Conversation with the Last Prisoner of Nuku Hiva


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Just a stone’s throw from the black sandy beach and the fishermen’s market is an austere building made of gray stones, about ten meters long, without a floor, with painted blue doors. The only thing is that their locks do not open from the inside. It is the prison of Nuku Hiva, which has alternatively been, since its construction in 1873, a private house, barracks, church.
There lives an old man, almost alone. The first time I saw him, he was sitting on a volley of steps, smoking quietly, facing the green garden. While driving my car, I greeted him, he answered me with the hand. A man. Any man. The last prisoner of the island. From the archipelago. From the back of the World.
Three guards and an officer serve as prison guards. The officer lives in a modern house (accommodation of function) adjoining the prison, with wife and children. He receives in Marine Bermuda and T-shirt, returning from the quay the arms loaded with bluefin tuna that he sends by Beachcraft to his family in Tahiti Nui. He has been in the trade for 37 years, having passed through Villeneuve la Madeleine, Bordeaux, La Santé, Fleury-Mérogis and Papeete.
No escape or suicide has hitherto damaged the reputation of the last prison of the Marquises… Behind the main door opens a rather small airlock: just to the right, the common toilets. In front, a locked door that gives access to a corridor: the left cell has six berths (three metal bunk beds); above one of them, a family photo still stuck on the white plaster, and a pious image with a blessing Christ (“You must wash one another according to the example that I have given you” , John, 13, 14-15). The one opposite is that of the prisoner. Three other simple cells, and that’s it. One could comb one’s hair looking at the white tiles of the ground, everything is so incredibly clean. The prisoner’s cell is tidy, a square bed with a sheet of red and gold Madras, a bundle of incense sticks placed near a Bible and a book with a worn cover: a collection of poems by Pablo Neruda. A pair of flip-flops under the bed, folded clothes on the floor, a few bottles of water, a watch, nothing more.
Today, the prisoner cooks in a small shed next to the door of the detention area, in a corner of the garden. The roosters and chickens stroll the lawn. It has rained shortly before, everything is still wet. A fragrant odor comes from the shed where the prisoner prepares to eat. He wears a shrunk T-shirt, smiling behind his thin little mustache, lean and tall, straight as an I, barefoot on the wooden floor. Difficult to talk with him: he understands only Marquisian. And then there are these cocks who interrupt the conversation every thirty seconds. As if they too had things to tell. Below is my conversation with the last prisoner, some of it has been edited to make things more vague. 
– Philippe Charlier 

Why are you here?
The prison of Nuku Hiva is already a little freedom, the prisoners come here to finish their sorrows. Me, I have to be released in 2019, and I have been here for several years, transferred from Faa’a prison to Tahiti. I was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Because I had three children. With my daughter. It is said to be a crime. Rape. An incest. The Court of Papeete was not lenient.

How do you organize your day?

When I have finished preparing to eat, I go and lay my clothes in the garden. I do not drink alcohol. At first I do not like it, and then here it is controlled. When my family leaves the island and comes to visit me, everything is examined. I’m busy. I garden. In the evening, I watch the television in the corridor (Dexter, I love it), near the emergency phone. On my white plastic chair, I spend time. But you know, I’m not always alone. Sometimes there are prisoners for one or two nights: those who have drunk too much and do not know how to go home, those who hit their wife and are forbidden to go home, you see?

So, are you allowed to organize your day?

Not quite. The supervisors wake me up at six in the morning. They open my cell and they make sure I’m still alive. Until eleven o’clock I cook, I clean the garden and the cells to earn a little money and improve the daily life, and at noon they lock me again so that I can take my nap. Around 2 pm, the door opens again, sometimes I play pétanque with the supervisors. They, they drink a Hinano, I do not. Night falls slowly. I dine around 5 pm and they lock me around 6 pm until the next morning.

How far are you allowed to wander?
No more than the banana trees that go around the garden. It’s not a lot but it’s enough. If I had known, I would have planted them a little further.

You can not go to the cathedral for Mass on Sundays?

No! One could take that for an escape! I would have a report! No. I receive in my cell the Catholic priest. And even the Protestant pastor. But not the Mormon or the Jehovah’s Witness. I do not like them.

Aside from them, you have a lot of visits?

My family comes to see me rarely, because she lives far away, and the plane ticket is expensive. I come from a small island beyond Hua Po. It’s complicated. Sometimes my daughter comes to show me my children who are growing up. They are beautiful, little angels… You see this U shaped wooden bench under the mango tree? This is the parlor. We keep talking like that for four hours each time, eating mangoes and pomegranates. No more. There are rules to respect, even though…

In the memory of a Sufi patient, could you define life with only two words?

Hen & egg.

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