Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The sad tale of ‘prisoners’ who walked free

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Living free in Nigeria is brutal for many. Living in its prisons can be much more. Former inmates recall their journeys to Kirikiri prisons, their experiences and plans for the future.

When Sunday Ewuga heard his name reeled off the prison warder’s list, his gaze quickly drifted downwards to the bare floor, and after a few seconds he glanced up with a wide smile. His tortuous stay in prison had come to an abrupt end.

Mr. Ewuga was among the 233 awaiting trial inmates freed by the Chief Judge of Lagos State, from both the Maximum and Medium Security Prisons at Kirikiri, a Lagos suburb, on September 18.

“I thought I’ll never be out of here at all. I’ll barb (give a hair cut) somebody, the next day, I’ll hear that person is going,” an ecstatic Mr. Ewuga, 24, an in-house barber for the inmates, said moments after his freedom.

“Some spirit of discouragement started getting into me and I was asking, ‘when will I leave?’ But unexpectedly, I heard my name today.”

Imprisoned without trial

The chief judge, Adeyoola Phillips, said that the move was to release inmates who had been “illegally or unjustly” imprisoned.

“If you don’t deserve to be here, you shouldn’t be here,” Mrs. Phillips said.

The freed inmates had been awaiting trial for 4 – 12 years. Some had never walked into the court room prior to their journey to detention.

In 2008, a 21 year old Mr. Ewuga was marched into the Maximum Security Prison over an alleged robbery offence. He had been in detention since a year earlier at the Ikoyi Prisons before his relocation.

Mr. Ewuga said he was waiting to board a bus, at about 7.30p.m., from Lekki to Jakande when a patrol van, consisting of mostly plain clothed police men, swooped in on him.

“They asked what am I doing there. I showed them my ID card. I was a student of Famous Comprehensive Secondary School, at the same time a barber,” said Mr. Ewuga, who was then in his final year in school.

“They said I should enter motor, that I’m a criminal, a part of the people that used to rob in that area. I had to obey them,” the 24 year old added.

A similar fate befell Moshood Ganiyu, who was returning from a football viewing centre about four years ago.

“I heard shouting on the road, the people met me and run past me. Later, they run and meet me again and said that I’m one of the people they are looking for,” said Mr. Ganiyu, 39, a native doctor at Alakuko.

“There’s one police station in the area. The people said they are going to report me, because some of them know my face. Some people told me to go and report them first.

“But before I reach station, those people have reached before me, so police said that they are the complainant and I am the criminal,” Mr. Ganiyu said.

Another freed inmate, Samu Lawal, 32, said that the police asked him and his friend – at the time they were arrested on their way back from a night party – to pay N250, 000 to secure their freedom.

His friend paid up and was released.

The ‘bail’ fee later reduced to N170, 000, but they were able to bargain for N150, 000.

“Before we could bring the money, they took us to Panti, said we were armed robbers, put cutlasses at our front, that we used it to rob,” said Mr. Lawal.

Moses Igige, who hawked sausage rolls in traffic at Obalende, shared a similar story.

Mr. Igige, 28, said that after the police arrested him, he was asked to buy his freedom for N25, 000.

“After I took him to where I was selling… I told them I don’t him I don’t have any money, so he took me to court,” Mr. Igige said.

The problem of the food

Prior to last week’s release, there were 3,265 inmates in both the Maximum and Medium Security Prisons.

About 2,378 – 73 percent – were awaiting trial; 124 convicted; and 4 sentenced to life.

A snap survey of the freed inmates showed that although they were happy to be free again, they were happier that they would no longer be exposed to the prison meals.

Especially ‘shakpa’ – a Yoruba term they use to refer to the soup which literally means ‘hacking someone to death.’

“If you look at it (the soup), no oil, no pepper, no maggi, no onions, only salt,” Mr. Igige said.

“The food is not okay. But we also eat dirty garri and dirty beans, we eat it, we can’t do anything.”

Mr. Ganiyu described the food as “animal food.”

A smiling inmate, who had been in prison for 21 years after killing an uncle in a land tussle, said that he was not bothered about the food.

“I’m only regretting what I did then,” said the 42 year old prisoner whom the warders prevented from saying his name.

Bertrand Awagu, also freed last week, said that he was happy to be leaving the meal behind.

“Since night, I hadn’t eaten because of the soup,” Mr. Awagu, 54, said on the afternoon he was released.

“Unless you have money to buy onions and pepper and crayfish to put in it,” Mr. Awagu added.

Back to work

The Deputy Comptroller of Prisons at the facility, Olumide Tinuoye, described the continued incarceration of the young men without trial as “an act of injustice.”

“If they have been sentenced, they’ll know they are suffering for the offence which they have committed,” Mr. Tinuoye said.

“I don’t know how easy it will be now to be able to convict somebody who have been in the prison for 12 years.”

Some of the inmates said they were artisans before their incarceration and they plan to return to their vocation.

Mr. Lawal said he world resume his printing business.

Dare Adebayo, 30, said that he would go back to his work as a cobbler.

Sola Ipalola, 28, said that he’d restart his engineering and technical works.

Reuniting with his family in his home state in Ebonyi is uppermost in Mr. Igige heart.

Mr. Ganiyu, however, said that he would ditch his native doctor job.

“I learnt shoe cobbler here. I’m going out to find a small job to do and find money to buy things for cobbler,” said Mr. Ganiyu.

“I’m not going back to native doctor. I don’t know whether from the work this problem come from, that’s why I want to leave it,” he added.

Mr. Ewuga’s five year stay in prison, which also housed convicted criminals, may have come to a ‘delightful’ end; but the next stage of his journey is filled with uncertainties.

He said that when he gets to the ‘outside world’ – a common slang the inmates use to refer to life outside the prison walls – he’d drop his hair clippers and pick up a microphone.

“For your information, I’m coming out here to be an artiste, a hard core rapper,” said Mr. Ewuga, whose stage moniker, Black Jesus, had already become a household name at the Maximum Security Prison.

“I learnt a lot here. I’ll rap about my life here and the kind of life I was living before I found myself locked up,” he said.

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