Hope in the shadows of incarceration

By yimanalley 3 years agoNo Comments

Though various reforms have been proposed towards improving the conditions of Nigerian prisons, not a single review has been made to the Nigerian Prisons Act which was last amended in 2004.

In 2015, I took an interest in the plight of incarcerated pregnant women in Nigeria. I had come across an online report about a woman who had given birth in Aba Prison in Southern Nigeria. The Nigerian daily, the Punch newspaper, had published the story online, raising my concerns about the quality of the prison welfare system in Nigeria. I wondered about the impact of an overcrowded prison space (a problem bedeviling all prison facilities in Nigeria) on a mother and child, but didn’t find any relevant content online. I was a radio host based in Port Harcourt, Southern Nigeria at the time.

In March 2019, I got connected to Smart. G. Isowo on the professional network, Linkedin. The University of Prisons detail he had on the education segment of his profile wasn’t lost on me. It immediately reminded me of the woman who gave birth in Aba Prison.

Smart. G. Isowo, Executive Director, CENPRIR

Smart. G. Isowo is the Executive Director of CENPRIR; the Centre for Prisons Reform and Inmates’ Rights. CENPRIR is a non-profit, human rights and non-governmental organization in Abuja, Nigeria focused on advocating prisons reform and protecting the rights of inmates in Nigerian prisons. When I informed Isowo I was interested in research and writing about the plight of nursing mothers and other issues bedeviling Nigeria’s prison system as a case study, he seemed pleased at the contact.

I had an unscheduled trip to Abuja for the penultimate week in May. In keeping with production timeline however, I commenced interviewing Isowo via phone.

CENPRIR has a rehabilitation programme focused on inmates in Suleja Prison, Niger state, about 1 hour by road from Abuja.

Suleja Prison holds between 25-50 female inmates at a given time in the female section of the prison. Structured like a students’ dormitory, it housed three nursing mothers amongst the general prison population as at the time of my conversation with Isowo on the 1st of May. Isowo confirmed the children were between 9months old, a year and two months old.

‘How adequate is the prison’s welfare provision for the women and their kids?’ I inquired.

‘The welfare system is poor. The kids don’t have a separate care center where the mothers can attend to them. They are in the same cell with other prison inmates; a single room dormitory with double decker beds. Imagine young children beign raised in that space with a population of people of all sorts of character; those with mental issues etc.’, he explained.

‘Sounds like crowded conditions, Smart’, I said.

‘It is crowded. The mothers are solely responsible for their children’s upkeep and this doesn’t meet up with international standards as the kids have rights to welfare,’ Isowo concurred.

I did an online search for international norms on incarcerated women around the world. The United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules, were adopted by a resolution of the UN Economic and Social Council in July 2010. The Bangkok Rules states;

‘The principle of the best interest of the child is to be the basis of decisions to allow children to stay with their incarcerated mothers, and children in prison with their mothers shall never be treated as prisoners. Women prisoners who have their children with them in prison are to be given the maximum possible opportunities to spend time with their children and the environment for the children’s upbringing is to be close as possible to that of a child outside prison.’

‘Was it the sole decision of the three women in Suleja Prison to keep their children with them? Did their extended families not register concern about the kids being in such a less than ideal environment, such as you’ve described?’ I questioned Isowo further.

‘A child gets the most attention and care from its mother especially at the ages of the three children presently in Suleja Prison. Concerns that a child can be abused even by a family member are genuine. We’ve seen that happen in the past where a male member of family sexually molests a young child’.

‘So what support is CENPRIR providing to the three nursing mothers in Suleja, if I may ask?’.

‘We provide legal support to help speed up their cases and…’

‘Help speed up their cases? What do you mean? Have they not been convicted of crimes brought against them yet? I interjected.

‘There are record numbers of persons awaiting trial in Nigerian prisons. We just celebrated baby Aisha’s first birthday. Her mother is awaiting trial for a 2017 murder case against her’.

Nigeria’s judicial principle on bail application under Section 1.5 on the Propriety of Bail cites, ‘the nature and seriousness of the offence, the punishment prescribed and the likely sentence to be imposed i.e. whether there is a provision for a fine or mandatory custodial sentence,’ as one amongst seven considerations.

Baby Aisha’s mother was remanded in Suleja Prison, late 2017. Her in-laws had her arrested when she married a week after her late husband’s murder on the premise that the second wedding coming soon after their late son’s death implied her involvement in his death. Baby Aisha is the offspring of her mother’s new husband. Aisha was born on the 15th of December 2018 in Suleja Prison.

Baby Aisha and mum

The quality of preventive healthcare like prenatal care differs depending on the prison. Lagos Prison for instance has a better equipped medical section compared to Suleja’s. However, it is noteworthy that inadequate funding continues to hamper the efficient administration of prison service across Nigeria.

Take another instance of Suleja Prison’s single Black Maria. In the event of a breakdown of the vehicle, there’s absolutely no backup. Even the one vehicle does not fulfill its purpose, because it has to do the rounds of the various courts across town. There have been instances where inmates were said to have missed their court sessions by the time the Black Maria arrives the court hearing for their cases.

In June 2018, Nigeria’s Minister of Interior, Lt.-Gen Abdulrahman Dambazau visited Kano Central Prison in Kano State, Northern Nigeria. Dambazau noted that more than 70% of inmates in Nigerian prisons across the country were awaiting trial.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics from 2011 to 2015 shows that, ‘72.5% of Nigeria’s total prison population is inmates serving time while awaiting trial and without being sentenced’.

Funding aside, the fundamental issue here is the lack of political will to amend the laws governing prison administration in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s constitution vests in the Federal Government of Nigeria the control and administration of prisons while the Prisons Act and subsidiary legislations vests in the President of Nigeria powers, control, administration, security and welfare of prisoners and staff of the Nigerian Prisons Service.

Though various reforms have been proposed towards improving the conditions of Nigerian prisons, not a single review has been made to the Nigerian Prisons Act. It is a point of interest that the Nigerian Prisons Act was last amended a decade and half ago in 2004.

‘The multi-faceted nature of issues constraining effective administration of prisons like Suleja Prison presents a glum reality for prisoners, Smart. What bright spot is CENPRIR providing through its work?’ I inquired of Isowo in sheer need of some positive angle.

‘We have a rehabilitation programme for female inmates enabling them with skills in hairdressing, soap making and sewing. We have the necessary machines in the prison courtyard which separates the male and female section. We also acquaint them with soft skills in anger management, customer relations, sales and marketing. It’s essential that they have something to fall back on after serving their time or when they get out. Stigmatisation is a major issue they face and these skills create livelihoods for them,’ he explained.

‘Let me ask you. What drives you?’ was another considered question.

‘The expected outcome, Yima; the drive is to impact the lives of prison inmates who have little or no support during their time and after they leave prison. The psychological impact of prison life is such that some become mentally incapacitated. We have a case of a young lady who benefitted from our programme while in Suleja. After serving her time, she fell back to her old ways due to lack of support from family and friends. We have so far helped twelve women re-integrate into their community after doing their time. The benefits of successful re-integration are manifold.’  

‘Our resources are often stretched by the sheer numbers requiring support. We sometimes have to improvise. An instance is bringing onboard our platform, a man who spent 8years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. We took him in to advocate prisoner rights having had a first-hand experience of prison life,’

 ‘Who is he?’ I inquired.

I was later introduced to John Aniedi. (Not his real name. We also have not published his photo due to concerns about a reprisal against him)

When I initially spoke to John Aniedi introducing myself as a publisher spotlighting the plight of inmates in Nigerian prisons, he was anxious about my original intention.

‘I’m a journalist, John and I tell stories to bring attention to relevant issues which are often overlooked or under reported,’ I explained, in a bid to re-assure him.

John Aniedi is from Cross Rivers State, Southern Nigeria. He had a brief stint with the Nigerian military in 2000. In 2004, he graduated from the University of Calabar with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, relocating afterwards to Abuja for a position at a Federal parastatal. He was attached to a principal officer as head of security and chief protocol officer.

Further concerns about John Aniedi’s safety constrain the re-counting of specific details leading to his incarceration but it is note-worthy that he was implicated in a petition written against his principal. He was arrested and remanded in Kuje prison for a year in 2009, during which time he was poisoned and had to undergo colectomy to remove his large intestine.

In 2010, John Aniedi was sentenced for attempted murder in a case for which he maintains innocence.  He was released in 2017. Isowo of the Centre for Prison Reform and Inmates Rights (CENPRIR) got acquainted with John through a Christian church where they both fellowship. John presently volunteers his time to organisations like CENPRIR, sharing his story with prison inmates to offer hope to people whose predicament attests to sheer hopelessness in mostly dehumanising prison systems.

‘Indeed, resource scarcity is one of the most significant challenges facing African prisons today. On a continent of so many social needs, protection of prisoners is far from the top of many priority lists. Moreover, the consensus of opinion is that prison is a locus detention, punishment and deterrence as opposed to rehabilitation and reintegration.’- Jeremy Sarkin, Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a Human Rights Perspective

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Yima live! is an audio show examining globally relevant themes impacting our world and affecting the Africa region, especially Nigeria. The show aims to bring attention to salient global issues and key regional developments causing disruptions and shaping fast evolving twenty first century realities.

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