ZODML has a library and a computer room at the Ikoyi Correctional Centre, which gives me the opportunity to enter the facility and interact with the inmates on a regular basis. My first visit to the Centre was in March 2012. Our mobile library usually takes books to the inmates once every two weeks and on this day, I was asked to accompany the ZODML project team on their trip. As this was my first time, I was enthusiastic and, at the same time, a little scared. On getting to the prison gate, the normal visitation protocol was carried out: we were relieved of all electronic gadgets and issued with a ‘pass’ tag. We were then searched before being allowed into the prison yard.
Here I am, I thought, hand in hand with prisoners (or inmates, as they are called). Will they be violent towards me? Why are they mostly youths? What crime brought them here in the first place? How long have they been here? Will they ever get out or will they remain and die here? A lot of questions were on my mind but I was too scared to ask or even to talk. After long hours spent avoiding the inmates, it was time to go. I was very delighted that I was leaving. I made sure my pass was properly secured, then headed for the gate. Once outside, I took in a deep breath and was grateful for the gift of freedom.
After several visits, however, I became used to the inmates and realised they were not so different to me. We began to interact and I started asking my long-shelved questions. One day, at the Prison Knowledge Centre – after installing computers donated by ZODML to the prison school – I asked, “How do you guys cope here?”
They all laughed, happy that I had asked. “This place is not for any human being,” they replied, adding that anybody who passed through the four walls of the prison and went back to a life of crime was a lost soul. I was intrigued and asked the inmate sitting on my left, “How long have you stayed here?”
“Three and half years,” was his reply.
“And are you serving your sentence or just awaiting trial?” He explained that he had been to court seven times and on each occasion the case was adjourned as soon as it was mentioned, so he had spent three and half years waiting for his conviction or freedom.
“And what was your crime?” I asked. Smiling he said, “Fraud.”
“How much?” I asked. “3.8 million naira.”
“3.8 million!” I shouted in surprise, for he was between the ages of 20 to 25 and, I would have thought, too young to think of defrauding someone. Reading my thoughts, he explained: if someone wants to buy something and he knows the actual cost and is ready to pay for far less the actual price without actually seeing the item and asking questions, then it is his greed that leads him to be defrauded. However, he concluded that the time he had spent in prison had had a positive impact on him: he had learned how to spend money wisely as in the past, he had lavished his father’s money at will. Also, he now knew the value of education and was sure that his father would be proud of him when he showed him the certificate he got from the prison school. The others also had similar stories, sharing how they too had spent years awaiting trial for crimes like fighting someone who eventually died.
Recently, after a little persuasion from the inmates, I decided to take a little tour of the prison disguised as an inmate. I was amazed with what I saw. The Ikoyi Correctional Centre is a community where law and order are highly respected. The inmates take their daily schedules seriously and are always doing one thing or the other to keep themselves busy. A lot of trading is done by the inmates: they sell everything from ice fish to onions, groundnuts, and pure water. How they get the goods in there can only be imagined. Some even use the trading money they earn in prison to pay their lawyers’ fees.
A young person is full of potential and energy that can be channelled positively or negatively. He must be kept busy or he will find something to do; when negatively channelled, the result is crime and prison. It is my hope that more young people in Nigeria gain access to the resources and opportunities that will enable them to succeed, and that those who are in prisons like the Ikoyi Correctional Centre soon get another chance at a better life.