“The Prison Industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interests. It uses prisons as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labor, policing, courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent”
There is nothing to suggest that my cellmate Emeka has been anywhere but a Nigerian prison. At the courthouse jail, he is the live wire, displaying an energy and freedom that’s a stark contrast to his confinement.
There’s an ease about him, the casual indifference of someone for whom misfortune has become a mundane thing.
When he introduces himself and asks what I’m in for, I tell him it’s an unfortunate mix up. He can tell I’ve never been to jail before and I’m tempted to ask why; then I remember that at the University, it was so easy to spot the first years.
He is talking with some wardens through the cell bars and in the space of an hour he gives bribes to six of them. The amounts range from three hundred Naira to a thousand Naira. My curiosity eventually gets the better of me and I ask him what he’s in for.
He looks away just then with the slightest hint of shame.
“Me and my girl just dey argue, na so the thing just happen.”
I stare at him; this chubby, short man with the plump cheeks of a newborn and the exuberance of a teenager and wonder for a second if I shouldn’t be more scared of him.
Emeka was arrested on the run after killing his girlfriend following a heated argument. He has been on trial since 2014.
He’s hopeful he’ll beat the charges “by God’s grace”.
His belief in God is at odds with his obvious irritation at the two women in the cell who are singing praises and praying at the top of their voices, perhaps expecting a God-sent earthquake to rescue them from their confinement.
It takes my mind to a song I learned in Sunday School as a child;
“Paul and Silas,
They prayed, they sang,
The Holy Ghost came down”
In the same cell, the light of hope has gone out for a man who could be anywhere from 22-28 years old. He’s lying down on the concrete bench crying; he has just been sentenced to death.
“At least my own no be condemn like this guy.”
For Emeka, there is pleasure in knowing that for now, he’s still some time away from judgment.
“Anybody who can say that corruption in Nigeria has not yet become alarming is either a fool, crook or else does not live in this country”
The sequence of events which lead to my imprisonment begin with my resignation from a company I had worked at for eight months. Nigeria’s sole proprietors are notoriously vindictive and my resignation–tendered without the business owner’s blessing– is taken as an affront. A raft of accusations trail my exit. Six weeks after my resignation takes full effect, I’m at a police station at Lagos Island armed with righteous indignation.
The Divisional Police Officer is a sleazy character who alternates between good cop and bad cop. First, he’s reassuring and tells me he’s certain there’s nothing to the charges and I don’t need to write a statement. He switches to bad cop less than an hour later, after a meeting with the complainant and an obligatory greasing of the palms.
I pass the time at the complaints room of the police station eavesdropping on some of the more interesting cases.
A woman who has beaten her neighbor mercilessly over a simple disagreement. An opportunistic “landlord” who’s just a shrunken shell of a man, has rented out a property he doesn’t own to unsuspecting tenants.
At around midday, the Divisional Police Officer invites my lawyer, the complainant and his lawyers to his private office. The conclusion is simple, that I prostrate and apologise to my immediate past employer in order to quash the complaint.
Despite my lawyer’s advice, my natural disinclination to being bullied takes over and I let them know in no uncertain terms that I will not be issuing any apologies. The D.P.O, incensed at my rebuffal of his cleverly worked deux ex machina adds a second charge; conduct likely to lead to a breach of peace.
I am to be detained at the police station immediately along with the shrunken landlord from the complaint room.He’s a dark man who stands at just a little over five feet. The stench from the toilet just beside the cell completes the torture. The landlord berates himself as he paces, recounting how he has ended up here and cursing his luck, his gods and his greed. He cries as he speaks and it is obvious that a breakdown is imminent.He tries to co-opt me into his self-pity but I’m too exhausted to indulge him.
A few hours later, a party of 8 join our cell. They are young men who look to be between 19 to 22. They’re energetic and unfazed because their offenses are pretty trivial; they’re here because the policemen are looking for a quick bribe.
They were caught smoking marijuana in an abandoned park.Three of them call family members and haggle with the police officers for a “bail sum” of N15,000 each. The rest of them, too ashamed to call their family members, decide to wait it out until morning.
We’re at the magistrate court at 9am the next morning. It’s my first time in a courtroom and it’s nothing like what I imagined; I realize just then that I’ve only ever seen courtrooms in TV shows like “Suits”.
The arraignment is routine except for the prosecutor’s decision to add a new charge; conspiracy to commit fraud. Despite the prosecutor’s protests, I’m granted bail.
My remand order is issued around 1pm and as my lawyers scurry to perfect my bail, I begin my dance with the Nigerian prison system.
Segregation begins early when the prison wardens who man the courthouse jail pull me aside to tell me there are two sides to the cell.
The general section where I’m guaranteed to receive a beating by other frustrated inmates and the privileged section where I can do everything from using my cellphone, taking my bath and even drinking a beer!
The cost of privilege? Four Thousand Naira.
Their little advertisement is necessary and deliberate. Paying for privilege allows the warders know that you’re their target customer; the kind of person who is willing to oil the corrupt system with bribes to make it bearable.
In prison, the difference between suffering and not suffering is money. Don’t be fooled, there is absolutely no comfort.
By 3pm, my lawyers break the news to me; despite how relatively straightforward the bail conditions are, the magistrate left before the bail was perfected. I struggle to hold back tears as the prospect of prison immediately becomes imminent.
At Four Thirty P.M, the Black Maria arrives to take us from the courthouse cell to Ikoyi Prison.
I have a lot of questions about surviving jail and I wonder if I would have to bother about dropping the soap. Before now, everything I know about prisons has been gleaned from American movies and Tom, that Boondocks character whose biggest fear is going to prison and getting raped.
The Nigerian Prison system does not exist in movies and popular culture. It exists only in evangelical outreaches and as a show and tell for management trainees of top banks; “don’t try to steal money from the bank, prison is real”.
Lanre, another courthouse cellmate who has been on trial since 2013 for manslaughter has a few helpful tips: “Prison no be police station but you be man, you go survive. Them go ask you for money when you enter, no give them o!”
Lanre is about 5’7 with a voice rendered gravelly from years spent as a tough talking agbero in Lagos. He is gaunt as a stretched canvas and it is extremely difficult to estimate his age.
He found himself in trouble when, outnumbered in a street fight with machete wielding thugs, he knocked someone over the head with a piece of iron. The story of how he has seen his daughters just once since 2013 brings tears to his eyes.
“My mama don spend almost 2 million since this case start.”
His court case has been prolonged by police inspectors failing to honor court appearances and the snail’s pace of the Nigerian judicial system.
He tells me everything I need to know and is kind enough to even say a prayer for me.
Welcome To Ikoyi Prison!
At the gates of the Ikoyi prison, the facility’s capacity is scrawled on a chalkboard; Eight Hundred. Right next to that is the figure for the current number of inmates; Two Thousand, Eight Hundred and forty.
More than Seventy Percent of the almost Three Thousand inmates are classified as A.T.M; Awaiting Trial Males.
The sixty-three new inmates who arrive on Wednesday from courts all over Lagos are called alejo. The alejos are made to squat as they pat us down and check our shoes and socks for banned items. We are then taken to a welcome cell, a space I can only describe as a “room of four”.
The room has two bunk beds, a large fan, a bathroom, toilet and six relaxed men lounging on their beds in the manner of lizards sunning themselves.Some are preoccupied with phones while others are heating pots over small kerosene stoves. It is all so domestic that one might forget for a minute that this is a prison.
A man in boxer shorts eventually stands in the centre of the room and bellows: “Welcome to Ikoyi prison! This place no be police station so you’ll never be comfortable”
“For the people way dey here because them no do anything, Ikoyi prison is filled with people way no do anything.”
The man who addresses us is the “Elder” and the other bunk occupants deign to him. His powers include deciding the use of the cell’s two general telephones, making sleeping arrangements, ordering the cell’s houseboy around, prescribing punishment and the use of a long cane to flog erring inmates.
He exercises his powers without doubt, reprimanding cell mates for staying too long on phone calls or using up too much water in the shower. He cusses often, a stream of creative Yoruba invectices which would be funny if the circumstances are different.
A few minutes into his well-rehearsed speech, the electricity goes off and the heat reaches dizzying proportions. A stool is produced for the elder by an inmate who is clearly the errand boy.
“When I give you this phone” Elder begins his instruction, “you go call person way you know make them transfer N2,000 MTN credit for you, na the payment for your bed space.”
“If them no fit transfer card, we fit give them account number to transfer the money”
Lanre warned me about this scheme and was quite insistent that it was simply a scam.
I pay nonetheless because, it is one thing to listen to a warning, it is quite another to be faced with the situation.
The elaborate scheme will see the Elder sell almost N100,000 in airtime to prison officials who will buy them at just a fraction of the cost. Money is the oil that keeps the wheels spinning.
The Nigerian prison system is just an extension of the Nigerian society; if you want to rise above a system that’s deliberately rigged to fail, be prepared to pay up.
On Wednesday morning, we’re registered, formally recognised as members of the system. It is supposed to be a routine administrative exercise, but in prison, everything is designed to strip you of dignity. For those with a full head of hair or a full beard, a haircut is mandatory, it costs N500 to get a haircut with a clipper, the cheap razors are free; only returning visitors to prison can avoid haircuts.
Registration is done by hand and it is especially slow. We’re made to stand in a dank, narrow corridor with barely enough space between each alejo to fit a finger. Some four hours later, lunch is served; huge balls of Eba with a gruel-like bowl of Egusi. Meat, fish and eggs are almost never served in prison.
The inmates are grateful for two meals a day even when it’s lumpy rice and barely sufficient stew. They store the rice for later when they cook stew and soups. At night, the stoves would light up and the aroma from different pots would fill the air.
Nigeria’s budget puts the stark conditions of Nigerian prisons in perspective. In 2017, 17 Billion Naira was budgeted for the feeding of prisoners in 224 prisons across the country.
It means that each inmate receives food worth Three Hundred Naira ($0.83) daily and the quality of the meals are indicative of the meagre amounts budgeted.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
Where the welcome cell is merely purgatory, real prison life begins at your assigned cell. The quality of your suffering is largely dependent on how organised your cell is.
I’ve been a great customer to the prison officials so I’m assigned to cell D5, reputed to be one of the best cells in prison. Here, I learn that there is honor even among inmates.
There’s a strict hierarchy; the Elder acting as primus inter pares is ably helped in discharging his duties by other cell officials. There’s an inmate in charge of water, another for meting out discipline and yet another is a head of admin of sorts.
There are several rules in D5; no homosexuality, no fighting, a ban on alejos speaking to regular inmates until they’ve spent three weeks in the cell and a partial restriction of movement for alejos.
Of the six rules at D5, the most important is this; the Elder’s word is final. It is emphasised so much that I begin to build up a mental image of him so it’s a bit of a letdown when we’re introduced to him.
He’s a soft spoken, skinny man who doesn’t seem accustomed to throwing his weight around.
He tells us that a shared bed space is Forty thousand Naira and explains the benefits paying provides; access to the bathroom, toilets and a free pass from cell duties.
The most dreaded cell duty is disposing faeces from the dysfunctional soak away behind the cell. It is as simple as it is disgusting; inmates who can’t afford to pay scoop shit out of the soakaway with big buckets for further disposal at another soak away.As disgusting as cell duties sound, the primary reason for paying for a bed space is to avoid “Jankara”. Jankara is the floor space where those who cannot afford to pay for bed spaces sleep. An inability to pay means that you’ll be stacked atop two or three inmates with not even enough space for a thread to fit in between you and the next man. In Jankara, sleep is impossible. If you’re headstrong enough to sleep despite the discomfort, a cell officer called a mopol is tasked with keeping you awake every night with the aid of a sturdy leather belt.
As sweat trickles and flows between the stack of bodies, men with weak bladders wet themselves to add to the toxic mix.
If you look away from the squalor and suffering, the most obvious thing about the Nigerian Prison experience is the collective, desperate hanging on to religion.
The Christians and Muslims are separated on the first night; there’s no room for atheists.
Prayers before the end of the day are mandatory as God entertains pleas to break chains and grant freedom. In many cells, refusing to participate in religious rituals is frowned upon.
In Ikoyi Prison, No one has any faith in the the legal system, it’s all on God to make it happen.
I make fast friends and gather the stories of the people in my cell. There’s nothing else to do to pass the time. People tell their stories easily here and you get the sense that they just want to talk.
There’s a man who’s here because he “invested” N8.5 million of his business partner’s money in an online ponzi scheme. Another, with several tattoos criss crossing his broad back is accused of cultism but has the air of someone who knows he won’t be here for long.
There are also the three Igbo men huddled together who say they made a routine trip to Lagos to purchase spare parts only to be arrested by the police for purchasing stolen goods.
Sometimes, there are no words, just bizarre actions; like my bunkmates who write bible verses on pieces of paper and immerse them in bottles of water to be drunk later.
In prison, there’s an acute awareness of time because it passes so slowly. When a Prison official comes to my cell on Friday morning to announce that my bail has been perfected, it feels like I have been there forever.
Someone mounts a stool and with a piece of chalk adjusts the count for the number of inmates in Cell D5.
As I put on my shoes and prepare to leave Ikoyi prison, the Elder and a couple of people I spoke to during my stay tried to bum some money off me. Some had words of advice; that thing way bring you come here, no make e bring you come back again o!
The process of leaving prison is just as cumbersome as coming in. The only change is that now, the Prison officials are friendly; it’s difficult to demand a bribe while keeping a stern face.
Fake smiles and expressions of happiness are quickly followed up by bold requests for bribes. One hour after walking out of cell D5, I am ready to walk out of the front gates of Ikoyi prison, several thousand Naira poorer but unbelievably relieved to be out of hell.
Olowogboyega Olumuyiwa is a 27-year-old Nigerian who works in Branding and Communications. He hopes to one day write bios like this and stuff them with all the Journals and magazines where his works have appeared. He’s on Twitter @olumuyiwa__