Landmark for JustifiedOutdoors: PRAWA’s AVP Peer Educators go into Nature!

IMG_0528Last week I had the incredible experience of embarking on a landmark experience for my research and the work of Justified Outdoors: leading PRAWA’s AVP and I-MAP trained Peer Educators on a workshop and visit to Lekki Conservation Center (LCC). The visit included myself, three of PRAWA’s staff and 10 peer educators on a fun, and inspiring, trip into the beautiful forests, marshes and savannah of LCC.

IMG_0584PRAWA’s Peer Educators participated in the training in August 2012, and this special program served as an end of year celebration, refresher for AVP core concepts, and workshop of new team-building, communication and trust exercises which I led.

IMG_0597The ultimate achievement: bridging criminal justice reform by youth with environmental education. Hosting the session at the LCC created a dialogue and definition to the work of criminal justice advocacy that included attention and connection to engagement with the natural environment.

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Kirikiri Prisons

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This week I visited the Kirikiri Men’s Medium Security prison and Kirikiri Women’s Prison – two of the prisons that make up the infamous Kirikiri Correctional Compound in Lagos. I joined the United States consulate Human Rights Officer and colleagues on their visit to gather more information about the conditions and facilities of the prisons, as well as to connect with any Americans currently incarcerated.

IMG_0823One of my biggest impressions of the men’s facility was its geometrical similarities to Attica in New York State. The view from the window of the Superintendent’s upper window revealed a big wide open yard, reminiscent of the central operational building at Attica and its myriad of smaller yards coming off of its adjacent points – including the famous D yard. However this open yard housed a different sort of centralized activity point – a football yard. This same football yard had recently been featured on the front page of one of Lagos’ most popular newspapers “The Punch” this past Sunday in a photo story highlighting the recent football tournament at the facility. The tournament provides an outlet for the men to engage in a physical and personally meaningful activity, while creating sportsmanship and teamwork, and inspiring positive communication, outlets of aggression and strength, as well as leisure and pleasure even behinds the walls of the prison.

Many people I’ve met in Nigeria, both in and outside of the justice system, say to me, “Oh, well I’m sure the prisons over in your country are much better than this. They’re much nicer, I know. Oh, and what, with all of the money that’s spent on them.” My increasingly stark answer is always, “No.” No, prisons in the United States are not much better than they are here in Nigeria. Yes, I would never resist to say, overall the infrastructural conditions are better – in terms of health, space and waste disposal. However, if you consider the corresponding average quality of life in the United States, they are horrible. On the opposite end of this lens are those Americans who lack an understanding of what is truly problematic of our criminal justice system at home; for those people, I am becoming increasingly conscious of the need for folks in the United States to see justice abroad – without the sterilization, militarization and racial patronizing of the American system. Found in Nigeria’s prisons are poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and deplorable environments; however, glaringly missing are a racial dichotomy between incarcerated and officer, a militarism of inmates and prison operational systems, and an overly sterilized environment reminiscent of a mental hospital for caged animals. Yes, Nigeria’s prisons lack basic human rights standards, but they do embody a sort of freedom – both of the physical body, to wander around the yard, interact with other inmates, and play various sports and activities – and a distinctive freedom from the racialized patronizing of the American justice system embedded with intense historical racial and gender coding.

IMG_0827Found on the Men’s Medium compound were many of the facilities I had seen at Ikoyi prison including a church, mosque, school, tailoring workshop and other vocational skills training sites (that we were unfortunately not shown), and the same cramping of physical bodies in cells for those awaiting trail.

Of the 2435 inmates at Kirikiri, 2328 are awaiting trial.

 

The math – 95.6% of men at Kirikiri are un-convicted, technically free, and imposed in a infinitely slow system keeping them behind bars without any proper justification.

Also found in Kirikiri is the same mantra of Empowerment and Reformation. Superintendent Dalapo continually empathized to us the importance of Reintegration, so that inmates have “something to fall back on, so they won’t be a nuisance to society.” Aftercare units located in the community work to ensure that former inmates have access to empowerment tools, and are continually monitored. Activities like football, while they are still incarcerated, garner a positive mental state so they “don’t lose their minds, or go home and cause problems.”

But the DPO himself emphasized the need for Lagos State to tackle prison overcrowding, an initiative he says will need to be the work of the judiciary. Earlier this year the Chief Judge of Lagos State released 190 inmates which was an important first step in decongesting prisons such as Kirikiri, but Dalapo feels more needs to be done. “Many of the men are victims of their circumstance and need our support,” he lamented. Churches and mosques visit the prison and offer this type of support, but more needs to be done on the outside to prevent the high rate of recidivism and general unnecessary incarceration of so many of Lagos’ men.

Chicken or Egg? I argue Egg.

Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: Correlation between Development and Violent Crime.

In this reposting of an article from Trinidad and Tobago’s The Guardian newspaper, blog Repeating Islands assesses Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development, Bhoendradatt Tewarir’s comments that “the spiraling crime situation” in Trinidad and volatility in Laventille and near by districts in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad serves as a detriment to development in those communities. My argument falls on the “egg,” the development itself. Improper infrastructure, and lack of government support and social services enact an environment that breeds violent activity and youth criminality.

One resident told Tewarie while he agreed with the comments there is still a role for the Government to play to deal with the crime problem in the specific areas. One of the more popular initiatives was the Hoop of Life which is a basketball competition across the country with the winning team receiving $1 million and the fortunes of the participating team dependent on the players having to keep a clean police record.

Initiatives such as the one mentioned above in Trinidad, are the development means or “eggs” that will curb violence, rather than isolating violence as the breeding mechanism of an inhospitable environment for infrastructural improvements. Yes, community members must see the social benefits of peace and reconciliation, but the government must also play a role in the inception of job and vocational opportunities, youth and education programs, and offer other social services which provide the same initial grounds for people to embark on positive life courses and disengage with violent and criminal activity for all ages and both genders.

Rewind: Reflections on the Kingston General Penitentiary, 2011

The walls of the GP functioned as a membrane between two separable, yet likable communities. The prison itself was located within the community, and through a process of osmosis, men move in and out of the system and between the two spaces. Inside the walls themselves exists an informal community of – chickens, clotheslines, cricket games, basketball matches, and even a recording studio where Jah Cure recorded his first album.

Kingston, Jamaica, 2011

The General Penitentiary of downtown Kingston operates like a sort of prokaryotic cell, men enter and leave the prison walls through an almost penetrable membrane. As a transitory visitor able to voyeuristically permeate the membrane, I saw the same men on the outside and inside of the prison walls. The prison, located within the community of Parade Gardens, holds many men who are from Parade Gardens. And inside the prison walls, I saw men participating in the same activities as their counterparts on the other side, and if anything in more productive and creative ways. Inside the prison walls, men play football and cricket, cook and sell food, gather for various activities, and even record music in the recording studio – Jah Cure recorded his entire first album there. Chickens run around one section of the yard, and a large school compounds holds the four main classrooms where various programs are taught – including an informal “class” I led based on experiential learning techniques.

During my first visit to the “GP” with my friend DMS, I greeted him as he simply walked down the street carrying a James Baldwin book. I asked him, “What are you going to be teaching today?” And he simply responded, “Whatever the conversation is.” I quickly realized what he meant. After entering the prison walls and compound – through a sequence of stares, shouts and calls from the men and 1,000 eyes on my whiteness and femininity – and walking through the main yard corridor, we arrived at the school. At once we slipped into the setting of a math class, and three other “classes” going on, including one in the far back right hand corner where a teacher who is an inmate, was leading a session on what I gathered, gender interpretation from the Bible. After the attention on the two white women (myself, and my friend Ashley who was with me) had cleared, and the conversation resumed to it’s full passionate degree, I realized the problems at stake in the conversation that was being largely guided by religious and Biblical interpretation.  I asked DMS gently, “Do you mind if I step in?” He looked at me a bit surprised, “No, of course not?” What I really meant was, “Do you mind if I take over?” And so I did.

In the next 40 minutes I guided the discussion back to the basic gender norms that I had just been discussing in my session with the Area Youth Foundation with young adults – younger versions of many of the men – down the street from the GP at a community center in Parade Gardens. The discussion became about the behaviors, descriptions and responsibilities we place on men and women, and how we can isolate them from the biological frameworks of “man” and “women” to the gender configurations, and social constructions of , “male” and “female.” By the end, their eyes were wide, and ears attuned. Together we got to a recognizable point of understanding: gender is socially constructed, and we have to redefine our own personal and community understanding of gender roles and functions, particularly for the good of our family structures and societal empowerment. For after all, it is women who are guiding most of the households in Kingston, particularly because of the absence of men, many of whom were sitting before me in the classroom of the GP.

The session ended beautifully with all of us joining together to hold hands in one big circle. We pushed out all of the chair-desks to the limits of the room, and I called everyone together to stand in solidarity. As all of the men closed their eyes, I guided a meditation in which I asked them all to think about their role as men in society, as brothers, fathers, uncles and people participating in a role in the community. “Who are we as men, and what will our roles be when we return to society?” As everyone opened their eyes, I felt the consciousness of the room shaking our reality and together we raised our hands and shouted our word for reciprocity, “RESPECT.”

As I have found now in my introductory work in the prison system in Lagos, Nigeria, if we can redefine many of the classical understandings of gender from indoctrinated sources such as society, the Bible and other forms of social conditioning, then we can tease out our own personal thoughts and experiences with gender, from the convicted falsehoods, and create more holistic and formidable relationships between men and women, and the space for their roles in society. 

Ikoyi Prison

On Tuesday morning, I visited Ikoyi Prison with Raphael Mbaegbu of the CLEEN Foundation. The visit provided an introspective into the realities of the Lagos criminal justice system and lived experiences of the incarcerated. The prison, built one year after independence in 1961, was constructed to hold 800 people. It currently holds 1778 men. Of those 1778 men, 1534 are awaiting trial.

 Altogether, 86 percent of Ikoyi prison is operating as a holding cell.

It is only once incarcerated men are formally convicted they can begin to participate in the various reformation programs that the prison offers. Reformation is a key to the ideology of the prison, as well as two other R’s: Rehabilitation and Reintegration. It is a an admirable mantra, especially given the politics of the criminal justice in the United States, whereby many programs once emphasizing the importance of Reintegration have been wiped away from the offerings of prison’s services.

IMG_0345At Ikoyi prison men can learn the trades of tailoring and carpentry, as well as sell goods that they make or buy, around the yard. My guide, Timmy Castle, the assistant to the Superintendent, noted that some save a good amount of money through their business or work while in prison and can leave with thousands of Naira – an important stepping-stone in the Reintegration process.

Of the 1778 incarcerated men at Ikoyi Prison, 1200 are awaiting trail for Murder or Armed Robbery charges. Timmy and I discussed at the length the reasons for the high influx of prisoners after the 1980’s and 1990’s, as well as the problems within the communities that many of the men come from which are sending them to prison, and recycling them back into the system. Timmy put a significant emphasis on the broken family structure of the Nigerian family. Parents are not properly teaching their children appropriate behavior or lifestyle choices, and are not assisting them in staying on positive lifestyle paths. The question surfaced in my mind, as it did often during my work at the General Penitentiary in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, “Where are the fathers?” Many of them were standing right before me in the prison yard.

But more importantly now, the question strikes me, where is the condemnation that so many fathers are absent from the home, are unemployed, seeking other women or sexual partners, and resorting to extortion or other illegal means to acquire financial success and masculine power? Where is the condemnation for sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse? And where is the community accountability for actions of male aggression that go undenounced? Of the 1778 incarcerated men, 150 are convicted of “carnal knowledge” or rape, and that’s just the number reported.

The sad reality that I have witnessed in Lagos is that sexual assault and rape are not crimes taken seriously, either by the legal system or by community accountability. Women who become the victim of sexual aggression, are chastised for their own sexual prowess or seduction powers through behavior, dress, or for merely going “to the wrong place,” “or a place she should know is dangerous.”

Ikoyi Prison’s structure sheds light on the prison system at large in Lagos, functioning as a make shift means for renounced justice. Laws put in place to the guide the prison system have had to be abandoned or bent in order to accommodate their realties: high numbers, small facilities and broken conditions. The axe hanging over the head of most of those who are incarcerated is the threat of solitary confinement in a one room unit – which encompasses the space for defecting, eating and sleeping – and the hope for serving a shorter portion of one’s convicted sentence, as the reward for good behavior. At the two churches and mosque on the prison compound, I saw the multitude of men seeking belief and devotion to a higher power and religious body. The question remains whether the belief in fortitude of governance translates into the same sanctity for marriage, relationships, and engagement with the lawless law.

Youth Concerns and Development Initiatives (YCDI-Africa)

Interactive Forum on Youth, Safety and Security
Sponsored by Youth Concerns and Development Initiatives (YCDI-Africa)

Ojota Secondary Grammar School
Ogudu GRA, Ojota, Lagos
December 5th, 2012

Student particpating in my exercise "Tracing Shapes," on her peer's back as part of my presentation "Creative Positivity: Alternatives to Violence."

Student particpating in my exercise “Tracing Shapes,” on her peer’s back as part of my presentation “Creative Positivity: Alternatives to Violence.”

Middle four (L to R): Presenter Ms. Lydia Onuoha, YCDI-Africa Founder Onyinye Onyemobi, Myself, and Presenter Ms. Eunice Adetola

Middle four (L to R): Presenter Ms. Lydia Onuoha, YCDI-Africa Founder Onyinye Onyemobi, Myself, and Presenter Ms. Eunice Adetola

Members of the Health and Life Planning Club

Students of the Health and Life Planning Club, Ojota Secondary Grammar School

Ojota Secondary Grammar School

Ojota Secondary Grammar School

Presenting at the "Interactive Forum on Youth, Safety and Security."

Presenting at the “Interactive Forum on Youth, Safety and Security.”

Secondary school students listening to my presentation, "Creative Positivity: Alternatives to Violence."
Secondary school students listening to my presentation, “Creative Positivity: Alternatives to Violence.”
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Founder of YCDI-Africa, Onyinye Onyemobi and myself.

Ministry of Youth and Sports

On November 29th I organized a meeting at the Ministry of Youth with representatives of five of the leading national youth volunteer organizations in Lagos.

At the Ministry of Youth and Sports we met for a foundational meeting, during which I introduced my research and heard from respective representatives of the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Boy’s Brigade, and the Sheriff’s Guard. Roughly two heads of each organization attended, and provided an outline of their organization’s work and mission, their program development and activities, and reflections on programming they have utilized in nature or the environment.

IMG_0343The meeting provided a meaningful step for my own research in surveying the scene of youth work in Nigeria that engages with the natural environment. I was impressed by the dedication of the representatives who are all volunteers, and many, long-standing members of their organizations. Some of the points that they underscored included the necessity of vocational training to be paired with environmental experiences, as well as the importance of including education in their programming on environmental awareness. Environmental awareness, as the head of the Boy Scouts pointed out, should include mention of the pressure being on on the environment by all citizens and what steps we can take to alleviate some it. In the Boy Scout’s work they utilize a massive green reserve space which they use as a training facility and camping location – putting to use the 1,200 tents they have in their possession from Japan!

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Head representatives of The Girl Guides (R + L), The Boy Scouts (M)

The Girl Guides represents an impressive body of women dedicated to empowering younger women and teaching them the value of hard skills and female strength embodied in achieving goals and stages of life skills development. The Sheriff’s Guard’s focus on a sense of belonging for youth fosters a culture of community engagment for their youth as well as skills training on how to effectively organize and mobilize one’s self for positive personal development.

The Red Cross representative outlined his organization’s commitment to cleaning up prisons and addressing their poor infrastructure. I was glad for the noteworthy connection, providing a linkage between youth work and providing positive outlets for youth so that they do not end up in such poor facilities devoid of educational empowerment. I used the point to elucidate the direction of my own research to show the effectiveness of using environmental and experiential education as a means for an alternative to incarceration – mainly in preventing young men from engaging in negative behavior that causes them to be incarcerated and for young women, to stay on positive paths of empowered direction and independent mobility.

During the final segment of the meeting, a discussion of challenges and questions, the Boy’s Brigade’s Head Officer brought up the key challenge of teaching youth lawful behavior, in a climate of lawlessness. How do you impose a sense of orderly conduct for youth, when police officers ban okada (motorcycles), implement strict guidelines, and then ride okada themselves? His point highlighted the need for communication across various sectors of civil society and law enforcement to devise an approach of solidarity in demonstrating to youth productive courses of actions, while lauding them with positive affirmation. Boy’s Brigade’s officer also highlighted their interest in cross-cultural and international exchange programs, and the potential to visit outdoor sites in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The meeting of organizational heads of youth volunteer programs was meaningful and provided rich discussion, as well as a structured platform for informed movement and data collection around the topic of engaging Lagosian youth in nature. Each representative completed a survey I developed to gather information related to their programming and environmental attitudes, and will distribute personal questionnaires to 10 of their youth related to similar concepts around environmental, city and justice attitudes, to return to me for processing.