Nigeria: Decongesting the Kirikiri Women's Prison

opinion

Many of these girls found themselves in prison because of the lack of legal representation.

... the figure of the young ladies on the awaiting trial list is definitely alarming. Wealthy individuals and organisations could also bear the responsibility of providing legal services for these inmates or assist in paying the little fines that have kept them within the prison walls unnecessarily. This will go a long way in decongesting the correctional centre.

It all started a few months ago when the women's group in the OPIC area of the Living Faith Church decided to pay a visit to the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS), formerly known as the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS). The aim was to extend the love of Christ to the inmates.

I had heard so much about the deplorable state of Nigerian prisons and the savage treatments that inmates are often subjected to. The story out there is that it is almost impossible for anyone to go into a Nigerian prison and return as a human being. They say our prisons turn human beings into animals.

This narrative is not far-fetched, going by an avalanche of reports on the problem of overpopulation in Nigerian prisons. An ex-convict at the Owerri Prison once said his cell measured 32 feet in length and 28 feet in width, had one bathroom and two toilets, with approximately 100 inmates staying there. It's easy to imagine how dehumanising life can be in such a pathetic situation.

Aside the overcrowding and poor sanitation that characterise our prisons, there is also the problem of corruption among members of prison staff. A lawyer friend told me that those in in their occupation always bribe their way through every point to see their clients in these facilities. And like many things in Nigeria that are never enough, food is always inadequate, and medicines unavailable. Government's decision to change the name of the prison service to a correctional service hasn't resulted in any real change in the story. It is still the same system, with the same people and the same experiences!

Unfortunately, the majority of the people in these prisons are not even convicts. Most of them are still awaiting trial. As far back as 2018, data from the surveys done by the Prisoners' Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) and the Nigerian Prisons Service showed that out of 68,110 inmates, only 21,354 were actually convicts, while the remaining 46,756 were merely accused individuals awaiting trial.

Back to my story, a lot of us were excited about the prison visit that finally took place on Friday, July 16; the day the Lagos traffic went haywire. For me, it was an opportunity to see if all the pictures in my head about Nigerian correctional homes were real or fake. Before then, the only mental pictures I had of prisons were the images provided by our Nollywood actors, which were quite repulsive, to say the least.

So, I had expected to see many old and undernourished women, looking pale and haggard. I also thought I would see women dressed in some kind of green or blue prison uniforms, with shaven heads, cutting grass all around the prison premises. But there was nothing like that.

The first thing that shocked me during the visit to Kirikiri Women's Prison, which incidentally is the only all-women prison in Nigeria, is that inmates wore their normal clothes, and there is no prison uniform. Everyone looked well kept, well fed and full of life. Their hairs were well plaited, and they all appeared generally healthy. Perhaps, the only thing that fit into my expectation was the complete incarceration and restriction of the movement of inmates to the four walls of the prison yard. Apart from this, the place is just like a normal girls' hostel.

I later learnt that the female inmates enjoy better services because they were fewer in number, in comparison to their male counterparts. According to available data, female prisoners make up just around two per cent of the population of inmates in Nigeria. I learnt that while female inmates in Kirikiri are less than 200, their male counterparts are at least 3,000. Meanwhile, the carrying capacity of facilities for women and men are almost the same.

What I, however, found surprising is the age range of the female inmates. About 80 per cent of the women in this facility are very young adults, many of them probably in their teens. Some of them are so young that they can best be described as children. It is as if the facility is only meant for young children. It looks more like a juvenile home than a women's prison.

Fortunately also for the women, the Deputy Controller of Female Prison, DCP Lizzie Ekpendu, has used her influence to expand the facilities in the women prison, thus further improving the living conditions there. From what I saw, the DCP deserves some commendation. She is practically like a mother to the inmates. We had to wait for her for some time because she had to be around before we could have access to the inmates. She later came and told us that she was held in traffic, while trying to get a cake for her children's graduation. I had thought that she was referring to her biological children, until I discovered that the cake was actually meant for inmates graduating from a vocational course held within the facility.

She prefers to see the inmates as her children or at best residents. To her, they are there for a while to be reformed and rehabilitated through the action of prison officials, who she described as loving but very strict. This, she proved in our presence. Despite her closeness to the inmates, she never hesitated in insisting on what was right. She ensured that there was a roll call of inmates before our programme was allowed to commence. She also made sure that all the inmates attended the programme.

No doubt, her efforts have raised the standard of life in that facility. The Kirikiri women's prison boasts of some level of comfort for the inmates, who also refer to DCP Ekpendu as their mum. Naturally, the inmates are likely to have their low moments as humans, but there was nothing that suggested that they were downcast, at least from their looks.

To be candid, I had one of the best praise sessions with the inmates. It was powerful. It was as if angels had temporarily relocated down from their place of abode. We all danced, jumped, screamed and rejoiced in the Lord, with all our mights and strengths. The atmosphere was both lifting and hilarious.

What I, however, found surprising is the age range of the female inmates. About 80 per cent of the women in this facility are very young adults, many of them probably in their teens. Some of them are so young that they can best be described as children. It is as if the facility is only meant for young children. It looks more like a juvenile home than a women's prison. I kept asking myself: How did these young ones end up in KiriKiri? What could they have done? Why is the women prison populated by young girls? What types of offences did these young girls commit?

Unfortunately, out of the 200 residents of the facility, only 32 have been convicted and are serving their sentences. The majority - about 167 - are awaiting trial! This is very sad.

In a bid to get answers to some of my questions, I spoke with a number of the young girls. They claimed that they were victims of police raids. One of them said she went out to buy food at night and was apprehended by the police for wandering; and that was how she found herself in Kirikiri. Asked when she got to the facility, she replied that she been there since last year. When I asked about the efforts her parents were making to secure her release, I heard the unexpected. Her parents were not aware of where she was! How come? She said her parents lived in the village and she had not bothered to tell them where she was. Judging from the way the girl responded to my questions, it was apparent that she had accepted her fate. May be she was homeless before her sojourn to the prison. Who knows?

To decongest our correctional facilities of these child inmates, I suggest that government intensifies its intervention in the area of legal representation by making available more public lawyers who can provide free legal services for these young people.

I didn't have the opportunity to speak with many of the girls. But I guess a good number of them must have been arrested in brothels or in the Red Light District of Lagos. My worry is that with what I saw in the Kirikiri Women's Prison, one could be tempted to conclude that only young girls commit offences in Lagos.

Are the Nigerian Police telling the world that this is the situation? Why are older women not that many in Kirikiri? Is it a case of the Police pretending to work by just harassing the vulnerable and ignoring the bigger and more powerful offenders? These are the real posers for the Nigeria Police Force.

Meanwhile, I learnt that many of these girls found themselves in prison because of the lack of legal representation. I also learnt that some of them are there because they do not have the means to pay their fines, which can be as small as N30,000 or less, in some cases. This is frustrating.

Overall, the takeaway from my prison visit is that this country is wasting its youths on different fronts. Asides grooming child bandits, terrorists, Boko Haram insurgents, cultists, etc., Nigeria is perhaps also fast breeding child sexual workers and kid convicts.

To decongest our correctional facilities of these child inmates, I suggest that government intensifies its intervention in the area of legal representation by making available more public lawyers who can provide free legal services for these young people.

Food may not really be a problem for Kirikiri inmates, but the figure of the young ladies on the awaiting trial list is definitely alarming. Wealthy individuals and organisations could also bear the responsibility of providing legal services for these inmates or assist in paying the little fines that have kept them within the prison walls unnecessarily. This will go a long way in decongesting the correctional centre.

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the Editor-in-Chief, franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: bisideji@yahoo.co.uk.

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