Nigeria’s inhuman prisons -2 -By Ugoji Egbujo

Filed under: National Issues |

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A certain inmate who supervised Abacha’s security left a mark in the prison by catering for inmates and warders. He rebuilt the tennis court and hired counsels for some inmates. He dispensed cash and succor to all, and he , in return, acquired uncommon privileges. In a prison where everything has a price tag, rich inmates receive visitors in the offices of very senior prison officials. And are generally specially catered for by warders and fellow inmates.

Just about anything is possible. A trip to your house in the name of investigation or medical appointment has its cost. Even the warders who would act as escorts on these trips have fixed fees. Little wonder stories abound of inmates who fathered children while in prison.

Arranged sorties for family matters are perhaps insignificant. NDLEA once arrested a drug trafficker at Kano airport. The man had earlier been convicted and sentenced for drug trafficking and was supposed to be in prison. But he, like many others, are anywhere but the prison. Between the court officials and the warders so much can be arranged.

The food is poor and expectedly so. Inmates freely cook personal meals in the prison. Warders and their wives run the food stuffs black market within the prison. The government allocates a paltry 200 naira per person per day and no one knows what finally trickles down to the inmates. Many inmates can’t eat the official prisons food, its that poor. Politicians steal from the treasury and no one expects prison officials not to touch funds meant for feeding inmates, it might seem. Black market food supplies pay the warders better. And who blames them? The warders bemoan their conditions of service. And like many other government officials there is this sense of entitlement to some supplementation of their poor pay from those who consume their services. Even if that literally means exploitation of inmates.

While many inmates appreciate the freedom to cook as a welcome privilege, that practice is however responsible for the easy tolerance of horrible meals served those who are desperately poor and can’t afford private cooking. With warders nothing really goes for nothing. Warders will let inmates cook so the food subvention can be mishandled. But additionally, they need their rice and beans business. The presence of hundreds of stoves and prospects of a major fire incident doesn’t bother anyone.
Inmates may get poor food, no one cares. After all warders struggle and barely manage to feed their families too, they will say. But what would justify the mandatory fees visitors are charged before they can see inmates? Warders have two artificial toll gates for visitors. 100 naira is the least toll at each gate. The prices are so fixed, so non negotiable and demanded with such brazen effrontery you wonder if the collections are prescribed taxes. The strain of the extortion is more evident on poor families whose relatives populate these prisons. Such relatives visit the prison at least two to three times a week

for years. And besides cost of commuting to and fro prison , their agony is complicated by prison officials who squeeze 200 naira per visit from these mainly impoverished women. Women natural carers of imprisoned males.

A good number of inmates in kirikiri are there because they have no good legal representation or cannot not pay relatively easy fines.

The Legal Aid Council exists but the quality of legal advise indigent inmates receive must be woeful. An accused person should be entitled to legal representation paid for by the state if the person cannot afford to pay such legal fees. What kind of justice is dispensed in adversarial courts where the poor confronts the legal armada of the state with bare hands? Attorney Generals have come and shed crocodile tears over our prisons and gone. When they set up decongestion programmes , they hire cronies as solicitors to review cases of indigent inmates. Funds are earmarked, noises are made, when they are done , they leave richer and inmates remain in congested jails.

You must wonder how a society that cannot maintain flowers in public places , the same society that cannot maintain universities would cope with prisons. If the state is that badly handicapped why then must she saddle her self with more than she can chew by rushing her citizens to prisons ? What happened to community service? Do we really have a functional probation service? How do people spend years in cruel prisons without an option of community service for minor offences?

Our policemen take bribes in broad day light from motorists and the customs service is steeped in corruption. So it’s not really that strange that warders extort inmates. But if the prison has poor food and poor accommodation why wouldn’t the prison have 24 hour medical service? And this is utterly shocking. At the time the Kirikiri prison had about 700 inmates and only one doctor who came to the clinic when it suited him. My friend had an uncontrolled chronic medical condition so it was easy to know that the prison doctor sometimes came only once a week. And there was no guarantee that all who wanted medical attention would get it on any of those random visits. The clinic was left to nurses.

The doctor’s truancy was appalling but his ineptitude and acts of gross negligence even when he chose to come were more shocking. Some inmates who had slipped into massive depression would not get psychiatric evaluation. The prison and its doctor would rather believe that some of these serious symptoms were feigned. But nothing could be more mischievous because it’s only the psychiatrist that can reach that conclusion.

There were persons who had attempted suicide who had not been referred for proper evaluation. And once a chronically depressed inmate jumped into a well in the precincts of the prison. Everyone except the doctor and prison officials knew he suffered from obvious psychiatric illness. Inmates suffering all manner of psychiatric conditions are left to wallow in prison. And sometimes they would chain a deranged prisoner rather than send him to a psychiatric hospital.

Hamani Tidjani may have been a notorious robber but he had been in detention for 10 years and had partial stroke. He deserved medical attention. He got practically none and died in KiriKiri of stroke last year.

My friend couldn’t get a referral easily either. Palms have to be greased for medical referrals to be given. Preposterous but true. Even the prison doctor suffered from more than just ineptitude and truancy, he was in league with everyone else. An extortion syndicate.

Imagine a prison where inmates in poor physical and psychological states are all locked in in the evening and warders do not respond to cries of inmates because the cries could be false alarms. If you developed a medical emergency in some of the cells in kirikiri prison after 9 pm you would get no attention. That is the state of that prison. The danger of keeping the keys to the cells at night with someone outside the premises of the prison may make security sense but it is a recipe for a major disaster.

Some high profile persons have been inmates. When they leave they forget . The Nigerian Medical Association and Nigerian Bar Association have professionals who go to these prisons regularly. How have these anomalies remained? Churches and Mosques send delegations regularly. Why have they remained contented with sending foods and verses. Why has the society not been challenged and forced to change?

The prisons have facilities and departments. But they are not put to good use. They have a reference hospital. They have an after-care services to follow up on discharged inmates meant to help them re settle. They have inspectors. They have the prisons act which empowers the Controller General and in some cases the superintendents to move sick persons to hospitals. Committees upon committees come to prisons , wail , leave and forget. The Nigerian Human Rights Commission is not ignorant of some of these atrocities.

We must review structures and processes of the criminal justice completely. Welfare of prisons staff must be improved. Training and retraining of prison officials especially with respect to rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates post incarceration must be a priority.

Our prisons must be renovated but they must be decongested. We don’t need new prisons . We don’t need more prisons. We don’t need more people in Jail. Decongestion efforts must be holistic. The criminal justice process must be revamped to give priority to speedy trials. The bench and the bar must get the message. The legal aid council must be well funded to provide legal assistance to all who need them. Bail conditions must be tempered and should be reviewed if need be. The system must look towards allowing registration of professional sureties. For most non serious , non violent offences, community service must be considered. So a probation and social work service must be filled with competent and dedicated persons.

Condemned prisoners wait for the hangman in perpetual anxiety for upwards of 10 years in those cells of horror. If that isn’t torture what is torture?

Change can start from the prisons. And from within.

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