DATELINE was Thursday. My wife was waiting for me just in front of Kirikiri Medium Prison. She’d arrived hours earlier with my daughter. She already called my daughter’s school to inform them of her absence. I wanted my daughter to see beyond having holidays in Dubai and the United States. I wanted her to see another side of life. I wanted to teach her compassion and empathy.
I wanted her to see that life can be a double-edged sword. The night before, I showed her the meaning of prison on my phone as I googled the word. My wife knocked on the huge steel gates. A peep hole opened. They recognized her because she had been checked in already. As I stepped within the prison, my nostrils were overwhelmed with a very unpleasant smell so putrid it seemed they tried to mask it with some disinfectant. I went through security checks. The prison officer asked me for my phone. I already left it in my vehicle since I knew we would not be allowed to take it inside the prison.
I was issued a blue plastic tally. “Please keep it well because you’ll not be allowed to exit the prison if you can’t produce it”, the prison officer told me. I kept it inside the inner pocket of my suit. Throughout my sojourn at the prison, I kept on ‘feeling’ the plastic tally in my inner pocket. At that point, it meant more than everything to me. You see, people don’t value freedom until they lose it. Just like we don’t value good health until we feel pain.
I was there for Lamboginny’s prison concert and SALT album release. He had recorded most of the album in our church studio and one of our Ministers, STO Funminilu produced 11 out of 15 songs on the album. The album featured P Square, Small Doctor, Olamide, Muna, Mike Aremu, Mz Kizz, Korede Bello and DJ Jimmy Jatt. Lamboginny, a dance hall and inspirational artiste who composed the very popular song I BELIEVE IN AFRICA for the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), is an unusual Nigerian.
When he told me his plan after church service a few months back, I knew it was something I wanted to get involved with. The concert was in progress. A huge stage had been mounted with speakers bellowing. Lamboginny was on stage with a choir consisting of male prison inmates. I’d never seen anything like that in my entire life. The prison choral group were all dressed in green and had white socks on. They choreographed as Lamboginny sang. The gesticulations, the look on their faces and the motions were absolutely surreal. The crowd was huge as all the prison inmates stood in front of the stage-separated by a low metal barricade. A canopy was on one side where invited guests and senior prison officials sat.
At a point, Lamboginny asked everyone to get on their knees. “If you know you’re not bigger than God, get on your knees”, he shouted into the microphone. 3,600 prison inmates got on their knees. I also did. Lamboginny was not done. “Awolowo was a prisoner. Nelson Mandela was a prisoner. But they became free. You will be free one day. There is hope for you. Your wife is waiting for you. Your sons and daughters are waiting for you. There is hope for you. The mistake you made does not define you. There is a second chance for you”, he said. Those words pierced me like arrows. I had goose pimples immediately. Lost in the moment, I was startled when I heard a shout that grew louder from the audience. It turned out that a guy on stage was actually painting the face of Jesus as Lamboginny sang. The crowd erupted into a loud ovation as he turned the finished canvas towards them. It was simply awesome.
A short while later, Small Doctor came on stage to perform his popular ‘Won ti gba penalty lo throw-in’ song. Until that performance, I really never knew that Small Doctor was that popular. All the inmates knew his song and went into a frenzy. He jumped from the stage and shook the hands of the inmates. They all wanted to touch him. He also performed a song with Lamboginny. Before him came the lady I later learnt is Mz Kizz. We actually arrived the same time but I saw she greeted the prison officials very warmly. As she took the mic, I heard people shouting ‘Wawu’. I stood beside Jafextra the comedian/compere/OAP who was my secondary school class mate and asked him who she is. His response, “She’s the female version of Olamide”. She had the stagecraft. As the concert progressed, Denrele arrived. He prostrated to the audience for coming late and also went close to the prison inmates as he shook their hands. My wife told me Lolo of Wazobia FM came earlier. DJ Jimmy Jatt was on the turntable.
I turned to Jafextra and said it will not be surprising to me when God specially favors Lamboginny, Small Doctor, Wawu, Denrele, Jimmy Jatt, STO and others who turned out to give back to the prison inmates. God is touched when you show mercy to someone who is not in any capacity to repay. It’s a debt only God repays.
Behind me stood an inmate covered with rashes from head to toe. His hands were in his pocket. We looked at each other as I nodded at him. He nodded back.
Lamboginny called me on stage. He had announced that our church had brought food packs for all the 3,600 inmates and drinks also. I had never seen a people that were more grateful. For me, your evangelism can never be effective if you don’t provide food for the hungry or medicine for the sick. As I ascended the stage, I saw a sea of heads. Some wore the blue prison uniform. Many wore mufti. I was overwhelmed with emotion. For a moment, I was tongue tied. Several thoughts flashed through my mind. This prison was originally built for 700 inmates in 1958 but now had 3,600 inmates. Meanwhile, only about 630 were convicted. The rest- well over 3,000- were awaiting trial. As the concert went on, two ‘Black Maria’ trucks brought new inmates. Their number swelled to 3,717. The new inmates couldn’t come for the concert as they were being processed. I shook off my thoughts. I had a very short time on stage. I asked the inmates to close their eyes and put a hand on their chest. I took the ‘Sinners Prayer’ and heard as they repeated the words after me. I prayed for their salvation and healing for their bodies. I left the stage with my heart heavy. I needed to be prayed for myself.
Two guys approached me clutching pieces of sanitizing hand wash. I struck a conversation with them and learnt that the hand wash is produced right there at Kirikiri Prison. The guys selling them are prison inmates. They told me their names and explained that they were taught how to produce detergents, disinfectants, soap, sandals and other items by an NGO. The brand name of the hand wash- Formax- is an adaptation of the word ‘reformation’. They want more people to patronize them. I bought 4 pieces from them at N500 each.
It was time for lock down as 5pm approached. The prison officials asked women to leave first. My wife, daughter and other church members made their way towards the exit. I was still engrossed in conversation with the hand wash guys. As I also made my way towards the exit, many of the inmates approached me asking for money. I couldn’t give them because they were too many and I needed to avoid a stampede.
I knew my mission wasn’t over yet. I couldn’t just walk out of the walls of the prison like that. I needed to find out if there was something else we could do. Were there people who needed help urgently? People who couldn’t fulfil their bail conditions? I was shown a list of 11 inmates. They were arrested for begging. Their offense was called breach of public peace. They had been sentenced to 1 year and 1 month imprisonment. But they had an option of fine-with 10 of them having a fine of N75,000 each and 1 person with a fine of N80,000. What makes their case so pathetic is that they are all physically challenged. All eleven of them. Handicapped like we call them. I opened my mouth as I went through the list. I was informed that that’s how KAI goes around to pick them up- street beggars and hawkers- charge them to court and dump them in prison. How much is the wares of that chap selling gala that he has to pay a fine of N75,000?
Isn’t there a better way of punishing them rather than allow them waste a year of their lives in prison among hardened criminals? What about community service? Someone is unable to pay N75,000 fine and for the next one year, you will feed him at the rate of N222 per day for a year and one month. That comes to N87,912 which is even more than the fine he should have paid. (I used N222 daily per prisoner which was the figure provided by the Comptroller General of Prisons during the 2016 budget defense. Using N14,000 per day feeding allowance figure provided by the Minister of Interior recently will even make the amount an outrageous N5.5m). There’s something wrong with our justice system. Why do we have such a high number of awaiting trial inmates? Shouldn’t we establish courts right at the prisons for quicker dispensation of justice? However, a piece of good news gladdened my heart. The prison officials told me how several churches and individuals come to assist. Some churches pay the fines of some of the inmates. So that is an angle to consider for those who think churches only exist to collect offerings and tithes. I said a word of prayer for a philanthropist who I learnt recently paid N6m to free 180 inmates.
As I showed the prison officials my blue plastic tally and walked out of those heavy gates, a thought came to my mind. Everyone should go to prison. At least once in their lifetime.
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