“We should help out at the prisons”
So we are sitting down on a rather sunny Thursday morning in November (It is especially hot at this time and we are all talking quickly so as to get the meeting over and done with). The question before us is what project to undertake. The suggestions are many, varied and all valid until the prisons are suggested. We all pause to consider that not many people go there and they seem most in need of compassion. Everyone agrees that the prison is a good place to have an outreach and we all begin to make plans toward a visit. A few weeks, a lot of money and talk down the line and it is the day. So here we are all dressed up in our CDS shirts and assembled at the stadium.
We eventually leave the stadium at about half past nine and in barely fifteen minutes we are at the prisons where we park and wait outside for our representatives to inform the wardens of our arrival. As we wait outside, I take the time to look around the large compound with a high gate at the far end. This gate is high and has only one narrow pedestrian gate that is opened for people to go in and out. The compound is very sanitary and open (ostensibly to prevent the prisoners from hiding anywhere should they ever manage to get out of that eye-of-a-needle gate).
After about forty-five minutes of waiting, during which we are all slightly worried that our representatives have joined the ranks of the inmates within, they emerge and inform us that we are to take no valuables inside the premises and so all phones, cameras and cash are deposited in one of the cars belonging to a member and we steady our nerves to pass through the gate into the main premises of the prison.
Within The Gates
Passing through the main gate, we wait in a small reception area having a second gate. There is a board of stats on the wall and I start to read and only then does the truth of tales about prisons begin to sink in. The first shock is the sheer number of prisoners – a staggering 898 people are incarcerated here. I wonder if we truly have so many criminals and what crimes they have committed. The stats get even more horrifying. Out of a total of 875 male inmates, only 72 have been convicted. So the official status of the others remains “awaiting trial” and there is only one convicted person out of 23 female inmates. As I am about to turn away, another statistic catches my eye. The capacity of this prison is 387.
I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the harmattan as I step through the second gate and I keep my eyes averted so as to avoid meeting a sight that might either scare me or move me to tears given my already unsteady nerves. We are conducted to the chapel where we will hold the health talk and as we enter, we see that the female prisoners are already seated. It is a sight to sadden the heart when I see that half of these women have children – one even with a month-old baby. A full two-thirds of the rest are elderly. There is a young girl there who I believe should be younger than I am and then I remember that virtually all these women are awaiting trial. We are given seats and we wait as the male prisoners are brought in. All ages between young men not old enough to have finished university education and elderly men who could be grandfathers are present here. All I can do is stare as it really hits me hard – the realization that anyone, but anyone could be here among these people.
“My family doesn’t know where I am!”
The preliminary meeting doesn’t take very long and soon it is time to begin the counselling and consultation. My task is to organise the people who have to receive counselling and consultations and to keep records and it involves my going into the midst of the seated inmates. At first, I am scared and very reluctant to go but when I remember that Jesus touched lepers, I wonder if I am not being a bit supercilious with this but the work is abundant and I soon forget all my scruples.
During the counselling, I take a break just to get some weight off my feet and I happen to overhear parts of a conversation. The man is a Yoruba man from Ondo state, perhaps middle aged but the life here makes it difficult to tell, who was taken here when he travelled this way a while ago and got in some trouble. As far as he knows, no one in his family knows where he is and he has been here for almost a year if not more. He asks if we can contact anyone in his family. As I hear this, I wonder how many missing persons cases have ended up like this man in prisons all over the country.
As We Leave
We work until it is almost half past one when we are informed that the prisoners have to go back to their cells and we rush through seeing the rest of them while gathering our things. We eventually get outside the gates and get some refreshments before we go off. As we are standing there, we see a Black Maria pull up with new prisoners. Some SSS operatives are positioned to guard the prisoners and ensure that they do not escape. As the last of them enters the prisons, I wonder if they have been convicted and if their families know where they are.
- Treatment of mentally ill prison inmates under fire (theprovince.com)