The praise and worship session became intense as we continued to fellowship at the prison chapel. My eyes encountered some grim faces as I looked into the congregation. But the officials in the prison church were the ones that impressed me. Their decorum was topnotch and if I had my druthers, I would have given them parole. They particularly didn’t allow the inmates to come too close to us and as the song was going on, I continued my keen observation. I looked outside from the window right behind me and spotted some guys sitting on a block that looked more like a boys quarters than a cell block— they were having a chat and doing some chores. Some wearing jalamia and others in shorts and normal dresses. I didn’t see any one in uniform. Some were even fetching water in the nearby well. I jolted back to full concentration since this was prison and didn’t want to get carried away. We were not the only church that was visiting—it was actually a turn by turn thing. The pastor that had the nod before us was also from our denomination but another parish. He was introduced by the officials of the church (inmates) who kept giving us all the preferential treatment they could muster.
This pastor started off in a fiery cadence, emitting salvos in the message he titled, “Excess baggage.” He warned his listeners, ‘I am not hear to pet you or to say something that you would like. Some of the things I’d say would make you uncomfortable. Some of you are where you are today because of the excess baggage that you carry. You wanted to lead a fast life and you had bad friends.” The pastor went on and I listened with rapt attention as many moaned under their breath. But while I agreed the point he was making—let’s face it, a lot of folks in prison deserve to be in prison, my reasoning refused to take the pastor’s word for it! Does everyone here actually deserves to be here? Are some not just here because of some minor offenses that shouldn’t have warranted more than just a fine (in which case some may not have been able to afford) or some community service? I contemplated if this “excess baggage” that the pastor was hammering on wasn’t one we all carry as citizens of this nation christened Nigeria. I wondered what would be said of a Nelson Mandela, or to bring it home, an Olusegun Obasanjo– if this pastor had visited the prison when the former president was locked in for a phony coup d’etat he didn’t commit, if he would have suggested that he was carrying an “excess baggage”? After the preacher’s message, he called for folks who would like to repent and a few wimpish guys came out and were prayed for.
I soon noticed that some inmates were standoffish outside. They couldn’t care less about what was going on in the chapel. One particularly came to the window where we were and was insulting another one who was inside, ‘Na you be hungry man na. Me I no need anybody to feed me before I chop,’ he said in Pidgin English. Intermittently, someone would come and raise a wooden placard with a name on it. I concluded that it meant that that person’s attention was required.
Our turn to address the expectant inmates came. Donald(not his real name) mounted the podium amidst a rapturous applause. He used to be one of them and was only released in June. He was in an ebullient mood and had been so since we came in. it was like homecoming for him and his passion for the inmates was palpable. He narrated how he was discharged and acquitted for a murder case after spending over three and a half years awaiting trial and how he had no one to run while in prison other than his new found Christian faith. He also thanked us profusely as a church for helping reinstate him back to society. His testimony really got into the congregation. He told them that if they believed in God, He is able to deliver them from whatever circumstances they may be facing. A thunderous “Amen” ricocheted and threatened to raise the roof. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’, he exclaimed. I felt touched by his moving testimony and gave him a handshake when he retired to sit down beside me.
As Donald left, another of our brothers came up. He had also done some time in prison—albeit outside Nigeria…. At least he has an experience of what it feels like to be lonely in prison. He admonished the inmates to make use of their time while behind bars to improve their relationship with God because “there are so many distractions out there and here is quiet.” He also broke the news that we’d lost the initiator of the church’s prison ministry, telling the inmates, they were her last assignment…. A hush silence reigned momentarily. We finally had our sermon for the day by one of our sisters. As she preached on I continued to collect as many data as I could and at the same time, I couldn’t wait for her to finish so that we could take our leave! I also checked my tag intermittently. I had seen despondency etched on the faces of men, I’d seen filth, I’d seen people excoriated of dignity and I thought that this shouldn’t be….
After the final speaker, the pastor who was clad in a fine polo over a tucked in jeans while wearing a black leather wrist watch rounded off with a prayer session and told his fellow inmates to look beyond the food they were there for and get what would last them for the long haul. He thanked us and acknowledged the work we were doing and it was time to go. While we were going, I saw a particularly young dude coming to meet one of our coordinators; he was coming from where he went to write his G.C.E. papers. I thought that was impressive. Donald was busy having talks with a lot of his acquaintances who wanted to either get something from him or get across to their loved ones. As we left, our coordinator said to me, ‘are you sure you’ve gotten enough for your story or would you just like to stay with them for one week?’ I smiled and quickly told him that I was fine and would make up anything I didn’t get with my imagination!
We were seen off by the pastor and I tucked in something for him and he thanked me. But I noticed that no matter how well dressed he was, he couldn’t pass the gate. At that moment I appreciated my freedom. I have often contemplated in my closet if any man warrants to be deprived of his freedom, if the man who first suggested the idea of a prison should not be imprisoned for such iniquitous innovation, but sadly, I haven’t come up with a reasonable alternative.
We got to the gate and our tags were requested for and we were checked out. We all inhaled the breath of freedom as we headed for the bus. But then what I ‘d seen, even though I didn’t get to the cells made me dispirited. All through the journey back, I was asking Donald what it was like to be in there. He narrated horror. How folks ate badly cooked state beans by 6:00 a.m. in the morning, insipid lunch and dinner by 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 pm, the over congestion of the cells, how folks use buckets to defecate and one person (OC Lavatory) would have to dispose it with his hands. How one inmate had his eyes plucked out by another with a spoon. How cell presidents and officials would make life more unbearable for their fellow inmates. How many live in a cell that was built for far less and how the lowliest folks languish for minor offenses like stealing a goat. My heart bled and without any circumlocution, I thought this should stop!
While prison shouldn’t be placed with the amenities of a five-star hotel, it shouldn’t be a death zone or a disease-breeding colony either. I hate to sound corny but anyone can have a stint in prison for some reason… or the other. Should that be an end to their lives? Recently, I read an article of an entrepreneur who shared valuable lessons he learned when he was in prison that would never happen in Nigeria for the average Musa. He was able to write his first book, read over 100 books and did some other things he couldn’t do outside. That is far from what obtains here— we get people locked up for years – awaiting trial due to the ineptitude of our justice system. Even convicts are never reformed but dehumanized and stripped of human dignity. Where is our conscience as a people? Why has these gone on for years and yet nothing is being done about it? We cannot continue to pretend that all is well when these sort of injustices go on. People have proffered solutions to these issues of congestion in prison and the government should wake up! The justice system should be digitized, community services should be available for minor offenses and perhaps, our prisons should be renovated to meet up to internationally acceptable standards.
While groups like my church’s prison ministry and other NGOs would continue to play their part in helping inmates, the imperial power of the state confers on it a greater responsibility to drastically change this situation and I hope the Buhari government will do something about this ignoble injustice, especially with a vice-president that is not oblivious of these things. The way we treat ourselves as a people must change, more so, people in prison. It would reflect the value we place on ourselves as a people and in turn, determine how others (nations) would treat us…