MAIDAN SHAR, Afghanistan — How easy is it to escape from an Afghan jail?
Gen. Amir Jamshid, director of the nation’s prisons, sat in the back of the truck and laughed. He threw up his hands, as though at a punch line.
We were talking about the last big break, back in April, when nearly 500 inmates slipped out of Kandahar’s Sarposa Prison through a hand-dug, half-mile tunnel.
“Yes,” the general said, grinning and shaking his head. “That was bad.”
The general is a small man, friendly. He was director of prisons in April when the great escape unfolded. He seemed to take it personally, but also with a sense of humor. Inshallah.
In a way, it was funny. The Sarposa break — and another, a couple of years earlier, in which nearly 1,000 inmates escaped — made Afghan prison officials and policemen look worse than the Keystone Kops. Guards had likely been in on it.
“The new prisons will not be like that,” the general told me.
We were on our way to visit a site where a new prison is under construction, in Maidan Shar, capital of Wardak province. It would cost almost $7 million, paid for by the U.S. government. It would be state of the art, for Afghanistan, housing several hundred prisoners — male, female and juvenile — on a searing plain beside an American base.
Prisons — modern, Western-style ones, anyway — are new to Afghanistan. Keeping prisoners means feeding, warming, providing for them. In remote, sparsely-populated or poor regions — most of Afghanistan — it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense to lock someone up. There have always been other ways to arrive at justice.
But with the adoption several years ago of a new constitution and much legal and police guidance from Western powers, Afghanistan is arresting more people all the time. The general explained that the country’s prison population grows by 24 percent each year; there are now 37 prisons.
If you build it, they will come.
At the construction site, American soldiers spread out to provide security, kneeling beside cement mixers and piles of gravel. The general moved quickly, like an excited tourist. He climbed skeletal guard towers and whisked along the narrow, unfinished tops of high prison walls.
Sometimes he paused, demanded a tape, and measured a wall’s thickness. Satisfied, he would nod and move on.
At a large concrete pad that would eventually become a cell block floor, the general knelt and picked up a stone. He began tapping the concrete.
“I’m not an expert, but it looks good,” he said.
“How do we keep another Sarposa from happening?” I asked.
“Since this is all concrete, it will prevent that sort of thing.”
In news photos, the floor of Sarposa appears to be made of concrete. Maybe this stuff was thicker.
An American soldier walked past.
“They’re building this prison with tunnels already installed,” he said over his shoulder. “So the Taliban can escape whenever they want.”
The general didn’t hear it.
A police aide brought shining platters heaped with watermelon. We stood eating and spitting seeds and looking out over the dead earth to where the guard towers would be, where the double rows of barbed wire would hang.
The sun was blinding. If there was any shadow at all hanging over that baked place it was of Sarposa and the great joke. But Jamshid seemed pleased.
“In general, we can say the previous prison system was about torture and rough treatment,” he said. “We’re bringing it into modern times.”
Perhaps I should have asked the general, how did you manage to keep your job? But the sun boiled and the watermelon glistened and it didn’t occur to me.
I think he would have laughed and raised his hands.