“A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.
The subject of today’s “A Week In The Life” is *Pelumi, a prison warder. He walks us through the prison system during a pandemic.
I wake up by 6 am today. Parade starts by 7 am and I need to be on the parade ground before then. If not, I will be punished. The parade usually involves gathering all the officers and briefing us on the task of the day. Thankfully, my house is a walking distance from the prison.
I am working at the gate today. Working at the gate is better than supervising the inmates. This is because of the smell of the prison; water is gold in prison. Each cell has a chairman that supervises the water collection. This chairman has officials who gather the kegs, fetch water for the cell, then resell to the other inmates. Money is also a big deal in prison.
One of the chairmen of the cells used to be an armed robber. He killed an 8-year-old girl because she recognised his face from a robbery. This kind of thing makes sympathy for inmates hard. It affects you psychologically. It’s not easy to be kind to this sort of person. So, when the pumping machine or the light is faulty, nobody is in a rush to fix it. After all, these people don’t deserve it. Therefore, the whole place ends up smelling because the inmates haven’t had a bath in days.
I shake away these thoughts from my mind. They are not my problem. At least, not today. I am not going to be on the inmate supervision shift for a while. So, let me enjoy this moment.
Today, we rejected 15 new inmates because of Covid-19. We have stopped admitting inmates because courts have been suspended. This means that people will be awaiting trial indefinitely until things resume again. The correctional facility is crowded already and it’s tough managing the crowd. We can’t afford a larger crowd in the middle of a pandemic.
My first day at work was so scary. New recruits were taken into a particular cell holding at least 250 people. We were then asked to walk round the cell to get a feel of it. The number of people in that space was both scary and sad. It looked like something not fit for animals not to talk of human beings.
Thankfully, that crowd has been reduced over time. People have been released or transferred out of our facility. I am just thankful that we emptied the cells before Corona came. If not…
This disease is scary. We are at risk because we can’t afford to stay at home. To protect ourselves, we have provided water and soap in all the cells. The chairmen in the cells have also agreed to make water more available. Everyone is working together because we are all scared. In addition, we also provided hand sanitizers, gloves, and nose masks to each cell.
Even with all of this, some inmates still think there is nothing to be worried about. That’s their own business. I am impressed with how we are handling this whole thing. From the authorities to some of the inmates.
At least, I have one less thing to worry about until closing time.
Prison can be scary. People land in here for various reasons. I am happy today because when I get to work, I hear that one of the inmates I like is leaving. He was imprisoned because he defaulted on a loan of ₦700,000. According to him, he failed to pay the debt and was arrested. Even after his family raised the money and paid the debt, he was still sent to jail. It took him 5 years to get justice and fight the conviction. I am just happy that he finally got justice.
His case is even better. There are other people that have been jailed and they can’t raise bail of N5,000. These people are in prison because of bailable offenses like fighting and roaming around. For some of them, their families don’t know they are in prison because they can’t tell them.
The saddest case I know is of a soldier that was fighting insurgents in Maiduguri. He left his base without permission for a wedding in Lagos. He then got into a fight with a traffic warden. He was arrested but he felt that his status as a uniformed man would protect him. It did until it was discovered that he left his base without authorization, then they threw him in jail. Now, he can’t call anyone because the repercussion for deserting the army without permission is two times worse than prison. So, he’s going to quietly serve out his sentence here without his family knowing where he is. At the end of his sentence, he will probably pretend that he had a mental illness and return home.
There are so many of these kind of cases here.
I keep looking at the time. A few more hours until I can go home to play FIFA with my housemates.
I don’t want to go to work today. I am not in the mood but I don’t have a choice. If I don’t go to work, I won’t get my temperature checked. If I don’t get my temperature checked, I won’t know whether I have Coronavirus or not. So, I get up to prepare for work.
I run into my secondary school teacher and he looks surprised to see me in my uniform. He asks me what I am doing and I tell him I am a prison warder. He looks disappointed but I am not bothered. This is part of the stereotype that I face in this job and I am used to it. He seems uncomfortable so he tries to change the topic. I ask him if warders aren’t human beings like him but he doesn’t reply.
I thank him and leave. I am actually not surprised. After working in a prison for the last 2 years, very little surprises me. I have seen so many things and this is the least of my problems.
My problem now is that I am late for work. I have to run if I want to make it in time for the parade.
American prison is different from Nigerian prison in the sense that the prisoners here fight but they don’t stab themselves. It’s just too much stress for everyone involved. The clinic is not equipped to handle that kind of emergency.
To discourage inmates from fighting, we have designed a special cell. Our own form of solitary confinement with a twist. You get visitors – big rats. Even me, I am scared of the place, talkless of the prisoners. We don’t beat or force anyone not to fight. The promise of that cell is usually strong enough to make everyone behave.
There is a hierarchy in each cell. There is the Chairman, then an “inspector general”, his deputy, then the “police.” These people are responsible for enforcing the law in each 53 man cell. The number of inmates varies per cell depending on the size. We hold these elected officials accountable for anything that happens in a cell. So, we warn the chairman to behave and the message trickles down to the other inmates.
There is a cell that recently impeached their chairman so they held elections for a new one. After the new chairman came into power, they started shouting like it was the Gubernatorial election. They carried their new chairman in the air and screamed. I had to threaten them with solitary confinement before they stopped shouting. But secretly, I was amused by the politics.
While all of this is interesting, I can’t stop thinking of the weekend. Thankfully, I am off-duty. I look forward to drinking a cold Budweiser, flirting with one or two girls, and sleeping.
In prison, inmates and warders often watch big matches together during the weekend. But since football is on hold, we haven’t done that in a while. Saturdays without football are tough for me.
I miss watching football. Especially big matches where both warders and inmates gather and argue heatedly. In those moments, we all come together as one. At least until 90 mins are over. I miss that rush.
There is nothing to do today, so I fire up Call of Duty to pass time. I don’t feel like texting any girl today.
I feel lonely today. I miss my family because I haven’t been able to visit them since the lockdown started. I miss my mum, dad, and siblings.
The inmates must be going through a lot during this period. They can’t see their family members, they can’t spend time with them. It must be difficult for them. I understand how they must feel to an extent because I also can’t see my family. I feel trapped and helpless. Is this how they feel?
I can’t wait for this lockdown to end so I can spend time with my family. I’ll really love to see my family together. Having everyone one around and catching up is nice. If I have learned anything from this lockdown, it’s that I won’t ever take freedom for granted.
I miss my people. For now, I call my mum and catch up. At least I still have that luxury.
This story was edited and condensed for clarity. The image does not represent the identity of the subject.
Check back every Tuesday by 9 am for more “A Week In The Life Of” goodness, and if you would like to be featured or you know anyone who fits the profile, don’t hesitate to reach out. Reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be featured on this series.