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.
At 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.