Foundation gives hope, free legal services to indigent prison inmates
By Kehinde Aderemi
THE passion in his voice was clearly evident. He was explaining the reasons for his involvement in a project that most of his colleagues would not venture near. You could also feel his pains over the terrible state of Nigerian prisons and the harrowing experiences that inmates go through daily in the correctional facilities.
Obviously inspired by the urge to serve God and humanity, Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, a lawyer and human rights activist, has continuously offered free legal services to indigent prison inmates over the years. In the last four years, he has visited many prisons across the country. He has been to prisons in Ikoyi, Kirikiri, Badagry, Sagamu, Auchi, Kuje, Agbolongbo, Abakalliki, Kwale and others. He told the reporter that the prisoners now see him as their friend, their voice and their confidant.
“I started offering pro bono services to inmates fully about four years ago,” he told the reporter. “But the idea was originally that of my late elder brother, Stephen, who was a prominent lawyer in the Giwa-Amu dynasty. There was another brother of ours, Solomon. The late Stephen started it in 1971. So, after their deaths, I decided to float a non-governmental organisation that would offer pro bono legal services to indigent inmates. The whole idea was to sustain the ideals and values of my late brothers. I also visited the prisons and I marvelled at the number of indigent inmates, who have been abandoned at the prisons, even with the poor living conditions they experience daily.
“At a point, my nephew, who happened to be a knight of the St. Mulumba from the Lekki, Lagos, Sub Council, expressed the interest of his church in setting up a pro bono department in the church. That gave me the impetus and that was what brought about the Solomon and Stephen Foundation about four years ago.”
These days, the lawyer devotes much time to catering to the needs of indigent inmates that had apparently been forgotten in the prisons. He also donates generously to prison authorities.
“In the course of our philanthropic gesture as a non-governmental organisation, we have donated health equipment, furniture and other facilities to the Nigerian Prisons Service. We bought a staff bus, and built a clinic for inmates in one of the prisons. We decided to pay attention to the inmates because of their poor living conditions. Nigerian prisons are like hell on earth, because there is nobody to cater for indigent inmates. There are lots of disparities in the management of the prisons. The rich are well catered for but the poor and indigent inmates are neglected,” he said.
Giwa-Amu said he was always disappointed anytime he visited the prisons. His words: “My experience over the years has been so sad and intriguing. No one will visit the prisons and be happy with the way inmates are treated. It is sad but we as an organisation are doing our best to correct the bad situation. At Solomon and Stephen Foundation, whatever we do for the inmates, we do for God as service to humanity and in honour of my late brothers and I believe their names will remain immortal in the minds of the inmates.”
Giwa-Amu said in four years, about 8,000 inmates had benefited from the group’s free legal services, noting that the number keeps growing. So, where does he get the funds to run the project?
“You see, sacrifice is about paying the price for whatever ideal you believe in,” he responded. “I so much believe in this cause. At times, whenever I visit the inmates, I eat with them, give them messages of hope and better future. I try as much as possible to instil in them a high sense of belonging. All these are done in order to prepare them for the future ahead and to create a lasting impression. This, to me, is a wonderful gesture. However, the only motivation comes from God, who says in His words that whatever you do to your brother will be done to you. More so, the management of Nigerian Prisons Service has continuously expressed its appreciation to us and even the inmates. Also, some of the inmates appreciate what we do. After they regain their freedom, they call and pray for us. And that is great.”
Giwa-Amu said the Foundation offered care services to the inmates after they might have regained their freedom. “We aligned ourselves with the after-care services of the Nigerian Prisons Service. There are sessions for welding, vocational training, printing and others. These sessions are mainly for inmates’ rehabilitation and we have made tremendous impact on the lives of the inmates in this area also.”
If there is anything that triggers sadness in Giwa-Amu, it is in the manner of administration of justice in the county. His frustrations, he lamented, were noticeable in the way legal proceedings are handled by judges.
“The judicial system is in a mess,” he complaind. “It is corrupt, except for a few sound judges who know their onions. You know them by their erudite judgments. But even at that, it is sad that the judiciary has failed the common man. People don’t believe they can get justice in our courts.”
He said there were times that he felt discouraged and had considered abandoning the project due to the huge financial implications of offering free legal services. But he said he later made up his mind that since the journey had started, it must continue. “Yes, at times, I feel bad, but when I think of the spiritual benefits, I keep moving,” he submitted.
“In the face of all these challenges, Giwa-Amu also expressed fears that the NGO might not outlive him. He expressed sadness that most lawyers in the country were not ready to offer free legal services, adding that the harsh economic situation in the country had made it difficult for people to offer services free of charge. He was worried that nobody might be willing to sponsor the project after his exit. But he praised the Office of Public Defenders (OPD) in Lagos State for their efforts at defending the rights of the oppressed and the vulnerable.
He also admonished the leadership of the religious organisations, notably, the churches and the mosques, to rise up to the challenge.
Said he: “The churches and the mosques have not helped issues. They preach love on daily basis, but they don’t practise what they preach. How many of these religious organisations do visit the prisons? Just a few of them. And the truth is, 80 percent of the inmates you see in our prisons are innocent of the charges that brought them there. Therefore, the religious organisations should think about rehabilitation and welfare of inmates in the prisons.”
Timothy Owan and Omo Efe Dollars Victory are some of inmates that have regained their freedom following free legal services by the Solomon and Stephen Foundation. They expressed appreciation to the foundation for ensuring their freedom.
Tony Owan said: “For me, it is victory at last, after spending two years behind bars. With the memories of the harrowing experience I had in the prison, I think it is better for me to move on and start a new life with my family. I thank God for His mercies, which I received through the Solomon and Stephen Foundation. May the good Lord reward them.”