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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Phil Morley

Nepal: Not A Tourist Attraction
By Michael McCarthy

"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."
-Nelson Mandela

Despite being one of the worlds’ most polluted, war-torn, and poverty-stricken cities, Kathmandu has its fair share of tourist attractions.  Spiritual seekers flock to the Boudinath neighborhood, which today has more of a Tibetan Buddhist feel than Lhasa in Tibet.  Trekkers heading for the Himalayas pass through town in droves, and the last vestiges of pure hippy culture can be found in the Thamel tourist district, where you can still buy temple hash in the streets, and the ghosts of Jimmy Hendrix and Jim Morrison drift forth from seedy second floor bars where horrible Nepali bands crank out poor facsimiles of psychedelic tunes in crumbling brick beer parlors that will surely tumble to the ground during the next big trembler.

In the downscale Dilli Bazaar district, just south and east of the downtown Durbar Margh shopping district where the few rich Nepalis who can afford it come to shop in their SUVs, there is an unnamed dead-end street marked by a brick wall and a large guarded gate, where few Nepalis ever visit, and tourists never venture.  Beyond that brick wall you will find Kathmandu’s men’s and women’s prisons, ancient dungeons that make the rest of this ancient city’s infrastructure look positively sparkling. 

My guide is Prema, the staff director from Setunepal (Setu), a new program that assists female prisoners make the transition from prison to the outside world by way of a halfway house and vocational training.  Most of the women in jail here in Kathmandu have been imprisoned for the crimes of domestic violence or petty theft, or, as one prison guard explains to me, “for poverty and ignorance.”  They lack education or money, either of which could assist in their early departure from this hellhole because in Nepal you don't to jail if they have money, no matter how foul your offense.  As my guard cheerfully offers, you could murder someone and never serve a day inside any prison, but these women in the Kathmandu prison have no money, and often no family or friends to turn to.  Setu is designed to bridge that gap.

We need permission from the Warden to enter the prison, permission that is virtually impossible to obtain.  Although Setu enjoys an excellent reputation with prison authorities for the medicine and other supplies it provides, clearly the Warden is not enthralled with my presence or the ostensible reason for my visit.  He makes his feelings known to Prema, who translates his comments for me.

"He says this is NOT a tourist attraction," she translates, "and he tells me not to make a habit of bringing any more people here."

There are three prisons in the complex, two men's' jails and one for the women.  Setu visits all three, as the imprisoned men are often related to the female prisoners that Setu assists.  We are given a guide and enter the men’s jail first, a decrepit brick structure surrounded by high walls and razor wire which we enter by a low door secured by a heavy chain. Outside the front door are the visiting quarters, a chicken wire cage in which a dozen men sit on one side of a narrow table, and their visitors on the other.  These are the offenders lucky enough to have friends or family who care enough to come, and to bring money, or food,.or medicine, supplies of which exist in inadequate amounts within these walls.

In Nepal the law—such as it is—says one is guilty until proven innocent.  The situation is easily rectified by throwing some money at a lawyer, who in turn shares it with the appropriate authorities.  In poverty-stricken Nepal, cash is king.  There is no crime for which release cannot be purchased, but the majority of the men imprisoned here are poor, and for them there is no release in sight. 

We tour the sleeping accommodations, a long room with a low ceiling, where 500 men sleep cheek by jowl on thin pallets an inch apart.  At the end of each pallet against the brick wall, prisoners have propped up thin cardboard shelving on which rest the entirety of their belongings, perhaps a family photo, a book, or a few cigarettes.  The men live and sleep in their one set of clothes.  There are no cells.  Each man is only a few inches from his neighbor. 

The women’s jail is located around a mile away from the men’s facilities along a dirt road.  High brick walls surround a low gateway, outside of which a half dozen female army personnel are sitting and chatting with other women whom I can only assume are friends of the visitors, who themselves are sitting in a small cage surrounded by chicken wire.

We duck down under a low wooden door surrounded by metal bars, a portcullis type of relic left over from the 14th century, and walk down a short stone-walled hallway, finally emerging in a wide courtyard surrounded by several low brick buildings.  Sitting on the ground are dozens of women engaged in various activities including peeling vegetables, washing clothes, and minding children.  There are several small children playing with sticks in the dirt.  The sight of a male in the building raises some eyebrows, but soon a sense of normalcy is restored, and we are permitted to walk around and chat with any of the prisoners.

Prema explains that there are some vocational programs available to the women, but as most of them don’t know how to read and write; it is difficult to train the women for employment while incarcerated.  We are shown a computer stashed away in a musty room that reeks of stale urine, evidently a latrine converted into a library.  Next door is the current latrine.  I am told that the day before a woman committed suicide while inside a stall there, pouring kerosene over herself and setting herself on fire. 


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