JAIL EXPERIENCES: WASHINGTON DC AND OKIGWE (1)
Getting into Okigwe prison was a culmination of a rehearsal that began two weeks before. At the police station, my uncle's wife, the complainant, had openly begged the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) to 'please send him (me) to jail to teach him (me) a lesson of his life. He thinks he is still in America.'
The Crime Officer and the Divisional Police Chief at the Owerri Central Police Station did not buy any of that, having listened to both of us and read our written statements. Besides, I had on behalf of my driver, my personal assistant, and gardener begged my uncle's wife to forgive. She was adamant. Only a detention of me, she openly pleaded, would assuage her pains and be enough restitution for her and her church members who were allegedly assaulted by me and my staffers.
As she pleaded, we were halfway into jail. My co-accused and I had been stripped half naked and all our valuables collected, tagged and dumped like trash in a pool that harbored other detainees' items. Two weeks after, the magistrate sitting at Isiala Mbano obliged her wish. He committed me to prison. He granted the rest of the accused bail on self-recognition. It was later I learnt that he sent me to jail because he had been told I would fly back to America and from there avoid the full wrath of the laws. They were wrong. Reader, please bear with me. I'll come back to this in the second part of this essay. Before the Okigwe prison experience, I had been to another prison - for 12 hours in downtown Washington DC. How is the gist?
It was a tiff with the resident Vehicle Inspection Officer in Washington DC which ought to have been settled amicably after a shouting match. But before you knew it, I had ignited a huge trouble that would give me my readymade tag as a black man of age living in America. When the police officers arrived, the Vehicle Inspection Officer emerged from his cubicle. His index finger wrapped in a plaster, told them I had attacked and injured him. I was speechless and tried to narrate my ordeal to the officers. My accent (the way I spoke English) being a newly arrived immigrant did not help matters either.
They would not listen. To them, I was typical. A black man in his early thirties domiciled in Washington DC of early nineties – potently dangerous, characteristically, criminal. I was arrested and handcuffed, dumped into the back seat of a ready-waiting police car and driven away.
The DC District 4 police processing room wore a very somber look that afternoon. Still in shackles before the desk officer, the questioning began thus: What's your name? What's your date of birth? What's your social security number? What is your address? How long have you lived on this address? Where have you lived in the last five years? Your telephone number please. 'Here, sign here,' the mild looking black female police officer completed. With the shackles now removed, she motioned me to follow her into a heavily fortified room with iron bars that spoke volumes. 'Why am I entering there,' I queried.
'You will be there till we transfer you to the central processing center in down town DC,' I was told. My heart thumped faster. Two and half hours later, I was brought out, shackled on the feet and handcuffed once more and driven to an underground place I COULD NOT REMEMBER TILL TODAY. There I was taken into a cell room of say 4 feet by six feet. The room had three other occupants when I got there. It had a toilet and a double-decked bed with little or no bedding. The TV set too. As my heart thumped and raced, the two other occupants could notice the amazement and confusion and hatred that enveloped my entire self.
'Relax men,' one of the inmates volunteered. 'Wha'cha your name, I am Clay. What did they bring you here for? Say something men, say something. You're probably going to be here for some time. Know any lawyer in town? Any Attorney? When I told them what happened, they burst out laughing. 'This, your first time in jail?' Don't worry; you do not have any problem. After they process you, they will release you. Do you have anybody to sign for you? Do not worry brother; this is what an average black man goes through in America and in DC in particular. You're African? Which part men? Nigerian? Good people. Sometimes, black brothers do their fellow brothers in this way. Uncle Thom apologists they all are. But never mind brother, you will be a 'right.' This, my fi'th arrest this year. I was stupid to let them get me this time. But it will be a' right. Its gonna be cool. Chill brother.'
Moments later, he began banging the iron bar so loud that a black correctional (warder) officer appeared within the vicinity. 'Wha'cha problem, men?' He queried.' I'm not feeling fine,' thundered back the inmate. 'I have pains all over me and I demand to see my doctor right away. I am sick.' It was after he left minutes later that the other inmates narrated to me that the young man who asked to see the doctor had hurriedly swallowed the piece of evidence he had on him when the police raided their hideout.
He had ounces and ounces of crack cocaine in his tummy. Several hours later, I was brought out of the detention room, photographed, fingerprinted and asked to go home on my own recognition. But as a black man living in America, that was my own baptism of fire. Needless to say, from now on, the incident had been on my personal records and will be there for the rest of my life. When I went to regularize my stay in the country, the question rang out like a bad dream. 'Have you been arrested before?' Of course, the answer was YES. And a big Yes a thousand and one times in the future. On my way home from the detention saga, I rehearsed the incident and hurriedly put the thoughts down in form of a poem. It went like this:
Oyinbo police catch me for road?Him say make I freeze?I siddon de look am?Freeze, men, freeeeze?I sit don de look am?How I go freeze when sun de shine ?For this hot month of August?I no fit undastand?He look me straight for eye?He put him left hand ?For him waist?Him right hand for him gun?He look me, he look me, ?He dey look me?Straight for my eye?He say freeeze meeen,?Put your hands up men?I quickly put my hands up?He begin come close?Like pikin we de learn to waka?He put one foot forward?He put another foot forward?Like say him de fear me?
When him reach where I dey?He say put ya hands for back?I put my hands for back?He come grab me like this?He put handcuff for my hand?And begin to push me?I say, oga police, na wetin I do?He look me again direct for eye?He say when you reach for judge front ?Tomorrow, you go explain ya sef?I look am, I look am, so te ?I wan fight am?But I change my mind?'Cos my hands de for cuff?I wan curse am?But I no get the strength?My tongues are tied?Na'im I begin cry for mind?If na for my contri I dey now?I for gi'am moni make him go?Him own way?Or maybe?I for yab am well well?But for this oyinbo land ?E no be so?Oyinbo police no hear sorri?He no de take moni like that?He no de hear 'wetin I do,'?He jus' wan do him work?Oyinbo police get too much pawa.
Now, let me not overlabor you with the circumstance that led me into Okigwe Prison - for four days. It was my uncle's wife, with the collaboration of a Nigerian magistrate. Being new in the country, I did not understand the nitty-gritty of justice dispensation in the land. Honestly, I had believed erroneously that this was America - a land of near transparent dispensation of justice. Where I could be sent home after a simple explanation of what had happened. I was wrong.
Here, if the judge or in this case a magistrate wants to put you in jail, he could, without recourse to due process or simple application of the tenets or prescriptions of the rule of law. My uncle's wife (her husband my uncle was a prominent lawyer) had boasted she would jail me if I scoffed at the idea of letting a new generation rootless church band come to our ancestral home to preach and desecrate burial grounds in the name of crusade. How she would do it, I never figured out. Until she did. And so, it was on my mind that Thursday afternoon before his Lordship, sitting at a Magistrates court in Isiala Mbano.
We were three that were arraigned before his Lordship. We were supposed to have committed the same offense. But when the case came up and we pleaded not guilty and the prosecutor indicated no objection to bail, I thought it was a done deal. But the Magistrate thought otherwise. 'Because of the circumstance of this matter, the first accused (me) is hereby ordered remanded in prison custody at Okigwe till September 28. It was July 18. Accused numbers two to four are hereby granted bail …'
(To be concluded next week).
Offoaro writes from Havensgate Owerri.
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