For over two hours two Saturdays ago, the prison gates of one of the biggest jails in Lagos was shut against me and I had a glimmer of experience of what it is like to be behind bars in the most populous black nation of the world. My spell in the high walls of a penitentiary never occurred because I did a crime or was apprehended for wandering like some are—fortunately, I was only visiting with some members of my church who had made it a cause to always visit these forlorn ilk behind bars.
Only recently, I started working on an anthology of thirteen short stories and one of the accounts I chose to write on was an ordeal of a young man who inadvertently found himself behind bars after committing culpable homicide. While prepping for this, I naturally read a whole lot about life in Nigerian prisons and the justice system—something that often makes me ill at ease and irked due to the deplorable inhumane conditions that characterized our jails. Even as I wrote the first draft of the story and my mind “imprisoned,” I couldn’t wait to conclude the account and be free again!
In my bid to add verisimilitude to my quest, I mentioned to someone in church that I’m working on a story and I’d like to talk to a gentleman who has just been released and she said, ‘why not come with us next week, we are having a visitation and it would help your story.’ I didn’t jump at the offer: I shrugged, ‘I am not going with you, I just want to find out a few things and I think I have read enough anyways.’ My primal fear for prison engulfed me. But she persuaded me and on the second reflection, I thought it would be hypocritical to be writing about a prison experience without even having the nerve to visit. Thoughts of facing fiery criminals and losing my visitor’s tag (they say if you lose your tag, you wouldn’t be allowed to leave!) dominated my noggin all week and I was trepid to say the least.
So the time came and we set out for the prison, fortified with packs of rice and bottled water (very rare to get in those circles) because the head of the prison ministry in church passed on in August and her last wish was to spend her birthday with the inmates and in the usual Christian fashion, we said our prayers and headed out for the mission.
The journey didn’t really take so long and I was flummoxed that this prison was situated right within town, in a highbrow area in Lagos, and there were other houses on the street. I imagined what it would be like to be living on a street that has prison on it in Nigeria—whether one will not be whisked inside someday for little crimes like not paying your security levies. Not too long after, we got to the frontage with armed mobile policemen marauding the territory while directing us. One young soldier particularly motioned on an armored tank. I was really wondering whether the bloke was really ready to fire or distracted by the sight of visitors as our eyes colluded. I didn’t bother to find out. We alighted from the bus with the goods and our coordinator spoke to the guards and not too long after, the narrow green prison gates were opened as we packed everything inside. The atmosphere was already stifled of freedom. One you would expect from such place. I had gussied up in a well ironed shirt and tried to looked as (presidential) distinguished as I could as I do not want to be mistaken for an inmate ( most of the inmates don’t wear uniforms)! As we accessed the prison reception that overlapped the main gate and the inner gate that led to the prison yard, I could already see some inmates in their threadbare garbs, peeping from afar like they wanted to know who we were.
As all the formalities were exhausted, the ladies among us were told to go to the female warders be searched while we were handled by their male counterparts. They inquired if we had phones, ATM Cards, memory cards as they do not allow those but we had already left all ours in the bus. I looked at one of the warders whose cheerfulness I didn’t buy. As he searched us in he said in a sarcastic tone that won’t be surprising for a jailer, “We have to ensure that you will not be the ones to compromise our security here.” I shook my head in mock understanding. We were then given the visitor’s tag—it was no tag, just a piece of paper and for some, a square plastic that indicated we were visitors. We didn’t sign in and I wondered why. Soon we were ushered into the prison yard—I took a deep breath as I ensured that my tag was safely kept in my left pocket. I also placed my hands on it to ensure that I don’t gamble my freedom! As we got in, just by the side of the gate, we saw a soccer pitch! Inmates were enjoying a game with a visiting team on the bumpy green turf as others watched on. I wondered where the visiting players kept their tags—especially as they mingled more with inmates on their home ground….
As the second gate to the prison yard was locked, we were now literally in prison! I remembered the series, Prison Break and hoped no one will be planning a jailbreak that time! Not long after, a good-looking bespectacled young man and another older one came to welcome us and asked us to follow them. I was shocked that they were also inmates! Soon we could see a throng of inmates seated or standing at the nooks and crannies of the yard— I kept a relaxed face and tried not to look into their faces, but then I saw young and mid-age faces starring like a pack of hyena on the watch out for a prey as we walked past them. As we attained the church in the yard situated right beside a cell block, I thought, ‘Hmm… so this is prison, it’s not as bad as I thought…!’ I would later learn that the bell would still ring and folks would be locked up again and more horror will go on inside, especially for the hapless. We only came when it was free time for folks to roam within the yard and have some fresh air, if any….
There was nothing desirous inside this church except for the circular whitish clock that hanged hopelessly on a wall that was clamoring for a touch of paint– it must really matter in the circles where folks are doing time. I also observed the decrepit instruments and a worn lectern reserved for the preacher. We were ushered to a special pew and I looked at the faces of the congregation: young, mid-age, old… some made me marvel if we were really in prison…. My eyes panned like an HD digital Camera and closed in on a particular young man, his hair was well combed and his countenance was fresh and he reminded me of how Daniel must have looked after refusing to munch Nebuchadnezzar’s delicacy. This guy sat down quietly trying to maintain what was left of his dignity. Most didn’t look like that. The full weight of their plight hung on their faces like a logo of a company on the homepage. Minutes after we got in, the food that we had brought was transported into the auditorium. The inmates trooped in in droves like hens do at the sight of corn. The song that beamed from the loudspeaker was the not the best I’ve heard in a long time, yet the congregation danced and sang loud even though you could tell that most were there because of the food. I’m not particularly famed for my dancing steps, but I had to summon a few and feigned enjoying the moment (while I was like what the heck… is going on here!) I thought I needed to do that. After all these inmates were looking at us and we were supposed to bring them hope… nay, the good news….
To be continued….