve conditions in African prisons is undertaking two prototype projects, one to provide more food for inmates and the other aimed at reducing overcrowding.

The Rev. Yong-jin Kim, pastor of Hanmi Covenant Presbyterian Church in West Toledo and a member of Chuck Colson s Prison Fellowship International, said economic woes have caused most African governments to cut back on feeding prisoners. In many cases, inmates receive just one serving per day of a maize-based porridge.

There is so much tension that riots are possible, Mr. Kim said. But prison officials don t know what to do. The whole country is in trouble and prisoners are at the bottom rung of any society. So most of the government s money is spent on police and other things that are more urgent to them.

Mr. Kim, a Korean native who earned a doctorate in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University, is preparing to begin prototype farming projects at prisons in Ghana and Zambia.

He said he has received verbal permission from the ministers of the interior of both nations to get inmates to grow crops on 40 or 50 acres adjacent to the prisons. Half of the crop will go to the prisoners and the other half to orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, and other needy facilities.

It is really important to make it balanced so that people outside of prison will be helped, too, Mr. Kim said. There are so many starving people who don t commit crimes, but they suffer just the same. So we should not focus on prison ministry too much.

The other project he is starting is aimed at slowing the influx of people into the overcrowded prison systems, where the accused sometimes wait for years even before being charged.

In Malawi, a nation of 12 million, there are only 28 legal aid attorneys and 8 prosecutors, Mr. Kim said. On average, African prisons are running at 150 percent of capacity.

Mr. Kim's program will train government-authorized mediators to hear charges against first-time offenders or those charged with relatively minor crimes.

If a mediator can get a victim and a criminal suspect to agree on compensation, it would avoid adding to the overcrowding crisis.

For example, Mr. Kim said, if someone steals a goat worth $30, the mediator might order the thief to pay $90 to the goat's owner instead of being sent to prison.

The goat's owner receives three times the value of the animal, the thief avoids prison, and the already-strained prison does not have to take in another inmate.

"If you can reduce the incoming population, you can reduce the overcrowding," Mr. Kim said.

The pastor said he is looking to generate enough financial support to train mediators in Malawi and Zambia and pay them $50 a month. Each mediator should handle 100 to 150 cases a month, with the potential of keeping many thousands of people from entering the overcrowded penal system.

Mr. Kim's plan for the prison farming projects also hinges on funding needs. He hopes to pay African graduate students to conduct feasibility studies and to get the land ready for crops to be grown starting in 2007.

Mr. Kim's African prison work began in 2002, when he opened the Sound of Love Studio in Malawai's Zomba Prison. Inmates there make recordings of the Bible and other inspirational books in four regional languages, and the cassette tapes are distributed throughout the region with solar-powered cassette players.

The inmates who work in the studio receive a monthly stipend of $10, allowing them to start helping their families financially and get on the road to becoming productive members of society upon their release.

This fall, Mr. Kim opened another Sound of Love Studio at a Ghana prison that houses 2,600 inmates. The inmates record audio versions of the Bible on compact discs.

"There are 40 or 50 tribal dialects in Ghana, which is rare for a country that small, so they need this project very much," Mr. Kim said.



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