Well let me immediately dispel the anxiety that may have been induced by this headline; I was never an inmate. But I could have been if I didn’t cling tightly to a piece of metal on that day.

This is an account of my first visit to the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison around 1997 and the many lessons that several such visits taught me. Regrettably, I lost my diary of jottings and am therefore writing purely from memory.

When we were admitted after completing the sign in process and the gates of Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison clang shut behind us, a certain terrible anxiety seized me. The anxiety came from a simple tag that a prison official pressed into my hand with a warning.

“Guard this tag jealously please. If you lose it, my brother, you have become like one of the inmates and will be treated as such!”

“You mean I will become a prisoner if I lose the tag?” I asked jokingly.

“This is serious,” he warned with a deadpan expression. “Please don’t lose the tag.” The earth stood still momentarily.

The import of his words hit hard when the gate shut behind us and I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Subsequently, there were two things that I did not want to accidentally drop on the grounds of Kirikiri prison. One was the Mass Box that I was carrying for Rev. Fr. John Nwadike, the then Prison Chaplain of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos. The other, you guessed it, became the tag, my passport to freedom at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison where we were admitted.

They say that curiosity killed the cat. My eagerness to continuously peel off and examine the multilayered dimension of the Catholic Church brought me to Kirikiri on that fateful day. I continue to be enamoured of this faith behemoth called the Catholic Church, and not just from an adherent’s perspective. Over time, it continues to be, for me, a complex, multidimensional institution that somehow manages to hum as an efficient engine of faith-and-work processes, ably coordinated from Rome.

Father Nwadike, for example, belongs to one of the many clerical communities known as the Congregation of the Mission. Their priests appenf the title CM after their names. In Nigeria, they are better known as Vincentians, an Order founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1624. What the Congregation does can be broken down into a twin mandate – to evangelize the poor and train the clergy. What fascinates me is the way that many of these Catholic Congregations live out their vows of poverty, seeing the face of Christ in the poor, the lonely and the forgotten. And regardless of the order to which a Parish Priest belongs, he will come face to face with the output of several orders in every Parish to which he is deployed.

To illustrate, I doubt that there are Christians in Southern Nigeria that have not heard of St. Vincent the Paul Society, a lay association that the Congregation founded and manages. They do incredible charity work, locating and providing succour to “the poorest of the poor.” On the other hand, what is not so well known is that the Vincentians also have an equally big Prison Mission – in pursuit of the same mission to

locate and give hope to the poor. Father John Nwadike was the Prison Chaplain of the Lagos Catholic Archdiocese and facilitated my going to the Kirikiri facility.

In his position as Prison Chaplain, Father John would undertake scheduled visits to the prisons in Ikoyi and Apapa, in addition to his Parish Duties at Akowonjo. On each prison stop, he would say mass for inmates, give them succor where he could, and deliver messages of good cheer and necessaries (usually toiletries) from their relations. He was willing to act as go-between for inmates and their families outside the prison.

The first day I visited Kirikiri with Father John, the impact of the charity work that the Church was doing assumed a poignant hue. I have, for instance, never been able to forget an encounter with an inmate, 24- year-old Titus Onugbo (not his real name). He was, by his account, picked up by the police for loitering at Obalende. Titus found himself in prison because his relations couldn’t come up quickly enough with a bail bond. Or so he thought. What he didn’t know was that his relations had no intention of showing up at the police station in the first place. They thought Titus truly committed an offence. How he ended up in a maximum-security facility was beyond incredible. He was spending the second year in prison, classified as “awaiting trial.”

As we made to leave the facility after the mass, confession and counselling sessions, Titus pleaded with me to take word back to his people at an Ajao Estate address which he supplied.

I had my hands loosely in my pockets all the time, clutching tightly to the tag. The only time I removed my hands was when the mass was in session and I was doing my best to function as emergency mass server. You can imagine that I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally handed over the tag and hurried outside to breathe the air of freedom!

A new spirit of service to humanity took over. I resolved to visit Ajao Estate before returning to work.

Regrettably, my soaring spirit of service was immediately deflated at Ajao. When I knocked at the gate and disclosed my mission to that house, I became like an outcast in their sight, rather than a humanitarian bearing good tidings from a relation in captivity. The lady who answered the knock at the gate couldn’t retreat fast enough when I handed over the letter from the Awaiting Trial Prisoner.

“Wait, I am a journalist working with the Catholic Mission in Lagos,” I said quickly, before she mistook me for a recent inmate.

Although she returned and heard me out, she eventually made it clear to me that the family had resolved not to have anything to do with Titus, whether in or out of prison.

“He disgraced the family,” she said flatly.

I tried to explain the circumstances of the poor boy’s incarceration. But my words met with a stony silence. She politely thanked me for the letter I brought. But she did not volunteer to give me the toiletry items that Titus requested. I had to buy those myself and present at a subsequent visit as if they came from the family. The disappointment and what fate awaited the poor boy outside prisons were too much of a burden that I wasn’t about to lift onto his shoulders at that point. The experience left me emotionally drained.

I didn’t know what stirred my emotions the more – the sights and sounds inside the prison, or the social rejection awaiting most of the prison inmates outside of it. Father Nwadike told me that he had visited that same family and received the same treatment, notwithstanding that he is a priest.

That added to the depression I felt.

“I didn’t want to discourage you. I wanted you to see what inmates of our prisons encounter from their families when they regain their freedom.”

It was this reality that propelled the Lagos Catholic Archdiocese to set up a sort of half-way house between prison and society – for inmates they succeed in springing from prison. I have no idea whether this was sustained as funding was a challenge at inception stage.

Today, when I reflect on Nigeria’s crime sentencing philosophies, it is obvious that we are far from following any of the set standards of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Retribution philosophy recognizes that people be made to pay for their crimes. One of the ways of making people pay for high crimes is through incapacitation or imprisonment. Having a justice system that is fair and balanced acts as a deterrence for crime because they advertise to potential criminals that no crime committed escapes the long arm of the law.

Incarceration in Nigeria is however a double edged sword. The role of incapacitation should not be to grow hardened criminals who exit correctional facilities determined to pay the world back for the humiliations they received from jailers or from hardened cellmates. Studies suggest that the most important aspect of the process should be how prison authorities are able to manage the rehabilitation and reorientation process so that the incarcerated returns to society a reformed and repentant person.

My experience in Lagos showed me how complex the situation had become. Our prison facilities are set up to admit only wrongdoers but are today bursting at the seams with people picked up for misdemeanors. Or, as in the case of Titus, for exercising their freedom of movement. There are also those accused by the rich and powerful and dumped in jail because they have no one to speak for them. In my past career, I had reported on other detention complications such as judges sentencing minors to prison terms (rather than send them to remand homes) and women giving birth in prison and having both baby and mom serving time!

It’s been a while since I left this aspect of charity work in Lagos. Today, I hear that the government has done a lot on prison reforms and welfare, beyond the cosmetic change of name from Prison to Correctional Service. My experience however shows that an effective reform will have to begin with the primary detention authorities, particularly the Nigeria Police.

If members of the Force were to show a little more empathy and a lot more professionalism in dealing with the common man on the streets, it is safe to say that our prison population will automatically decrease by more than 40 per cent each year.

And there wouldn’t have been an #endSARS fiasco at the Lekki tollgate, several years later.

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