By VIVIAN ONYEBUKWA and CHIOMA IGBOKWE
NIGERIAN prison cells are notorious for being dreaded fiefdoms of hardened criminals and convicts, who extort money from newcomers on threats or actual brutality and violence. Such victims are subjected to torture, suffering and all manner of inhuman treatment, while their tormentors, often older and vicious inmates, live like lords of the manor. Money in sufficient amount alone can save an inmate from these tribulations and assure him of a “comfortable’ stay in so far as living under the horrible conditions of the poorly funded prison system can be spoken of. With such big cash, some inmates are even assured of occasionally spending the night out in their houses or other accommodation outside the prison walls and enjoying other luxuries such as having food, or presents brought to them by visitors, otherwise denied people serving terms. These heinous activities go on abated and with the covert or overt connivance of corrupt prison officials all over the country.
Horrifying about this development, however, are the revelations that many of the unfortunate victims of these terrible situation are innocent people including youths who are awaiting trial, or ordered remanded in custody by the court after being arrested by the police for minor offences, such as wandering, without their friends and families being aware of their whereabouts! The plight of such inmates unable to raise money for their rescue is better imagined, sources say.
However, Kirikiri Medium prisons, located in Apapa area of Lagos, appears to have earned an extra pip in the sordid commercialism and illegalities that go on in the prisons as a syndicate of officers in this facility allegedly make visitors pay through their noses to see inmates there! Recent experiences of two friends ordered remanded in the prison for some days for failing to produce a suspect for whom they stood as sureties in court as well as visitors to the prison reveal that these despicable and gory practices are still alive and well.
Anthony Chidi and Eugene Mneka’s five -day ordeal at the Kirikiri Medium SecurityPrisons began after they were picked up on the order of a magistrate’s court at Agbomalu, Marine, Apapa, when one Steve for whom they stood as sureties in order to be granted bail failed to show up on Monday April 11, 2015.
“On Thursday at 7am, two policemen came to my house and demanded that I should follow them to court as the magistrate demanded that I be there. I asked what the issue was and they explained and showed me the arrest warrant. I had no choice but to dress up and follow them. On getting to the court I discovered that my dear friend Chidi was already there too, “ recalled Mneka, who added: “They put us in a cell at the court and left. We remained there till around 4.30pm when they arraigned us inside the magistrate office. We pleaded not guilty and the magistrate asked them to retain us in prison pending when we can make bail. They deliberately wanted us to sleep in prison that was why we were not given an opportunity to defend ourselves. They marched us into the waiting Black Maria which marked the beginning of our journey to hell.”
According to Eugene, the journey to the prison seemed endless as they battled suffocation in the almost airtight van. “Our woes started inside the Black Maria. The heat inside was unbearable, and we could hardly get air. A journey which was supposed to last less than 15 minutes seemed endless because of the inhuman condition and traffic situation that day. Finally when we got to Kirikiri medium prisons, they opened the gate of hell and asked us to march in. We were asked to squat and form two lines. There were so many of us and they ended up dividing us into two rows and directed us to the welcome cell.
At cell C1 where I was taken to, we were introduced to the Marshal who screamed that we should all sit on the floor and pack ourselves like sardine. We were told that this is how “Alejos”(newcomers) sit. We sat down for hours till about 9pm when the Marshal announced that if you have anyone that can send N3,000 from outside, the person should raise his hands. I quickly raised my hands and was given a phone to call the person. I called my wife and because she never knew where I was, she started arguing.
“I quickly switched off and called my son and warned that if he did not comply that I would be beaten up inside the prison. Twenty minutes later, he sent the credit card, that was how I was saved from the torture those who couldn’t were battered mercilessly. At about 10.30pm, the Marshal came again and asked those who can bring N30, 000 to stand up. The money was much, so I did not indicate, later I stood up and met the Marshal and told him that I can provide N10, 000. The area in the cell which had six- spring bed is meant for him and his executives. He was excited and gave me the phone and a First Bank account number to pay in the money.
I called my son again and begged him to help me, but luckily before he could send it they moved us to our permanent cell known as 01. It’s a 20 by 20 room and we were about 70 in that room. There was no bed and we slept on bare floor. It was there I heard of what happened to Chidi. The only six -spring bed there that was not up to five was meant for executives.”
Chidi, on his part, was taken to one of the welcome cells known as K1. “As soon as they marched us into the cell, one of the inmates used a rod and started hitting us on the head. The more you screamed, the harder they bashed you. We screamed and begged for mercy and no one came to our rescue. It was horrible; they forced us to lie down while the beating continued. At 9pm, one of the inmates who was introduced as Marshal came in and said that the beating should stop. He addressed us and listed all the rules and regulations. He said as newcomers, we do not have a say in that cell. Some of the rules include that we are only allowed to wear shorts and not expected to enter the toilet once it was 10pm.
“He then asked if any of us had money at the gate? Out of fear, I said that I have N1,000. Suddenly, those boys started beating us up again and when they came towards me and others who agreed that they had money at the gate, the Marshal warned them to leave us alone for now. They packed us like sardine on the floor and dared us to move our bodies and ordered us to sleep. The leaders had enough space to lie down well and roll around. We were all sweating profusely, and the sweat from our bodies flowed like water. At that point, God was the only friend I had, so I called on Him to save an innocent soul from such inhumane treatment. To prove that He heard me, the rain started and the room became cold.
“I was relieved when morning came and we were all asked to leave the cell and head to the farmlands. This was when I had the opportunity to see my friend. We were later allowed to take a quick bath and also watch football competition by inmates,” said Chidi.
He disclosed that while in that farm, some other marshals came to them to lobby them with offer of comfortable stay in their cells. “They told us to plan well to avoid going to horrible cells. I asked them what they meant; they said that there are some cells that are meant for the poor and sick. If we can assure them that we will get money, they will talk to the warders to transfer us to their own cells, where we would be treated as VIPs. They told us that it would cost N15, 000 for VIP position. I was determined to survive so I chose one of the best cells known as O1. The marshal immediately approached the warders and paid N500 each for me and my friend Eugene. This was how our names were transferred to O1 cell.
“While they were taking us in, the marshal announced from the window that about five of us who just came in should not be touched till he came back. Unfortunately, they did not hear, or chose not to listen to him. They forced us to sit on the floor close to the path way of urine. The urine drifted up to where we were sitting and you dared not shift. They all took turns to slap the living hell out us. At that point, I told God that I was better off dead. Luckily, the marshal came in and halted the beating. He asked them why they were beating us since he had given clearance. They gave stupid reasons, and he begged us to forgive them. The marshal also read the rules and regulations of the cell. He introduced us to the Inspector General of Police, Attorney General, magistrate, security advisers, pastor, Imam and officers in-charge of toilet and bathroom. We were told that these are privileged persons and should be respected. We were told that smoking was meant for people in that category. He said that in the prison, money was the only thing that could save us from inhuman treatment throughout our stay in prison,” recalled Chidi.
As soon as the marshal finished reading the regulations, Chidi was given an opportunity to call his wife. “I called her and pleaded with her to bring N12, 000 the next day. They warned her that if she failed to bring the money, she should come and carry my corpse. She was also warned not to tell them at the gate that she was called from the prison,” said Chidi.
He added: “Luckily my wife came, but before they allowed her to see us was around 1.30pm. They called us out and the IG was asked to march us to the visitor’s room and also monitor our activities. We collected the money, gave the warders their share and they took us back. Immediately, the marshal collected the balance, we became kings. We were given VIP position and allowed to buy food and other necessities. It is a sorry sight how they beat old people. There was an old man who was up to 80 years, they battered him and when I pleaded, they said that his family had forgotten him and no one sent money to them.
“The marshals cooked their food inside the prison and they normally went out of the prison at will. Watching TV is meant for those at the VIP section, because you were expected to pay N100 to get such opportunity. Organization and religious bodies normally visit but what they brought was not always enough to go round. On Sundays, if you are not in the good book of the marshal, you will not be allowed to go to church. This is so, because all the inmates must come back with good food from churches. On weekends, we do not leave the cell. But, normally, if you can settle the warder at the gate, he will once in a while call you to come out and stretch your legs.”
Chidi lamented that many innocent people languished in the prisons, stressing: “It is good for the world to know that there are so many innocent Nigerians in the prison. Most of them, their family must have assumed that they are lost. They raided them and because you cannot meet up with the bail condition, such a person will be dumped inside the prison. If your son is missing, also check the prisons. They need to take the pictures of some of these ones and advertise, so that their families will be aware and help them. There is a man who has spent five years awaiting trial. Ever since they brought him to prison, no one has taken him to court. His family members must have assumed that he is dead. I do not pray to return here again. These days, even if you slap me, I will beg you to forgive.”
Saturday Sun learnt that most of the marshals were ex-convicts who had finished their sentence. “Most of them have finished their sentences, but decided to stay back because of the money that they are making inside prison. One of them told me that his life is better inside here. He said the world will not accept him as an ex-convict. He goes and comes in at will. Some of the inmates who are privileged normally leave the cell at night and enter town to sleep in the comfort of their homes or under private arrangement within the area. They normally come back because the warders know their family and will definitely trace them. I thank God that I am free, but heaven knows that I do not wish my enemy to spend a night inside prison,” said Chidi.
The only good thing Chidi remembered of his sojourn in the prison was the time spent to worship and pray to God. He reminisced: “It felt as if I was in heaven. Most of the inmates were sad and they assumed that by singing to God, there could be hope. No one was pretending and if sincerely there is God. He should help them. Normally after praying and listening to the Word of God, we would be given opportunity to tell our stories. You are expected to tell the whole house why you were arrested.”
His friend, Eugene, urged reforms and rehabilitation of inmates to prevent them from becoming hardened and stem crime wave. His words: “It is the survival of the fittest. When you go through hell and there is no hope that any of your family members will help you, such a person can do anything to survive. I was fortunate, but so many are not. So many have died and got buried inside the prison. No one comes for them, because nobody knows that they were there. Do not give up when your person gets missing; most of the missing persons are languishing in prison. I want to call on members of the public and organizations to request to see every inmate. Going to church, mosque or attending events is a privileged. Majority are forbidden to have access to these organizations that could help them. It is a lucrative business and the warders should be held responsible for every person who is suffering in jail. Their food is an eyesore, but you need to see how some inmates beg crawling on the floor that such food should be given to them. Kirikirii is an official torture camp for the unfortunate ones and they are using inmates to perfect such heinous act. May God save us.”
Yet more odious and nauseating are tales of experiences relatives who intended to visit their loved ones passed through before they could get an opportunity to see the inmates. According to some of them who spoke to Saturday Sun, visitors were made to part with specified amounts of money at specific stages in the process of seeing the inmate from the reception right to the visitors room.
A source said it takes between N800 and N1,000 for an individual to see an inmate on a single visit, while it fetches the corrupt prison officials even more when the party is larger.. A woman who simply identified herself as Gloria, said she would have turned back, but for the fact that the inmate she visited was her blood brother. “After going through the process one would be forced to wonder if the management of Nigeria Prisons purposely tried to make the visitors regret ever visiting an inmate there. You end up spending a lot of money at one point or the other in order to be allowed to see the person you visited. The officers I met at the gate were so polite. They would help in directing a visitor on how to go about it, especially if you were visiting for the first time. After which, they would politely ask you to part with some money as your spirit leads you. The next was where you would be asked to fill a form indicating your name or names according to the number of people you came with. After filling the form, you would be asked to pay N200 for the form. If you are more than one you multiply N200 according to your number. After filling the form, you would be asked to fill a register where you would indicate your name, the name of the person you came to visit and the crime the person committed. Then, you would be required to pay for the levy they called “Officer on duty”. The amount is not stipulated; just whatever you can afford you give to one of the officers sitting by the table there. We also paid N200 each to the officer that will lead us in.
“When we got to the entrance of Kirikiri Prison, you would be required to pay N100 each, after which you would be moved to another officer who would conduct a search and make you to taste the food if you brought any. Here you would also be made to pay N100. At this juncture, you would be taken inside to wait for the person you came to visit. Here also you would be required to pay N200 each for the seat. It is a terrible situation. What if one is not aware of all these things? One might be in serious trouble. You are meant to pay through your nose before you see the minute. Does it mean that the government is not aware of all these things happening inside the prison?” Gloria queried.
When contacted to react to the various allegations raised by the respondents, the Nigerian Prison Service(NPS) National Public Relations Officer, Francis Enabore said such act is against the rules and regulations guiding the activities of the various prisons across the country. He assured that anyone found culpable of such act of inhuman treatment will be made to face the wrath of the law. “Generally, we have issues of congestion in our various prisons because of the number of inmates that we receive on a daily basis. In prison there are laid down rules and regulations and disciplinary measures on ground to enforce them.
“Every other issue that was raised by the ex-inmates will be investigated and if any officer is found to tolerate or encourage such, that officer will be made to face a disciplinary committee”, he added.