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REPORTER’S DIARY: Living With A ‘Mad’ Cell Mate, Set Up By Warders, Abducted By The Police (3)
In the third and final part of a three – part undercover investigative series, FISAYO SOYOMBO documents the soft side of his time in police cell and prison, and how prison, police and court officials conspired to abduct him after his cover was blown.
I hadn’t yet spent a full day at Pedro Police Station, Shomolu, Lagos, when I asked myself the question: “Who sent me?” But it was nothing new; I knew I would ask myself that question at some point during this investigation, and I knew too that it wouldn’t make me call it off. If you asked any hardcore investigative journalist, they would say the same of almost every daredevil story they have covered.
As I lay in that warm cell in the wee small hours of Tuesday July 9, it dawned on me that surviving the days ahead would require more than brawn. Five of us ‘suspects’ had crammed ourselves into that narrow, filthy cell, all wanting to get our bodies on that small mat but none fully succeeding. So, intermittently, one suspect pushed or snuggled into the other. The four of them were in deep sleep but I lay there wide awake. How could I sleep? To my immediate left was Uchenna, whose snores could dwarf the grunt of an elephant; and on my other side Austin, coughing so laboriously as though his heart was about to be flung out through his mouth, and in a manner predisposing cell mates to air-borne infections. The air was reeking of alcohol, too.
Back in the evening, one suspect had tipped a policewoman to help him buy two sachets of gin that he didn’t down until just before midnight. I looked at the cell gate again and it was firmly padlocked. There was no escaping; this would be my home for a few more days.
MY CELL MATE ‘RUNS MAD’
Two of the next three days proved tumultuous, even for the police officers.
It started over the night between Wednesday and Thursday, at about 1am. Three of us were in the entire cell, but only Uchenna and I shared the inner cell. Suddenly, he hit me in my deep sleep and asked me to look at a hole in one of the walls of the cell. “There’s an eagle in that place,” he howled, spilling a sachet of water in that direction. “Can you see it? That’s the eagle!”
It marked the onset of a two-day turbulence in the cell. Uchenna sprang up and began sprinkling water in all three rooms of the cell, casting and binding, shouting and crying out prayers. “Jesus is here, Jesus is here,” he screamed at a time. “Leave this place, you demon! No space for you here. I am no longer with you. I’m a new man now. Jesus is here!”
Uchenna went on somewhat schizophrenically for the next six to seven hours, punctuated only once by the arrival of Sunday and Japheth in the cell. The police officers ignored him altogether, but we, the suspects, were worried; we weren’t sure if he had run mad or if he was pretending, to force an unlikely release. By Thursday, it had become so unbearable the officers had to handcuff his left hand to the gate of an inner cell. It was a big shock to find out he had disentangled himself in a matter of minutes. He was re-cuffed but he again freed himself; this time, I caught him. He had signaled to Japheth to help him fetch a sachet of water; with this, he greased his hand and the handcuff, and boom, he was free again.
This time, the officers removed him from the cell gate and chained him in the inner cell proper, alongside his helper Japheth who was first blessed with a few smacks. Still, it didn’t deter Uchenna; it emboldened him to tacitly pray for the death of the officers, over the night.
“Kill them all. Fire, burn you. In the name of Jesus. Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire, fireeeeeeeeeeee,” he yelled at one time. “Jesus is here. I need the fire from heaven, the fire from heaven, the fire from heaven. Jesus, release it on me now. You did not disappoint Elisha, Elijah… I need your fire now to quench and destroy all the people tormenting me. Die in the name of Jesus! You die! Dieeeeeeeee!!!”
Japheth, on the other hand, was having a torrid time. The inner cell in which they were caged was mosquito-infested, due in part to the volume of water Uchenna had moistened it with. Even when he wasn’t caged, I’d furtively observed how Japheth frequently scratched his crotch region with great discomfort, sometimes even peeping into his dingy briefs to catch a glimpse of what was going on down there. Now in that inner cell, it worsened. “My body is rotting,” he screamed in a manner that broke my heart. “Please help me, please!”
His pleas were loud, persistent and touching. “Help me out!!!” he would say. ‘Who is there to help me out? My body is rotting. Help me out! Help me out!!!”
Even though he had rebuffed my repeated warnings not to pass water on to Uchenna, I felt pity for him. I would later crawl over to the cell to hand him an anti-mosquito cream smuggled to me earlier in the day. It helped a bit but didn’t entirely solve the problem.
It was such a relief to be taken out of the cell to the court on Friday morning and to Ikoyi Prison in the evening. When 46 new inmates, I think, arrived at the prison on Monday evening, I was stunned to spot Uchenna’s sparkling white teeth shining through from the crowd. He had become markedly lean and his laughter this time was shallow. How he got to prison, I still don’t know.
THE SNIPER CHALLENGE IS REAL
I was less than an hour old in prison when I discovered stories of cell congestion were not made up. Sixteen of us, I think, were taken in that Thursday. As is the practice with fresh inmates, we slept in the welcome cell. The cell always had its own base members, the number usually hovering between 10 and 15. The tradition was that stale inmates slept ‘comfortably’; they didn’t have to shrink their bodies into narrow spaces, even though they slept on bare floor with or without blankets and bed sheets. Only the four most senior inmates slept on bunks bearing threadbare mattresses. After the stale inmates had marked their territory in the room, estimated to about 20 by 16 metres in size, the rest of us were arranged like logs of wood on a trailer. None of us slept face down or face up; we all slept on our sides, one’s head positioned in north-south fashion, the other’s positioned south-north. If an inmate turned sideways, the next complained. Therefore, from time to time, the Section barked out orders resolving arguments from such tussles.
Little did we know we were lucky. The 45 inmates who arrived five days later had no such luck; they sat down all through the night! With the total number of inmates that night trumping 60, there was no chance for sleep. Instead, they were arranged in long rows in which an inmate sat in between the legs of the one behind him, and opened up his own legs for the one in his front to sit. As I would later discover, more than 3000 inmates inhabited a prison built for 800; of a higher consequence, the number of awaiting-trial inmates usually hovered beneath or just over 2,500, proving the slow dispensation of justice is a major contributor to prison congestion.
SUNKANMI IJADUNOLA… FROM BEATER TO PATRONISER
Over the course of my seven days in prison, it was, quite simply, too easy for me to separate the corrupt warders, who were in the majority, from the clean ones. The corrupt ones were usually pensive and jittery whenever they came in contact with me, and they were the ones who were most vicious during the initial attempt to unravel my identity. I could see the apprehension in the eyes of two of those filmed demanding and receiving bribes from me in court. The corrupt ones in the prison yard who didn’t appear in the videos were nevertheless furious, knowing it could have been them as well. The blameless ones wanted to know my mission quite alright, but they were calm and civil with me. No violence; their strategy was to engage with me and look out for any loopholes in my answers. Fair enough.
Assistant Chief Sunkanmi Ijadunola, for example, the word in prison was that he was one of the numerous warders for sale. And, boy, was he vicious with the cane and, latterly, the stick! If he was the only warder on duty, he would surely have beaten me to death! No question. I remember he flogged me from his office to the records office and back to another office just by the prison gate, where an apparently senior warder appealed to him to stop the beating and remove my handcuff. Rather than accede to that request, Sunkanmi claimed the key to the handcuff was in his office. With his hands and that cane, he continued the beating until we were back in his office; and in his office, he fetched the stick once again and continued hitting the joints of my legs, elbows and shoulders. And in all that period, my two hands were still handcuffed to my back. By the time he belatedly lifted the handcuff, he and some warders had trumped up some allegations against me and had succeeded in making some inmates believe I’d come to film them and expose them to the world. They had also alleged that I was plotting a jailbreak. I had a gang, they said, and I’d come to study the prison’s security architecture, film it surreptitiously and send it to my gang so we could finally return to set inmates free. Even while the beating was going on, I found those claims so hilarious my inner laughter knew no bounds.
All this was on Saturday morning. By evening when I finally revealed I was a journalist, I was stunned to see Sunkanmi transform from a ruthless beater to a barefaced patroniser. First, he asked if I would eat. He offered to buy the food but I knew it would be too dangerous to eat.
With the offer of food rejected, he bought me a stone-cold bottle of Pepsi. When it arrived, I checked the seal very painstakingly to be sure it hadn’t been previously opened. I drank it, knowing I could continue to endanger my life if I flatly refused every offer. In the six days that followed, Sunkanmi would buy me Pepsi on two more occasions. The arrogant man that he is, he just couldn’t bring himself to verbally apologise for his actions even though at least three other warders who didn’t lay a finger on me had profusely apologized for his indiscretion in taking the law into his hands. For Sunkanmi himself, the Pepsi was his way of saying ‘sorry’.
MOCKED BY INMATES
Other inmates were still locked in their cells when Sunkanmi sent the Section of the welcome cell to fetch me. But at about the time he was completing the first round of beating, the convicted inmates were needed for a task. While they trooped out in their blue uniforms, I noticed from afar how they giggled and pointed fingers at me. I was sprawling on the ground with my hands chained back, but I looked at them eyeball to eyeball and listened to their snide remarks.
“I thought he was gay,” one of them said. “I heard he came here to record the prisoners and expose them to the public,” remarked another. Some said nothing but cast nasty glances at me and made funny gestures.
Still, I looked straight at them. I was full of pity for them, in fact. I knew I had committed no crime in practice, something not many of them could boast of. In the eye of the law, they were convicts, some left with many months to serve, others even years. They were stuck in there in the long term; I wasn’t. What irony that prisoners, convicted prisoners, were mocking a fresh inmate who would be granted bail and released in a matter of days!
But it wasn’t all gloom. One convict and an awaiting-trial inmate showed me compassion. “Bros, there’s a lot of sun here. Why not shift towards that side,” the convict told me as he swept the expansive ground. It was soothing in that moment, so I asked him for his freedom date, phone number and where I could find him afterwards. That day is faraway but when it comes I’ll find him. And I’ll hopefully be friends with him. The awaiting trial-inmate is now free; you already read about him in the preceding series.
‘HOUSE ARREST’ IN PRISON
Once the time came for me to admit I was a journalist, the warders huddled together to discuss their next line of action. I was isolated, like a bacterium from a colony, when I heard Sunkanmi scream from afar: ‘Hey, squat down there!” That bark, quite frankly, sums up the master-slave relationship that largely defines the handling of inmates, even awaiting-trial inmates, by warders. No inmate in his right senses, even if not yet declared guilty by the court, will approach a warder for a conversation sitting or standing. He first has to “squat down”! It’s the unwritten rule.
The warders’ deliberation soon morphed into a full-fledged meeting. One after the other, they filed into a room, but the meeting had barely taken off when the Comptroller of Prisons, Lagos Command, phoned in. “What is going on at Ikoyi Prison?” I would later learn he had asked. He had received a call from Abuja — the offshoot of my support team’s activation of the Plan B reserved for the unlikely event that my cover was blown. Shocked that the matter had reached Abuja in a little over an hour, the warders started to become friendly and courteous, almost obsequious, with me. Sunkanmi withdrew his squat-down order, asked me to sit in his office, asked if I wanted to eat (which I politely declined) and sent an inmate to fetch me a bottle of Pepsi. “Fisayo the big man!” he would later exclaim.
In the evening, after their apprehension had subsided, I was plucked from Cell D2 to the welcome cell. Their plan was to restrict me to that cell, and they were very strategic about it. Sunday morning, a warder whose name tag included ‘Ishiguzo’ was my first guest. I hadn’t even had a bath or brushed my teeth when he arrived. Ishiguzo engaged me for well over an hour — on issues ranging from politics to governance, love life, humanity and sex. No sooner had he left than Sunkanmi arrived. He stayed close to an hour. I jumped into the bathroom after his exit but before I was done, a third warder, Timmy, had asked after me. It wasn’t long before the strategy was laid bare before me: I was under house arrest by style. The plan was to take turns in engaging me, to such extent I couldn’t leave the cell without wondering who was already waiting for me. Still, I occasionally managed to wriggle my way out of the human cul-de-sac.
COMMUNICATION BY STYLE
My first days in the welcome cell were hellish. No inmate wanted to talk to me or come near me. At night or during the day when no warder was visiting, I lay alone in a corner. But when I did, it was with my eyes open; I wasn’t sure no inmate was considering attacking me. I didn’t blame them; a few warders had made them believe I was in prison to record them and circulate their photos and videos online. Of course that was false.
Soon, a lifeline presented itself. I noticed during Ishiguzo’s first visit how all the inmates listened in as we engaged. It became clear it was my clearest chance of explaining my mission to the inmates. From then on, whenever a warder showed up, I made sure not to always hand over the initiative to them. As the talks progressed, I always found a way to redirect them to my reason for coming to prison. On an occasion, I told them the real-life story of an acquaintance whose father died of heart attack, due to delay in the availability of an ambulance and the pot-hole ridden road leading to their estate in Ogba, Lagos. This was a stupendously rich man who carved out heaven for his family in that estate, but he was ultimately failed by his state. “No one — rich or poor, mighty or miniature — is immune from the consequences of a malfunctioning society,”
I chipped in. “It’s the reason I’m here. If the criminal justice system works effectively, everyone— policemen, lawyers, warders, even inmates — benefits. If it doesn’t, we all lose someway — because we’re all in this vicious cycle together. The only problem is that rather than enthrone a society that works for all, too many want a society that works for them — at the expense of everyone else.”
After hearing that, one warder gave me a long, unusually emotive look, then nodded in affirmation. “You are right,” he said. This warder — I won’t name him — was once a victim. He narrated the experience. One of his children arrived at birth several weeks premature, requiring mother and daughter to spend extensive time at a hospital. He visited every day, before and after work. He soon noticed how quickly the baby ran out of drugs he paid for through his nose, how drugs that should last three days were gone in just over one. He observed the hospital keenly and spotted a disturbing trend: the hospital was redistributing the drugs bought by some patients, among those who couldn’t afford them! This warder was distraught; he told me he felt cheated. I apologized to him for the unpleasant experience, though this didn’t colour my knowledge of his aversion to my mission in the prison.
So I asked him a question: “If I’d undergone an undercover visit to that hospital to expose the disguised robbery of some patients to treat others, would you have been unhappy with me, as you are now?”
He went silent, but his eyes were latent with penitence. He didn’t have to say it; I knew I had just won a convert.
THE THOROUGHBRED PRISON WARDERS
On Sunday evening, some 24 hours after my cover was blown, I was summoned to the building housing some offices, including those of the Assistant Chief and the Chief. I was taken into an office I’d never really taken notice of, welcomed by a burly but innocuous-looking man, dark in complexion and spotting a noticeable belly. A warder I was seeing for the first time instructed me to hold the recording devices found on me. He held a regular camera opposite me, wanting to take pictures. I quickly posed for the pictures so we could get down to business.
The dark man introduced himself as “Mr. John, sent from Abuja to Lagos with taxpayers’ funds” to investigate my matter.
“I’m sorry for disrupting your Sunday,” I said. “You probably should be resting or relaxing with your family.”
“Not a problem,” he answered with the kind of courtesy atypical of many of the warders I’d come across in prison in those three days.
He asked to hear my side of events. It was unarguably the longest single conversation I had with anyone in prison. I explained my interest in the criminal justice system and the justifications for my undercover method. “I wanted to experience what the regular guy gets to taste in police cell, in court, in prison,” I told him. “You’re never going to get this by talking to people; you have to taste it. And if the system is itself clean, no warder should lose sleep over my presence.” I told him some of my findings in undercover work, generally; I particularly recall saying how much it “grieves my heart” and “burns my skin” the extent to which Nigerians are short-changing their country for personal pecuniary reasons. “We’ll ruin this country someday if we continue this way,” I submitted. “We’ll bring it crashing to earth in a few decades.”
John proved himself a rare breed, a cut above all other warders I encountered. I noticed how he listened to me carefully, urged me to take my time, asked not to be distracted when some warders thought we were taking too long, asked his questions politely, and repeatedly asked for a description of the warder who spearheaded the beating and the others who witnessed it. He also asked to know the officers in the bribery video seized from me. “I apologise for the beating,” he said at some point. “That was an exception; not the norm. It is not in the character of the prisons service to take the law into its hands.”
We discussed a few other things I’ll keep confidential — because he won my respect. Not to say he was perfect. Although he repeatedly said he was from Abuja, lodged in Lagos on taxpayers’ account, I found out John was actually based in Lagos; he is the spokesman of the Prison Controller in charge of Lagos. Still, he retains my respect with his calmness and professionalism.
WHAT NIGERIANS CAN LEARN FROM PRISONERS
I witnessed a few interesting developments in prison, the most significant being the impressive levels of tolerance level in the welcome cell. At the welcome cell, everyone made way on the floor at or about 4:45am for Muslims to observe their call to worship and the prayer proper. Just before 5:30am, the Muslim leader would begin winding down the prayers “so that our Christian brothers can take over”. Whenever the Muslims prayed, no one dared murmur, much less talk. And it was the same during the Christians’ praise and worship, sermon and prayers. If Nigerians generally had this level of tolerance for people of divergent faiths and ethnicities, our peace and unity would be impregnable and boundless.
SHADILY RELEASED FROM PRISON, ABDUCTED BY POLICE
My release from prison was complicated. The prison officials at Ikoyi desperately wanted my bail to sail through; the more I stayed, they reasoned, the higher the chances I could implicate them. But the ones in court, specifically the corrupt ones I filmed, preferred that I rot in jail. The latter group would then work closely with officials at the Magistrate Court, Yaba, to keep me back in prison. Therefore, what would have been a simple granting of bail was repeatedly frustrated. The court wouldn’t grant me bail after conditions had been met — until the intervention of senior judicial officers on Friday July 19. The court then granted me bail but a sinister plot was hatched.
Some court officials, collaborating with prison warders in court, alerted the Police to my release date and time. They only contacted my legal team hours after they’d notified the prison of my impending exit. Then the prison itself fast-tracked my release; the strategy was for me to be out of prison before the arrival of my people. And it worked. I stepped out of prison and had barely walked 50 metres when three gun-wielding policemen swooped on me, truncating my delirium at finally tasting freedom after eight dramatic days in prison that indeed seemed like eight weeks.
One corked his gun while the other two hooked me by the waist. I was still figuring out the confusion when two plain-clothed officers stepped forward from the rear, bearing a handcuff. I knew them. Crime Officer Badmus and Inspector Obadiah from Pedro Police Station. I slid my hands into the handcuff and watched Badmus pay off the Ikoyi prison policemen. He made for the same rickety bus with which we went to court the previous week, while Obadiah frisked me and bundled me in. My lips were static but I started to pray in my spirit.
What are they going to do to me? Kill me extra-judicially? Rope me into an existing crime in another police station? I was still drunk in thoughts when Badmus interrupted me with an instruction to Obadiah: “Search him very well to confirm he doesn’t have a phone on him.” It was then I knew I was in big, big trouble. Why the desperation to ensure I can’t reach anyone? This was a little before or after 5pm.
The sun was starting to set when we arrived at Pedro, where my repeated pleas to contact my lawyer were rebuffed. “If you have a phone on you, bring it out and call your lawyer,” Obadiah said, knowing I didn’t have one. “It is not our work to give you a phone to make phone calls.”
There were multiple signs that the decision was to commit me to cell that night. However, some 23 minutes before midnight, their hands were forced. I stepped out of the station in the most unpredictable of circumstances. What happened between my arrival at the station and my enforced release at about 11:37pm is only the stuff of movies. I’d watched similar plots unfurl in movies, without the knowledge it was possible in real life. It is an experience that cannot be sufficiently captured in journalese. You will read those details in a book — if I get the right backing and if I’m alive to tell it — but, until then, spare some thoughts — and prayers — for Nigeria. If I were a judge I would pronounce Nigeria’s criminal justice system ‘guilty as charged’, knowing, from this experience, that majority of its actors and gatekeepers are deserving of various lengthy times behind bars.
* This investigation was published with support from Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.