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Linus UnahSeptember 24, 2019

Kingsley Agbo knows well how he landed at this prison in Nigeria.

Formerly a member of a notorious criminal gang, Mr. Agbo abused cocaine and marijuana. His group regularly fought off rivals, sometimes killing them and sometimes damaging vehicles, houses and shops during chaotic street fighting.

In January 2017, he was arrested by the police and charged for belonging to a “cult group” or confraternity, as gangs are known here—secret societies that form within universities and sometimes high schools. They often deal in hard drugs, and individuals active with them can easily slip into substance abuse of their own.

Young people belong to these gangs for many reasons, seeking the protection and street respect afforded by membership. Individual confraternities may have connections to influential and wealthy people in Nigeria, especially politicians who use them to do “dirty jobs” to intimidate opponents like stealing election materials or causing panic by shooting wildly during political campaigns and elections.

For nearly two decades, Nigeria has been struggling to reform its congested prison system. Courts grapple with huge backlogs of cases, compounding delays in the delivery of justice and contributing to prison overcrowding. 

Mr. Agbo was eventually remanded in prison in the southeastern Nigerian state of Enugu in March 2017. Life in prison has been difficult. Nutrition here is poor, he says, and Mr. Agbo worries that he is not receiving “sufficient” psychological support to overcome his substance abuse. But nothing troubles him more than the number of people around him who have been waiting for trial, sometimes for years.

“It makes me heartbroken to see people dumped here because they have no lawyers or money to go to court,” he says.

For nearly two decades, Nigeria has been struggling to reform its congested prison system. Courts grapple with huge backlogs of cases, compounding delays in the delivery of justice and contributing to prison overcrowding. Corruption among judicial officers only makes matters worse inside the prisons.

At the end of July, Nigeria had a total prison population of 73,995, including just 23,568 inmates who had been convicted of their crimes—32 percent of the total. The majority of its inmates, 50,427—68 percent of prisoners nationwide—are awaiting trial.

The Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace, a faith-based nongovernmental organization based in the city of Enugu, wants to address this problem. The institute seeks to secure timely access to trial and to improve the living conditions of inmates across the region.

Founded in 1986 by Msgr. Obiora Ike, the institute has made fighting for the rights and welfare of prisoners its primary focus. Its prisoners’ welfare support unit visits all four prisons in Enugu State at least twice weekly. During its visits, the welfare team interacts with inmates to hear their grievances, provides counseling and psychosocial support and tries to address the legal, health or material needs of prisoners.

“It is part of our objective to fight for justice in the society and to bring justice where justice is denied.”

Inmates needing legal representation may be referred for free services. A team of six lawyers visits the prisons to interview inmates and gather evidence, and it makes court appearances on the prisoners’ behalf.

“In our society, our prisons are congested, and that is an indication of elements of injustice playing itself out,” said the Rev. Anieke Chinedu Odinkemelu, the executive director of C.I.D.J.A.P.

“It is part of our objective to fight for justice in the society and to bring justice where justice is denied.”

The institute also carries out legal advocacy and political lobbying to get state judicial officials, local lawyers, N.G.O.s, police and prison officers together to improve conditions in Nigeria’s prisons. But the bulk of the institute’s work falls on the welfare desk. This unit provides essential supplies like clothing, food items, footwear and toiletries for prisoners, as well as diapers for the infants of new mothers in prison.

It also tracks down family members to let them know the status and condition of their relative in prison.

“I have seen cases where most families do not know their people are in prison,” Sister Chioma Onyenufoh, the coordinator of the welfare unit, told America. “If it is a family member they have issues with, then we go further to do peace mediation and talk to the family to reconcile with them.”

The institute also sponsors health interventions, paying hospital bills, providing drugs and health aids like eyeglasses and assisting pregnant prisoners before and after delivery. Last year, it dispatched a doctor alongside three nurses and two lawyers when there was an epidemic of skin infection among inmates at a prison in the southeastern town of Nsukka. Prisoners there had complained of itching and boils on their skin.

When prisoners are released, the welfare team accompanies them home and tries to convince their families to accept that they have turned a new leaf. It is a tricky job that comes with some risk, Kelechi Agu says.

“Some people had problems with their families before they got imprisoned, and in most cases, families might have forgotten them because they have been in prison for so long or simply do not want them back and prefer to allow them to stay in the cell,” Ms. Agu explains.

Some families can be hostile—insulting and threatening C.I.D.J.A.P.’s welfare staff when they return a family member from prison. To reduce such occurrences, Ms. Agu and her colleagues usually visit families before a prisoner is released and try to mediate between them.

“We take it upon ourselves to collect prisoners on the day when they are being released and make sure their families give them another chance again before we leave,” she said. “We settle whatever issues they had before and convince them to take the released person back.”

Mr. Agbo was paroled by state authorities last December and allowed to leave in February, but his mother has refused to take him back. Ms. Agu visited her to appeal on his behalf and finally got the mother to agree that she will take Mr. Agbo home in November. Until then he will remain in prison.

“Time waits for no one,” Mr. Agbo says. “I will denounce cultism because I am now a Christian, and I have realized that all these hard drugs are doing me more harm than good.”

C.I.D.J.A.P. also tries to address the spiritual needs of the inmates, collaborating with prison chaplaincies to offer Mass, confessions and Communion to inmates, especially the sick who are unable to attend church. The institute’s work is funded by several international donors, including Missio, the Catholic Church’s official charity for overseas mission, and Misereor, the German Catholic bishops’ international development agency.

Meanwhile, Nigerian authorities seem to be making some progress in reforming the country’s prisons.

In mid-August, President Muhammadu Buhari signed a law changing the Nigerian Prisons Service to the Nigerian Correctional Service, suggesting a shift away from the common perception of prisons as places of torture, neglect and dereliction. A presidential committee on prison reform and rehabilitation has been touring the country for about two years, releasing thousands of inmates to decongest prisons and working to see how regional services can be improved.

While he continues to await his mother’s arrival, Mr. Agbo looks forward to starting over again and leading a better life.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” he said, then reeling off the remaining verses of 2 Corinthians 5. He seems keen to show off what he has learned from his Bible study and even more important, his willingness to change.

“My old days of sniffing hard drugs, of womanizing, of involving myself in cult wars and violent activities are over,” he said.

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