The revolting pictures of Nigerian prison cells on the internet and in newspapers are enough to give anyone visiting a jail house in the country a panic attack.
But amidst these dingy, damp and dimly lit rooms in prisons, overcrowded with the damned, deceased and dying from all over the country, there are cells reserved for some affluent inmates who live out their terms in happiness and merriment.
Over the years, overcrowding in Nigerian prisons has been a recurrent topic of discussion due to the large number of awaiting trial inmates in the system.
According to the Nigeria Prisons Service, 69 per cent of the current prison population is awaiting trial inmates as of February 12, 2018.
But in the face of this, the Federal Government has continued to ignore the stakeholders’ advice on the needed expansion of the existing prisons.
Despite this problem, affluent inmates do not have to worry about space.
While life is a daily tussle between the rich and poor in Nigeria, going to prison is another version of that struggle. With money, Saturday PUNCH learnt that inmates can live as much enjoyable life as they can afford within the walls of incarceration.
Some ex-inmates, who share their experiences, speak of “apartments” in the prisons where inmates live like they are in their homes with all the privileges attached.
These privileges, it was learnt, don’t just land on the laps of inmates. It is how officials make money on the side, while inmates without the financial muscle, rub shoulders in squalor.
In the Kirikiri Maximum Prison in Lagos for instance, it was learnt that inmates who have the money, pay anything between N70,000 and N300,000 to live in the VIP section.
An ex-inmate who has now become a prison reform advocate, Mr. Gwamnishu Harrison, shares his own experience across three prisons in the country, confirming our findings.
He says, “At the Maximum Prison, the VIP units are called ‘apartments’ rather than ‘cells’. Inmates live in self-contained rooms with personal access to shower, toilet, television and even generators.
“The amount you pay to live in the VIP section depends on how big your case is. If for instance, you were in prison because of a fraud involving a lot of money, they call you ‘big fish’ at the Kirikiri Maximum Prison. You would have to pay higher than others to get a special cell. The higher the amount of money involved in your case, the higher the money you pay to officials.
“Once the court pronounces that you have been remanded, the prison warders sit you down to tell you the situation you would meet at the prison. They would threaten you subtly that you would be put in the general cells, where inmates could beat you regularly but that if you were in the VIP cells, nobody would be able to touch you.”
At the Kirikiri Maximum Prison, inmates in the VIP section even get personal guards, it was learnt.
These guards are other less-privileged inmates, who have the “luck” of being chosen to serve the VIP inmates, with promise of some privileges.
“Once you get a space in the apartment, you are given other inmates, who are less privileged as ‘guards’. They protect you, clean your room and wash your clothes. No one can go into the apartments without informing the ‘guards’ working there. You take permission from them before you go in to see the VIPs,” Harrison says.
At the Kirikiri Medium Prison’s VIP section – C Ward and K Ward – the situation is not so different.
A crowded cell
Here, a newly built two-storey building is used as the VIP section.
Another block said to have been built by former Abia State Governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, called Abia Hall is reserved for lower-class VIPs – those who are rich but not as rich as people in C and K Wards.
Here also, an inmate, who pays between N50,000 and N150,000 enjoys the privilege of a personal room and toilet with shower and fan.
Where an inmate does not pay enough, he shares a room with another ‘VIP’, Harrison says.
He was at the Kirikiri Medium Prison shortly before his transfer to the Ikoyi Prison, Lagos.
According to him, one of the most important privileges of being an inmate residing in the VIP sections is the access to mobile phones.
“They pay a lot of money to warders to be able to use their own smart phones. Are you not surprised that there are sometimes reports of inmates defrauding people even while still in prison?” he says.
In May 2017, an Ikeja High Court in Lagos State sentenced a prisoner Ikechukwu Ogbu, to 18 years imprisonment for defrauding a banker, Patrick Edetchukwu, of a sum of N12.3m while serving a 10-year sentence for an undisclosed crime at Kirikiri Maximum Prison.
In October 2017, an inmate of the Kuje Prison, Ifeanyi Ezenwa, was accused of operating a fake bank alert fraud while in jail.
The police alleged that he defrauded an orthopaedic medical store of two wheel chairs and N50,000 and also scammed Elizade Motors into handing over a vehicle, which his accomplice, 43-year-old Dalhatu Yahaya, sold for N9m.
The VIP privileges enjoyed by inmates are not limited to the Kirikiri prisons.
At the Ikoyi Prison, there is a cell block called Booster, which one of our correspondents learnt was originally meant to house underage inmates.
Today, the block is used by VIP inmates and foreigners who have enough money to spend.
Harrison says, “It is like a flat. It even has its own fence and gate. It is separated from the main yard. Each room is self-contained and has flowers around it. All the inmates there use phones.
“Most of them use DVD players. They don’t eat the regular prison food. Their food are prepared by the inmates who serve them as servants, they give money to those servants to get foodstuff. With the help of prison officials, they buy frozen chicken, turkey and other things easily.”
In prisons, money is the key to many privileges.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that most of the less-privileged inmates make money in the prison by exchanging recharge cards supplied by theeir families outside with money from the VIP inmates.
For instance, when a lower class inmate sells a N1,500 card to a VIP inmate, he gets N1,000 in return.
At the Ogwashi-Uku Prison in Delta State, the VIP section is called Cell 6, a block of 13 rooms where an inmate enjoys the luxury of having a room to himself.
Harrison, who served out his term at the prison, says that once in a while, when there are more VIPs than rooms at the VIP section, two inmates might share a room.
But unlike Ikoyi and the Kirikiri prisons, here, inmates at the VIP section actually pay monthly rent.
“You have to pay between N60,000 and N100,000 to get a room in Cell 6. Every month, each inmate pays N4,000 monthly as a sort of rent even though they don’t call it that,” he says.
An ex-inmate of the Kirikiri Female Prison, identified simply as Ijeoma for anonymity, also tells Saturday PUNCH that there is also a VIP section at the female wing.
According to her, she left the prison in 2011 and at the time, inmates were paying between N20,000 and N40,000 to stay in the VIP section.
“We called it the B-Line or B-Cell. While other cells contained 50 inmates only four inmates shared a cell in the VIP section. Many of the inmates there also used mobile phones,” she says.
Corrupt privileged cells make money for officials – Giwa-Amu
Prison reform advocate and Lagos lawyer, Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, says he came to learn about how corrupt officials create privileged sections in the prisons over the years through his work.
But according to him, it is not in all cases that privileged inmates are separated from the general population due to corruption.
He says, “Some privileged inmates are separated because of their ailments. Some of them suffer from tuberculosis and other contagious diseases.
“But in many cases, corruption is in play. We have a place called Aso Rock at the Kirikiri Prisons, which was originally built by the British Council as a donation to the Nigeria Prison Service. The facility is so well-maintained with many amenities that officials now use it as an opportunity to make money.
“Depending on how much you can afford, you are not kept among the general prisoners. This is a system that has been going on for a long time. There is also a corrupt system in the prison where those who are committed are given medical certificates and are not kept in the prison yard but in the military hospital.”
Giwa-Amu confirms that indeed a cell block which used to be a juvenile unit has been converted to housing affluent inmates at the Ikoyi Prison.
“The juvenile unit called Buster does not exist at Ikoyi Prison anymore. It was abolished and moved to Abeokuta or Oregun Juvenile centres. The existing facility is what is now being used as cell for the privileged. But the juvenile unit still exists in Badagry Prison,” he says.
The activist tells Saturday PUNCH that the solution lies in decongesting the prisons. To make this possible, he suggests three ways: courts releasing offenders on personal recognisance; prisons exercising rights of refusal and expansion of prison facilities.
Giwa Amu says, “Courts should be able to release some people on personal recognisance rather than giving out strict bail conditions they would never be able to meet. Some courts remand pregnant women or someone with a disability when they know that the prisons are not equipped to take care of such people.
“Ikoyi Prison for instance should be able to turn back inmates when it knows that its facility cannot accommodate more than 1,000 people. I found out in my work with the prisons that the more inmates they have in their facilities, the more allowances they get from Abuja.
“There is a need to overhaul the Nigerian prison system because the society is dynamic. There is need to relocate some prisons like the Ikoyi Prison to places like Ibeju Lekki where the inmates can farm and grow what they eat.”
When Saturday PUNCH contacted the spokesperson for the Nigeria Prison Service, Mr. Francis Enabore, to confirm whether the privileges are sanctioned by the prison high command, he said segregating some prisoners, especially the high profile ones, from others was to minimise risk of attack and a way of keeping them safe. However, he said no inmatelive like a king.
He said, “When an inmate is brought into the prison, we profile them to know the appropriate cell to put them. If you keep ex-governors, bank executives and high profile persons with armed robbers, street urchins and rapists, we all can predict what would happen to the man before the next morning. They would tear them into pieces.
“Rightly or wrongly, these other class of prisoners have that grudge against the well-off persons in the society, because they think they are part of the problem in the society.
“If we keep them together, you journalists would be the first to ask questions. That is why we segregate them because our mandate is to keep in safe custody anybody sent to prison. So, when people say we have special cells where people live like kings, I’m surprised, and no once can live like king in the prison.”
He also explained that the issue of prisoners serving some others was voluntary and a reflection of what obtains in the society. “People are wont to voluntarily be of service to the well-off people in the society and prison is a microcosm of the entire society. So, our communal way of living is what plays out there.”
Enobore noted that inmates were not allowed to bring in things like television but that some cells, which he called association cells, have television sets, usually “donated by religious organisations.” He, however, admitted that some inmates connive with some “unscrupulous” prison officials to smuggle certain prohibited items into the cells, but that this informed why regular search was being carried out.