From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
For the inmates of the Onitsha Federal Prisons, Christmas, Easter Sunday and the birthday of the Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha, the Most Rev. Valerian Maduka Okeke, are three special days they earnestly look forward to every year.
Some of the inmates pray that such days come so often since they are three guaranteed days they would be sure of eating good food, getting fresh supply of provisions and at the same time enjoying other recreational activities like dancing and playing football.
The Metropolitan Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev Okeke since his Episcopal ordination has made those three days special moments of visiting the inmates to celebrate with them.
Apart from the traditional 8a.m holy Eucharistic celebration with a retinue of priests where the inmates also play special roles as lay readers, choir ministration and prayer of the faithful, the visit is often accompanied with various gift items, including cakes, food and other goodies.
Recently, when the archbishop clocked 64 years, it was another usual visit and the inmates really enjoyed themselves even as they started looking forward to the next visit on Christmas day.
In a homily during the holy mass celebration, the archbishop admonished the inmates to have absolute faith in God, who he said never fails in any situation.
He reminded them that their period of incarceration may be a turning point later in life, pointing out to them that people like Nelson Mandela and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo were once prisoners, but later became presidents of their countries.
Archbishop Okeke also gave examples from the Bible on the essence of having faith without losing hope, noting that Abraham believed he would be father of all nations when God told him so even when he was still childless.
He noted that the Blessed Virgin Mary also accepted the message of Angel Gabriel when she was told that she would conceive and bear a son who would be the saviour of mankind even when she was still a virgin.
He told the inmates that with faith, God would take over their case while those who are languishing inside for what they did not do would still breathe the air of freedom some day.
“Take the period of your stay here as a time of deep introspection, prolonged retreat and reformation for the better and pray that when you come out of this place, you will be a new man. When you stay here in anger, you can ruin your life but when you accept your fate, God will take over and change your story.
“It is a period of prayer, change and turn around. If you came here out of your misdeeds, take it as a reformation stage. If you didn’t commit anything bad, but you are here, God is planning you for greater things,” he said.
The archbishop who reiterated the commitment of his apostolate to the welfare of the inmates announced that work has reached an advanced stage at the proposed ultra-modern skill acquisition centre under construction for use by the inmates.
He said the project which roofing had been completed would likely be commissioned by Easter Sunday next year, adding that the project was in line with the desire of his apostolate that the inmates would be rehabilitated holistically which include not only physical and spiritual needs, but also being equipped with relevant skills that would make them fit in properly within the society after their freedom from prison.
He said that the centre would afford the inmates the opportunity to learn various handcrafts and technical work repairs while others would study for the General Certificate Examination (GCE), which could qualify them to enroll in the universities.
Governor Willie Obiano who was represented by his Chief of Staff, Prof. Joe Asike, on the occasion, while thanking the archbishop for the various positive interventions he has made in the Onitsha Prisons, said that the state government was also working tirelessly to empower the judiciary and also help in decongesting the prisons.
He said more magistrates have been hired in the state to enable the bench perform its duties effectively and reduce the spiraling number of awaiting trial inmates in the prisons.
The Prison Controller in Anambra, Emma Nwakeze in his remarks noted that the efforts of the archbishop to the Onitsha Prisons have gone a long way in complementing government’s efforts with the inmates and officials reaping bountifully from them.
He commended other personalities and organizations that have been assisting them and assured the archbishop that the various items he presented to the inmates would be judiciously distributed.
The Prison Chaplain, Rev Fr. Pius Nwankwo, while appreciating the archbishop said that his prison apostolate has taken a positive contagious effect that other bishops from different dioceses now visit the various prisons located within their domain.
He said the inmates of Onitsha Prisons are the most lucky to have Archbishop Okeke because he had initiated so many changes in the facility which include sinking of borehole for improved water supply to the cells, tiling the cells and provision of other materials which have made it possible for the inmates to enjoy fans and even watch televisions in the cells.
Dignitaries that attended the birthday celebration included Oseloka Obaze, PDP candidate in the last Anambra guber election, members representing Onitsha 1 and 2 Constituency in the Anambra State House of Assembly, Chugbo Enwezor and Edward Ibuzo, among others.