…A Saturday Sun undercover blow-by-blow account of extortion by court officials, prison wardens
• It’s an aberration –NPS
A Saturday Sun undercover investigation uncovered a rash of unethical practices by court and prison officers. The report chronicles the dishonest practice that takes place back and forth between the court and the prison in Lagos. The picture that emerged is one of a thriving racket driven by pecuniary gains that feeds on the gullibility of inmates and those remanded.
Cankerworms in the court
Wilfred Ojonugwa (not real name) was arraigned before an Ikeja Magistrate Court for miscellaneous offences in the first week of January 2018. The first face of the rot in the court was the police prosecutor who at the point of bail approached him and offered to help him by way of arranging a professional surety for a fee of N50, 000. Ojonugwa declined, preferring his bail to be handled by his arranged lawyer. However, failure to perfect his bail conditions on time led to his being remanded in custody at the Kirikiri Prisons, Lagos.
The prison racket
Barely few minutes after his arrival at Kirikiri Prisons, Ojonugwa encountered another facet of corruption. A prison officer claiming he just received a call from his supervisor relayed the message to the new arrival. Would the remandee be interested in staying in a neat, decent cell? If his response is affirmative, he is expected to concretise his interest by making payment to the prison officer. Aside allotting him a good cell, he would be entitled to other perks, namely, the waiving of punitive and inconvenient tasks such as cleaning toilets and other odd jobs assigned to prisoners.
This privilege package billed at N20, 000 was negotiated downward to N10, 000. Due to non-availability of cash on him, and having no access to someone he could call at short notice to deliver the lucre, Ojonugwa was given the alternative of refilling a specific mobile phone number with an airtime of equivalent value.
Subsequently, MTN number 0903 2189 917 was recharged by virtual top-up to the tune of N10, 000, from Saturday Sun newsroom. An investigation of the ownership of the telephone line showed the identity of the phone owner as Kirikiri Prison.
Having met the monetary obligation, Ojonugwa was remanded in a cell he described as clean and was spared of any discomfort during his stay there.
After three days inside Kirikiri prisons, his bail conditions were eventually perfected. No sooner had he cleared that hurdle than other stumbling blocks surfaced that indicated that he was not yet out of the bribery quicksand.
Back to the court
In a fresh phase of extortion, the court clerk and registrar both demanded kickbacks. They each expected their palms to be greased with N3, 000 in order for them to bring the remanded person’s file onto the table of the magistrate to sign the release warrant. Failure to play ball, Saturday Sun gathered, means there would be no file on the magistrate’s desk to sign while the remandee continues to languish in prison until he accedes to their demand.
The final act
After scaling the hurdle, the next extortionist was the prison officer whose duty it was to deliver the release warrant from the court in Ikeja to Kirikiri Prisons in Apapa. In order for him to expedite action, he requested an incentive of N5, 000 for transportation.
Ojonugwa was eventually released from custody after spending four days in Kirikiri Prison. Had he spent three days more, a warden told him, he would be obligated to renew his N10, 000-a-week privilege package or risk forfeiture of the benefit of a clean cell and associated comforts.
Nigeria Prisons’ reaction
Saturday Sun spoke with Francis Enobore, Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) spokesman. In a telephone exchange that lasted 14 minutes, Enobore denounced such practice.
“Though I am not in a position to determine the merit of the report you have given me, such a practice is never condoned. It is never allowed. That is not our practice. Neither the Comptroller-General nor the prison authority is aware of such practice. As a matter of fact, it is my first time of hearing such report. Whoever did that played a prank, because there is nothing like menial works in the prisons any more,” he stated.
To clarify his point, he elaborated on the prevailing system in the prisons.
“It was in the past we had people sentenced to prison with hard labour,” he began, “nowadays, there is no ‘hard labour’ in our lexicon. What exists is nothing but the general clean up order which is not any different from what an individual does in his house to keep his surrounding clean, sweep the ground, mop the floor and other necessary things to keep a place tidy. Beyond these, there is nothing like hard labour. Prisoners no longer go to the forest to find firewood as it used to be in the past; they no longer go to railway stations to work. Once a person comes into the prison, he is assessed as per his health and other conditions to know where to place him.”
Enobore dismissed the notion of special cells, noting that what is being misconstrued by the public as special treatment is but the categorizations system in place in Nigerian prisons.
He explained: “When someone is taken into the prisons, we look at the status he maintains while outside, and accordantly place him in a cell where he would not be traumatise to the extent that he will not wake up the next morning alive.
“Say, for instance, an ex-governor is sent to the prison, we will use our discretion to place him in a cell that is not populated by street urchins, armed robbers, kidnappers and the likes. Rightly or wrongly, these types of people believe the bourgeoisie contributed one way or the other to their plight, so if given the opportunity, they would get even with any one they perceive as a member of the upper class, and we will not be there in the night when these things are happening. In order to prevent this, we group people of similar class together, that is where we have categorization and we use our discretion to do this categorization for all inmates’ safety.”
Emphasizing the Controller-General’s zero tolerance for unethical behavior, he catalogued recent initiatives meant to eliminate loopholes that make extortion feasible.
“Almost all the prisons across the country have been given court vehicles which are fueled and maintained to take inmates to court without demanding a dime from any prisoner.
“In recent times, the comptroller general has procured large cache of drugs and medicament and distributed to all prison formations across the country. In addition to that, all our existing hospitals are undergoing one form of rehabilitation or another in terms of facilities.
“So, there is no basis for any prison officer to demand a dime from any prisoner before taking him to court or before bringing back his release warrant from the court or before providing the necessary drugs when the need arises.”
Enobore concluded with an assurance that the officers involved in the reported cases will be duly investigated and appropriate actions taken against those found culpable.