100 Women: ‘I didn’t mean to plead guilty’

14 September 2017
“Miriam” grew up in Sierra Leone and didn’t go to school. As an adult, she struggled to read and write. When she was arrested for loitering, she misunderstood the offence and found herself in prison – but it was there that she had her first experience of the classroom. With some help, she has written the story of how she learned to read.

“How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“Are you guilty? Please answer.”

“Yes sir.”

Over a year later, I was released from the Freetown Female Correctional Centre in Sierra Leone. Why was I there? Because I had no idea what the word guilty meant and there was nobody to translate for me.

I am a 35-year-old mother of five, arrested in a neighbourhood raid after a serious theft. When we were all taken to court, I made a wrong plea due to my lack of education.

I made a wrong plea due to my lack of education ‘Miriam’, Former inmate

When I began my sentence, I decided to take up the opportunity of the literacy classes provided twice-weekly for the female inmates.

Like me, many of the other inmates were illiterate and had never been to school.

After a couple of months, I no longer had to mark documents with a thumbprint because I had learned how to sign my own name.

I loved these classes so much that the other women gave me the nickname “School Girl”.

Since my release from the correctional centre, I have built my own business which supports my family.

Because of my new skills, I am now the chairperson of the local market-women, and am able to keep all the financial records in order.

I know that what I want to tell you is what is written on the paper

When I am not working in the market, I teach the children in my neighbourhood how to read and write using methods that I learned during my incarceration.

My education certificate proves to people that I can read, write and do mathematics. It is one of my proudest achievements.

I still needed assistance to write this story, but I know that what I want to tell you is what is written on the paper, which gives me a sense of control I never had before.

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