Recently, The Senate Committee On Women Affairs And Youth Development, as part of its oversight function, visited Suleja Prison In Niger state. Its members spent substantial amount of time to interact with inmates. This visit was with a view to ascertain the state of their conditions, as well as to help those whose cases were redeemable. The Committee members heard pathetic stories.
The pleasant air that nibbles on the consciousness of a visitor to Suleja Prison complex in Niger State will contradict the flowing tears within. Thus, a single visit to the prison last recently by the Senate Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development almost left visitors bleeding with emotion. The visit again revealed how both the good and evil struggled in a seeming endless combat in a troubled society. It also showed the unpleasant reward for wayward young men and women as well as how hapless Nigerian citizens who have no status in the society find it so cheap going to the prison over trivial issues whereas influential and hardened criminals walk freely on the streets.
Therefore, in pursuit of its oversight function, the committee, led by its chairman, Senator Helen Esuene from Akwa Ibom South, visited Suleja prison to acquaint themselves with the state of women and youth in the prison and as well share with their plights.
Her deputy, Senator Aisha Alhassan, another member of the committee, Sen. Joshua Lidani as well as clerk of the committee, Sulaiman Jalam, accompanied Esuene in the visit.
Upon arriving at the gate, the prison officials who had been waiting to receive the senators filed out in large number.
Given the mood of the officials and inmates during the visit, it might be the first time the prison authorities would receive highly placed officials of that magnitude who were perceived to have descended from their lofty heights to interact with inmates in prison cells.
The Senators were received by Comptroller General of Customs in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mr. Kasali Oladipo Yusuf, Deputy Comptroller of Customs (DCP), Mr. Yahaya Sambo and another DCP in charge of the Suleja Prison, Mr. Olusola Babatunde, who was represented by his assistant, an Assistant Comptroller General of Customs, Mrs. Clementina Chukwu.
Entering the premises, the senators' first commitment was to inspect the prison yard with a view to observing the state of the environs. They were impressed by what they saw. This encouraged the visitors to further enter inside the cells to observe if they were also as clean as the premises. But again, they were not disappointed as the two cells, which housed female inmates who had all moved out to the venue of interactive session within the premises, though relatively small when compared with the number of inmates living inside, were clean and found habitable.
Thus, the senators felt so impressed by the clean state of the premises that they gave kudos to the prison officials for keeping the prison clean and simultaneously asked them not only to keep it up, but also to improve on it. "The environment is small but clean. Even though you are in prison, you still reflect the characteristics of human beings —cleanliness. Officers, congratulations, but it can be better," Esuene said.
However, other visitors to the prison had cause to wonder how only two prison cells available for 25 female prisoners could successfully accommodate such a high number of inmates in the prison custody. But immediately after the inspection, the planned interactive session between the visiting Senators and the inmates started. The senators' main interest was in female inmates, especially nursing mothers. The visit seemed to have been informed by a recent publication that female inmates get pregnant and deliver in the prison custody. While there were insinuations that prison officers were impregnating female inmates in prisons, the officers had been swift to debunk such insinuations, saying pregnant inmates and those who put to bed in the prison custody usually come in with pregnancy.
Nevertheless, the senators upon seeing some infants on their mothers' hands became curious as they began to interrogate their mothers on why they chose to allow their innocent children who had committed no crime to have prison experience. Esuene told four nursing mothers present at the scene of the interactive session that Nigeria’s legal system states categorically that a child from the age of 18 months and upward ought not to be kept within the prison custody.
"It is not right that a child should be in this environment at this age. He shouldn’t be here. There should be a proper upbringing of this child. His mother’s misfortune is not enough to keep the innocent child here," Esuene told one of the nursing mothers. In the same vein, her colleague, Alhassan queried the prison officers for allowing the children to be kept in prison custody, when according to her, they should know the implication of allowing little children to grow up in such an environment. But the senior officers of the prison quickly rose in defence of their action, saying the prison has a welfare group whose duty is to visit the families of such inmates with a view to ensuring that their families take responsibilities for the care of such children and other related matters.
According to them, the welfare group took necessary action, but either the inmates stopped them from going to their families or in some instances, their families disowned them. Alhassan then turned to the nursing mothers again, saying: "Your child didn't commit any offence. Why should you prefer that your child should be in this prison?" she queried.
Responding, one of the nursing inmates said she chose to keep her child with her in the prison because there was nobody to take care of him, explaining that she had only a grandmother, who was so old that she wouldn’t want to know that she was in the prison.
The meeting then moved to another session of the interaction where Senators began to ask the inmates one after the other, what kind of offences brought them to the prison. Some of the reasons that brought them to the prison were shocking and dumbfounding.
For instance, the story of a pregnant woman and her husband who are both serving jail terms in the prison drew compassion from visitors. Their offence: the employer was owed the young woman six months of salary arrears. Angered by the seeming hopeless situation, her husband marched into the employer’s shop one day, seized some items and took them home without thinking of the implication. This provoked the debtor employer who proceeded to the police station and got both the man and his wife arrested. Instead of the policemen who intervened in the matter to mediate between the two camps with a view to finding political situation to the problem, they charged the poor helpless couple to a Magistrate Court. And despite the fact that the debtor employer had recovered her seized items, the Magistrate did not only convict them, but also charged them to pay the employer a compensation of N125,000 each before sentencing them to months of imprisonment with an option of N4,000 fine.
The woman said they had no known relatives in Suleja and because they could neither afford N250,000 nor provide a surety who could pay the charges, they became sudden prisoners. But did the magistrate ask the employer if the poor hapless woman did not have the right to receive her wages after working? That remains a million dollar question as she and her husband were sentenced without asking the debtor employer to fulfill her own responsibility to the couple.
The couple's case again affirmed opinions that only poor people suffer injustice as they were quickly sentenced to prison because there was none to come to their aid. The cheap sentence of the couple quickly brought reminiscences of the story of a number of former governors, senators and a number of other highly placed officers who had allegedly stolen billions of Naira, charged to court but have their cases forgotten while they continue to dictate the pace in public circles. But ironically, as was seen in the case of this couple, the pregnant woman was owed salary arrears for half a year and when the chips were down, she along with her husband were sentenced to imprisonment for daring to protest their plights.
Not even the baby in the womb of the mother could draw compassion for the embattled woman before the magistrate who committed them to prison. However, the Senators' visit turned out to be a divine intervention of sort for the prisoner couple as Esuene promised that the Senate committee would pay both the N250,000 compensation as well as the N4,000 fine imposed on them, which they could not afford. "The committee will pay for the pregnant woman and her husband," Esuene promised.
Another pathetic case was that of an inmate who found herself in prison because she stood as a surety for somebody who borrowed N900,000 elsewhere. She had stood as a surety for the person thinking that she could vouch for him. But at the agreed time for refund of the money, the borrower disappeared into thin air and the lender opted to take legal action against the surety. While the trial was on, the accused who is still awaiting trial, said she had to sell her property at the cost of almost N700,000 and used it to pay part of the money with the promise to pay the balance soon. According to her, this move did not pacify the creditor. She also claimed though she met all the bail conditions granted her at the commencement of the trial, yet her traducers would have none of that unless she wore prison clothes.
Hear her: "I have been here since September awaiting trial and nobody has taken me to court once. I’m here because I stood as a witness to a person who borrowed money and the person ran away. I sold my property to pay over N690,000. The day they came to take me to court, I even pleaded to be allowed to go and cash some money in the bank, but they refused. I was granted bail and I met my bail conditions and yet they brought me here. The money that was borrowed was N900,000, but the lender denied it and instead said it was N1.2 million.
"I sold my property to pay N690, 000 plus and promised to pay the balance at a given time. I had not defaulted in the agreed time before they brought me to prison. Now, I’m kept in prison because I have to refund some money. But can I make money while in prison?" she wondered.
Her story would easily move anyone with natural feelings because an innocent woman who committed no crime found herself in prison because she chose to be a Good Samaritan. Though she was yet to be convicted, her case seemed hopeless as nothing showed that prison officers were prepared to take her back to court to stand trial. Thus her story propelled Alhassan who disclosed that prior to her adventure into politics, she had been a judicial officer to ask the prison officers if they always cared to find out the sentence conditions of inmates before hastily bringing them to prison. Turning to the accused, Alhassan said: "Use this period that we are here to settle your case and take it as a lesson that you don’t stand as a guarantor for anybody unless you see that it is the amount you can conveniently pay."
Another story in the prison, which is worth mentioning, is the case of a young schoolgirl of 18 years who was caught smoking Indian hemp among other young lads. Consequently, she was arrested, charged to court and sentenced, but with the option of N15,000 fine. Because she could not afford the fine, she was committed to prison. While the prison officials visited her family supposedly to secure the fine for her and set her free, the family disowned her, saying she had been the black sheep of the family and hence would prefer to have her in prison than to do anything that could aid her return to the family.
Yet despite being disowned by the family, the Senators still had good news for her. "If she tells us that she's remorseful, we will go to her parents and pay the N15,000 fine so that she can get out of here," Esuene pledged. Then after exploring issues affecting the female inmates, the senators had a word of advice and message of hope for them.
First, it was Alhassan who spoke. "Those of you who committed one crime or the other intentionally, let’s assume it was the devil, you should ensure that if you are out of here, you don’t go near prison again. This place is not for women. Think of yourselves, children and families. Those of you, who are Muslims, pray. Those of you are Christians should also pray. I saw Bibles in the cells. Pray that God should change you," he pleaded.
Esuene said: "We bring you message of hope. You can still get yourself together and still be useful in life. I don’t think it is the end of the road for you. Many people had left prison and still came out to live normal life. As colleague (Alhassan) said, don’t leave here the same. This place is a corrective place. It’s a place where you learn skills so that you can have something to fall back on when you leave."
Turning to the young girl disowned by her family, Esuene said: "I sympathise with you. You, a little girl was smoking Indian hemp. That is not good for you. We will ask the officers to relate with us. If they say you are remorseful, you will be out of here. We‘ll meet your parents."
And to some others, Esuene added: "The committee members will do so much to help you that are owing. If we have to intervene, we‘ll do so when the officers give us feedback."
Those words from the Senators brightened the days of the prisoners as they looked forward to their fulfillment. Indeed, if the Senators match their words with action, January 31, 2013 would remain a day to remember by some of the prisoners. They are likely to see it as the day that God chose to remember the poor and hopeless and as well gave them hope.
The senators also proceeded to the men’s section in the prison premises to hold a session with male inmates. The experience revealed that most of the young men in the prison who were mostly teenagers found themselves there after being caught smoking Indian hemp. Besides, the higher percentage of the boys could have avoided being kept in the prison if only they could afford the paltry fines imposed on them by various courts that convicted them.
In the senators' attempt to come to their aid, they asked the prison officers to compile the names of inmates who were sentenced with options of fines along with their offences, terms of their sentences as well as house addresses. If the Senators indeed act on the output of that instruction, very many of the boys will bid the prison wall farewell soon. But a major observation in men’s cells was that a number of them were below the age of 18. Is it lawful for persons below the age of 18 to be sentenced to imprisonment? That maybe an issue to be reserved for another day! Nevertheless, certain individuals have described the Senators' visit as a right step that public officers should regularly undertake as according to them, such a step could give hope to many Nigerians who suffer unduly.