DECEMBER 31, 2012, was a terrible day for me if I must confess. I have never had such an emotional breakdown that I could not hold back tears. I literally cried like a baby as tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my cheeks freely. The only thing I could not have done was to break down completely so I would not be sent away from the prison yard. Thank goodness my handkerchief saved the day. The fact that I wore glasses made me pretend as though my eyes were itching so I could remove my glasses and stylishly dry the tears on my face.
I thought I was alone in the emotional breakdown; little did I suspect my bosom friend, Ayo Ajayi, who was on the team, had also found himself in the same situation from his own narration of the visit. It was a visit to the Nigerian Prisons Service, Agodi Prison, in Ibadan. According to him, what provoked his emotional breakdown was that he identified his mate at senior secondary school as one of the inmates we went to visit. I wished I did not go at all because the memories of what I saw haunt me till today. I had my psyche brutally bruised by the inhuman conditions in which the inmates live not just in one place but also across the Nigerian prisons. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that I went because I would still have remained ignorant of the cruelty in the Nigerian prisons.
According to the convener of the team, Bishop Francis Wale Oke, the president and founder of The Sword of the Spirit Ministries (a. k. a. Christ Life Church), December 31 of every year is his commitment to the Lord in the past four years to visit a prison.
The team took off from the church and arrived at Agodi Prison premises at 10 a.m. We went through the protocol welcoming the bishop and his entourage. A visitor’s card was given to every member of the team with the exception of the bishop. There was a strong warning to everyone to keep the card jealously. Afterwards upon entering the ward, we were led directly into the Liberty Chapel building where the inmates conduct church services. The building has a sitting capacity of about 150. On this day it was filled to the brim. We were seated on a separate set of chairs on a raised platform- behind the pulpit where the bishop preached. Every part of the service which started 10:45 a.m. was nothing but emotion-arousing as inmates displayed amazing talents. The best way to express the experience is: Talents are wasting away in prison.
The conditions to which the inmates are subjected are demeaning. According to the statistics on their notice board, there are 903 inmates on the whole of whom 12 are women. In the prison yard, there are four main cells with iron bar openings purportedly called windows and it is only one of them that is opened. It occurred to me that those inmates that joined in the religious service are those serving mild sentences for minor. Meanwhile, how those cells were able to accommodate 903 inmates still baffles me.
According to the anchor of the programme, a senior prison officer, who is also a pastor and a member of the church, said that other cells would not be opened for security reasons. There, I saw heavily built young men looking through the openings with their heads in between iron bars. It was a pathetic scene to behold with some of them carrying Bibles and listening with rapt attention as the bishop preached. The inhumane condition of the prison yard has not only falsely humbled many of them but also humiliated them.
A lot of issues call for attention. First, is it so impossible for the government to build more prison yards? During an opening speech DCP Sowumi Adewale who was ably represented by his assistant DCP Adeyemi Ademabayoje, applauded the bishop for his good gesture towards the welfare of the inmates. He specifically referred to the donation of ICT facilities, which he made the previous year during a similar evangelical visit and some roofs that were fixed. The question that plagued my mind was: Is that really the way to ease the conditions of living for prisoners? Is it the inmates that will use the computers? Seemingly no. As much as that is appreciated, I think the first way to alleviate the dehumanising conditions is to decongest the yard through provision of more prison yards across the nation. It struck me like a thunderbolt when I was told that the situation at Agodi Prison was even better compared to what obtained at Kirikiri Maximum Prison and several others all over the country. If what I saw at Agodi Prison, where the offensive odour assailing a visitor can make person become ill was considered better, then other prisons must be hell on earth. I now know the reason why we were not allowed to bring phones, camera and other recording devices into the prison yard.
The conditions of our prisons raise two salient questions. First of all, what is the aim of imprisonment? The aim of modern prison system anywhere in the civilised world is the protection of society. It is also to induce retribution, to deter reform and rehabilitate prisoners. The aims and objectives of the Nigerian prisons service are in no way different from these. It plays the role of safe custody of inmates to ensure recovery of those who serve the cause of disorder. Reformation and rehabilitation are very important and indeed are the dominant aspects of the aims and objectives of the Nigeria prison service- Daniel I. Nkwocha, (2010— in Prisons and Correctional Institutions in Nigeria, Abuja, published by National Open University, Page 20.)
Imprisonment is not to humiliate or dehumanise people. Anywhere in the world, imprisonment is a corrective measure to make criminals sober, realise their errors and have a change of heart and attitude. Without mincing words, these are not what obtain in the Nigerian Prisons Service. At Agodi, although the floor looks neat but the yard is far from being hygienic. Besides the horrible odour, which can even endanger the health of the officials, the congestion can cause an outbreak of epidemic. We have the relentless religious activities and humanitarian services of churches, to thank, otherwise it is not conceivable that an ex-convict in Nigeria would change for better.
After the service was over, the bishop and his entourage were taken round the yard. In the course of the tour I saw a caption “CC” meaning Condemned Cell. The team was taken to another cell where inmates who commit another crime in the prison yard were locked up for the bishop to pray for them. It was a horrible experience that could make a lasting negative impression on a visitor.
This conviction brings me to the second salient question the government should answer. What does it entail to free an inmate? Are they just allowed to go home after the completion of their term? Is that how it should be done? I wonder why the so-called condemned prisoners said amen aloud as the bishop was taken round to personally pray for them. Their longing for prayers of intervention could not be unconnected with stories of testimonies by those who had been freed miraculously in the past and helped to integrate into the society for offences for which their mates had been executed. On December 31, the day of the Episcopal visit, the team paid N10, 000 fine which had kept a prisoner for one extra month after his term had ended and he had had no one to come to his financial rescue.
Apparently, when inmates are freed on one ground or the other, they are often homeless, jobless and stranded. Life becomes crueler than it was when they were imprisoned. The government is expected to set up rehabilitation centres for proper orientation, psychological balance and entrepreneurial empowerment of ex-convicts to prevent their falling into wrong companies and getting lured back into evil. It is high time the Nigerian government did something about the Nigerian Prisons Service or should forget about the lip service of fighting crimes and insecurity.
• Abiola Olarinde, an author and a graduate of University of Ibadan (UI).
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