Tuesday, August 1, 2017 will remain indelible in the memory of journalists and team of non-governmental organisation privileged to be in the team that visited Badagry Prison, Lagos.
It was memorable not because 80 underaged prisoners were set free but the condition of those set free and many who are still in the prison that will die in the next few days. Just few days ago, five minors died , Badagry prison sources have said.
They all came out of the prision on Tuesday looking dirty, with many inflicted with various skin diseases as one could see as they run their fingers across their body frame. The feeling of hunger was vivid and evokes feelings of the Nigerian civil war of the 60s.
“We eat once a day and sleep sitting”, one of the prisoners said. Some very bony, frail and lacking the strength to stand. The clothes they put on have metamophorsed into oversized sackcloth due to the enormity of deprivation they have gone through. They struggle and fall upon themselves to grab a piece of snacks, reporters threw in their direction.
Among them are innocent teenagers arrested during raids for cultists and other juvenile crimes, their destination should naturally have been the juvenile homes, the many remand centres that the Lagos State Government has set up, but they found themselves in prison yard in the remotest part of Lagos.
To any visitor, the exterior of the Badagry Prison complex located at the beachfront of the historic Badagry town looks deserted and without any activity — a false impression, given the number of inmates inside. It has the same features as most prisons in Nigeria – heavy green gates, high walls, heavily armed security personnel and a vast army of eagle-eyed prison wardens who go through the daily motions of receiving new inmates and also ensuring that inmates serve their time. But it is a house of horror as any visitor would find out.
Held deep in the dingy cells of the prison among convicted murderers armed robbers, rapists and the likes, are also children and teenagers serving sentences for various offences ranging from petty theft to wandering and even street hawking. The horror within the Badagry prison cells is better imagined.
When the Lagos State Chief Judge, Honorable Justice Funmilayo Atilade decided to visit the prison hoping to set free 28 under-aged inmates, little did she prepare for the spectacle she was confronted with – hundreds of hungry and unkempt children, displaying varying stages of diseases and neglect.
The children and teenagers clad in oversized green and blue prison garments were seated on wooden benches in the prison chapel, hoping for a possible stroke of luck or divine intervention that could secure them freedom.
The air was heavy with the smell of disinfectant, but it could not hide the odour of unwashed bodies, packed so tightly that it made one’s stomach churn.
The children, especially, were sick, hungry, weak, dying and crying.
The expressions in their eyes were the same. They wanted to go home. They wanted their parents.
While they waited for their names to be called, their hands went unconsciously into their oversized trousers, scratching their private parts without any form of embarrassment.
Their movements seemed choreographed. They all had places to scratch with their skin turning ghostly white from constant scratching.
Signs of chicken pox, ringworm, scabies, possibly leprosy and a host of undiagnosed skin could be seen all over their skins. There were some with open sores oozing thick and yellow pus. There were others with open bullet wounds. Some also have had their legs amputated legs. All were expectant and hopeful for freedom.
At the back of the prison chapel was a boy not less than 13 years old, suffering from stroke. According to his friend who brought him, he was physically fit, but had become sick, more or less a vegetable, depending on others for survival.
There was palpable silence among them when the prison decongestion committee began calling names of those granted amnesty.
Once they hear their names, the beneficiaries leapt for joy, hurried forward, holding their oversized trousers held by pieces of rope and rags.
There was not a dry eye in sight as judges, police officers and even those in the CJ’s convoy wept.
The sight of the children, lined up like criminals, their shaven heads bowed, was a wake-up call for concerned authorities to do something urgent about the nation’s judicial system.
The inhumane condition that the children were made to endure was brought to light by one Mrs. Dupe Olubanwo who petitioned the Lagos CJ while calling for immediate action.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of the prison decongestion team revealed that death is a common experience in Badagry Prison.
“The children die like flies. They have no care whatsoever. It was because of the CJ’s visit that they were made to have their baths. As you can see from their gaunt and emaciated bodies, feeding is a major problem. The children are starving. They are literally dying of hunger. Many come here healthy but are slowly consumed by treatable diseases,” he said, adding that the sleeping conditions of the children are quite traumatic.
“The children, alongside other prisoners are packed so tightly in small cells that they sleep in sitting position. They seldom have their baths, as potable water is a serious problem here,” the team member stated further.
Investigations by Sunday Tribune revealed that many of the children and teenagers committed alleged bailable offences. Several others were held for minor offences like loitering, wandering, street trading and in some cases, alleged stealing, for which they were charged before mobile courts which imposed a fine of N35,000 or less.
Sadly, many of the children are from poor homes. While their parents continued to find means of perfecting their bail conditions, the children continued to rot in jail.
Speaking with Sunday Tribune, one of the prison inmates, a 14-year-old boy, Samuel (pseudo name) said that he was picked up by a task force for hawking beef sausage, popularly known as Gala.
“I am from the East. I came to stay with my distant relative. I was made to start hawking. My people do not know that I am here,” he said adding: “I want to go back home.”
Another teenager who had open sores all over him, exposed to Sunday Tribune his private parts and with tears in his eyes, said:
“Aunty look, my tin don finish. To piss dey pain me. E dey scratch me and the wound no gree go.”
Looking closely one could see that his private parts, covered in thick black scabs oozing out yellow pus, had been eaten up by a severe case of scabies popularly known as ‘krawkraw.’ The insides of his buttocks were also not spared.
Another boy, not more than 13 years of age cried out in a loud voice:
“E joo, ara n ni mi. E saanu mi,” meaning “please I am in pains. Please have mercy on me.”
Baring her mind, Honorable Funmi Tejuosho, a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly who accompanied the CJ stated that the Lagos State Government was not aware of the abnormality.
“A prison is not a place for a child. Their minds are young and still in the formative stage. I am going to carry put this message back to the governor that something urgent has to be done.
“The issue of keeping children in prison is condemnable in its totality. These are the leaders of tomorrow. This is a sad situation that should not be.
“On no condition should a child, below 18 years, be kept in prison either on conviction and awaiting trial.
“Please anytime a child is brought here, send a message to either the office of the Public defender or the High Court.
“Children who commit an offence are not meant to be kept in prison but in correctional facilities for reformation,” Tejuosho said.
While speaking, Deputy Comptroller, Oyeniran Famuwagun, informed the Lagos CJ that the Badagry prison was built to hold 320 inmates but is currently occupied by 584 inmates.
“The prison has a population of 584 inmates; with 389 convicted male and 195 awaiting trial males, alongside 70 prison staff members.
“The rapid increase in the population is, often times, as a result of the existing old vehicles that can no longer convey them to court for trial, coupled with delayed administration of justice that extends their stay.
“ My lady, during your last visit on November 3, 2016 we complained about insufficient water supply and adequate medical facilities to aid in the treatment of some inmates that suffer severe injuries while being arrested by security agencies. We also want you to look into the case of under-aged children who are serving prison terms here,” he said.
Looking at the conditions of the children, the CJ demanded the warrant of arrest of the underaged inmates. It was a laborious task sorting through the piles of paperwork to determine who gets to stay and who gets to leave.
At the end of the day, 80 underaged inmates were set free. While they jubilated, the other children wailed loudly, tears and mucus rolling down their sad faces.
As they continued to wail, right in their presence prison officials brought packs of meat pie and cans of malt, distributing them to the August visitors. All of the visitors decided not to eat the snacks and gave them to the children who rushed for the food, clawing and fighting themselves.
The stronger ones had the upper hand, forcibly pushed the weaker ones aside and crammed the snacks in their mouths. They guzzled the malt drink with relish as the weaker ones licked the drops that dropped on the floor.
In the midst of the confusion a boy fell and remained immobile on the dusty ground, too weak to move.
Sitting outside the chapel on a cemented slab was a boy of about sixteen. He was covered in sores from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He was literally in a state of decay while still alive. He had been abandoned to his fate, the only company he had were flies. They perched in him in droves feasting on the open sores.
“Help me,” he said in a feeble voice wracked with hunger.
“Don’t mind him,” a prison warder said, “He has already been convicted.”
“Please no pictures,” another warder said, gently but firmly.
Even without prison officials’ warnings, no pictures could have been taken. All visitors had been made to surrender their phones and other electronic devices at the gate. However, it would take a long time to wipe out the pictures already etched in the visitors’ ‘human memory cards.’
Earlier in his welcome address, the Deputy Comptroller General in charge of Badagry Prison, Mr. Oyeniran Famuwagun decried congestion of the prison. He said the prison which now houses 584 inmates was built to accommodate just 320 inmates.
He explained that 195 of the inmates are on the awaiting trial list. 389 others are convicts with a working staff population of about 70 staff. Famuwagun also complained of inadequate funding, lack of portable water and overstretched infrastructure at the prison particularly vehicles for conveying the inmates to courts.
As written Ayomide Odekanyan an dEmmanuel Thomas