JAIL EXPERIENCES: WASHINGTON DC AND OKIGWE (2)
After the DPO had ordered our release on the condition that someone signed to reassure him that we will be produced the next day, his deputies demanded the sum of sixty-thousand Naira, before they would sign the bail papers. As usual, I protested, opting to stay at the station till the next day.
'Bail ought to be Free,' I reminded the Police Officers. Beaten, hungry and tired, Uncle Charles, a UK trained, retired top civil servant and Chartered accountant who ought to have known better, paid the officers the sum of sixty thousand before I could protest any further. 'This is Nigeria,' he reminded me. 'Oga Police, where are the bail papers, let me sign I want to get out here' Uncle Charles began to protest as his countenance changed. It was a little past nine p.m. We had been at the station since 10 a.m.
It was from the witnessed box, soon after the magistrate's pronouncements and the chorusing of 'as the court pleases' that it began to dawn on me that I had lost my freedom. I was motioned to a corner of the court room where two to three policemen, without appearing to be doing so, kept their eyes on me. I waited impatiently for the court to rise to know the next line of action. It was a long court session. By now my freedom was being supervised by the state's judicial apparatuses as represented by the court orderlies there present.
The reality of my abridged freedom set in properly and became more vivid when the orderlies would not let me move or communicate with anybody without permission. Can I make calls? Can I talk to any of my uncles and relatives that came to court with me and who had been as confused and disoriented as I was? They would not oblige. Can I answer calls? Can I talk to any of the lawyers there present, in whispers to know if through them the magistrate could be communicated to either reverse himself or at least let me go for the day?
These were some of the confusing stupid questions I posed to no one in particular. Later, a brave orderly who sensed I badly needed to communicate with somebody motioned me outside. Alone with him at the backyard of the court premises, he told me to use the opportunity to make all the contacts I had wanted to make. 'But Oga, you go settle me oo.' I thanked him profusely. I promised him I would even do more than settle him.
Quickly, I called 'a very important town's person' in Lagos. First, he expressed surprise that I never informed him of my travails, until it got out of hand. 'With all your exposure, education and travels, you have allowed that woman to mess you up,' he blurted in a rage and staccato of fury. 'You think you're still in America. This is Nigeria. Welcome back.' All the same, after roundedly upbraiding me for not letting anybody have an inkling of the problems beforehand, he had gone to work on my behalf. He called lawyers on my behalf to start the process of getting me out of jail.
He cursed the magistrate for allowing that woman use him to achieve some preplanned evil ends and dark designs. He reassured me that he had been assured by the lawyers that our offence was bailable; that the magistrate was just being mischievous or may have been playing a script written for him by someone. All the same, I was relieved that at least, I had let my message out there. Thereafter, I phoned the Head of Nigeria Prisons at Kirikiri. Two years before, I had, for one year provided free basic computer training to the inmates of the Kirikiri and Ikoyi Prisons. Now, I had wanted a good turn to deserve another. It did instantly. I was to learn later that the boss at Ikoyi had telephoned the boss at Okigwe to expect me. After all the necessary settlements had been brokered and executed with the orderly, I was escorted back into the court room, calm and hopeful that one way or the other, assistance was on the way.
After the session and the court became desolate, there was no vehicle to move me to Okigwe Prison. The lot fell on my driver to use my own vehicle for the journey. In other words, I was driven to the prison in my car with my driver who had been granted bail behind the wheels. We were six in the car including extended family members who had come to court and who witnessed the drama play out. Okigwe Prison was some 15 miles away or so from Isiala Mbano administrative headquarters. An unarmed Police recruit was with us. I was ushered into the Prisons after some solemn formalities which included a sort of initiation and rituals which the boss said were in order.
The prison yard was an eerie different world altogether. My personal belongings were taken away and documented. I was Prisoner no 234. I watched the warder write my name on the imposing chalkboard that straddled the prison's reception area. After that, I was offered a chair somewhere outside, within the second barricade that separated the third before the innermost part of the compound where the prisoners and those of them awaiting trial resided.
Convicted prisoners wore jump suites while the awaiting trials whose movements were very restricted in the compound wore anything. By now, word had gone out and round, I guess, that a big man was being brought to jail. Shouldn't the jail house be a leveler? There was palpable excitement in the air as I watched the healthy-looking, apparently well-fed inmates and their ever vigilant jailors prance about and around in strange bond of comradeship with implied purpose of catching a glimpse of the new important inmate.
Being late in the evening, I had arrived during a period that most of the inmates were having one form of recreational activities or the other. Some were on the field playing soccer while some others were busy in the kitchen helping the kitchen staff prepare the evening ration. Yet others sat in colonies, speaking atop their voices in conversation that belied any form of a group suffering any form of organized restriction. In all this, there were, usually warders, keeping watchful eyes, with procedural and conventional instructions over what to expect.
And possibly, what to do should a situation warrant. And yet others were like birds coming home to roost from their outside daily chores. In particularly were those of them on the halfway jail journeys that were very privileged to go to outside work as farm hands on Prisons farms. Another group I was to learn worked for fee especially at the nearby quarrying depots where they cracked stones. It was through this group that most inmates got supplied with basic essentials like cigarettes, sardine, bread, recharge cards, cell-phones and other supplies which ought to be classified contrabands into the prison yard.
It was when I got into the awaiting trial segment of the cells that I came face to face with the stark realities of the problem with the Nigerian judicial system and penal codifications. The cell rooms were small, very small. My room in particularly was a mere 4 feet by say, seven feet contraption. It had no bed. It had a toilet, with no water to flush. It also doubled as a bathroom. From time to time, a bucket of water was deposited right in front of the heavily fortified Iron Gate that would need extra help to push open or to jam closed. Sitting down on the floor and looking up was some form of excursion into the past, the future and the present. It was intimidating.
Graffiti, new and old adorned the walls which were so high, that you conclude you were really in a dungeon. There were two palm sized openings atop the tip of the walls that served as windows. If there had been instances of jail break in the past, how did the prisoners do it? I wondered. It was later, when I spoke with some of the prison officials who looked after me that I learnt that in the beginning, the colonials had designed the cell rooms to accommodate at most, three detainees at a time.
Yes, colonials who might have been conscious of the rights and dignity of man. Now, in twenty first century post colonial Nigeria, cells meant for two or at most three, accommodated between eight and twelve, depending on the number of awaiting trials available. Human beings were packed like sardines, each conscious of a sleeping and resting space. Some detainees I spoke to have stayed more than the time they would have spent had they been tried, found guilty and sentenced appropriately. The negative impact of course was visible.
While the convicted prisoners doing their ascribed time looked healthy and well fed, the awaiting trials looked haggard, emaciated, diseased and crest-fallen. Having lost faith in the judicial set up, they resorted to prayers, choruses and heavenly muses and hymnals for solace. Early, every morning, the self appointed chaplain would do the roll call. 'Good morning professor. Did you wake? How are you?' He would begin, calling upon every detainee from room to room, to assure that we all woke up.
He knew by rote, the name of every detainee. I alone was in room number 1. After a short prayer, the rest of the wee hours were spent in praise songs, some that would keep your hairs raised. Unchangeable God, unchangeable God, was one of them.
This event took place between 1991 and 2009. It has nothing to do with the present magistrate at Isiala Mbano.
To be continued next week.
Offoaro writes from Havensgate, Owerri.
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