How I lost 3 years of my life awaiting trial in prison – Ibukun narrates ordeal

When police officers arrested Ibukun Ajigbotesho inside his aunt’s apartment in January 2020, he was confident he would be back home for dinner because he had done nothing wrong.

The 27-year-old ended up inside a courtroom where his three-year hell in Nigeria’s criminal justice system took a surprising turn.

Data compiled by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) shows that 69% of inmates in prisons across the country are awaiting trial, praying for the chance to prove their innocence — many times for minor crimes or alleged crimes police officers are unable to prove in court.

Two thirds of Nigeria’s prison population have not been convicted by a court of law

Ibukun was one of them, and this is his story.

What was your life before prison?
I’m an Ijebu boy but was born in Ibadan where my parents worked. I spent my school holidays at my aunt’s place in Lagos. After I returned to Ibadan one time, I told my mother I was no longer interested in going to school and wanted to move to Lagos full-time. I was 19 years old. It’s not like my mother couldn’t send me to school, but I told her I was no longer interested even though she didn’t like it. There was a spirit that just told me to stop.

Did you do anything else in Ibadan before you left?
I learnt picture framing. I was a trainee for two years before I abandoned it. I was like 15 years old.

My friend once came home with a picture frame and put his mother’s picture inside it. I loved it and asked him to take me to his boss so I could train with him too. I eventually made my own picture frame and put my mother’s picture inside to hang on the wall. My mother was proud of me and I loved it.

But she later expressed concern the equipment needed to set up after freedom was expensive and was scared she could not afford them. That was the day I stopped caring about it.

So, Lagos?
When I moved in with my aunt, I started working at a garage around Oworonshoki. My job was to collect money from drivers at the park. I went on to become a conductor, but it felt too rough for me so I went back to collecting money from drivers and retiring home in the evening.

Was this sustainable?
I delivered ₦5,000 to my boss every day. Anything else I made over that was mine. If a driver came to the garage and took a full busload of people, I took the fare for one person. So if he was collecting ₦500 for one passenger and took a full load from the park, I’d collect ₦500 from him. But if it’s less, my charge went lower.

It wasn’t always turning a steady profit, but I wasn’t begging anyone for money. I gathered enough money to move out of my aunt’s house and got my own place with some of my friends in the same line of work.

How did you end up in prison?
It was a Sunday. I was supposed to go to work, but it was raining and I was tired, so I stayed at my aunt’s place. I was washing my clothes when my cousin ran inside to say police officers were around. People had been fighting in the area and they were investigating. The police officers were led by Brother Sunday who had arrested me before.

You’d been arrested before?
Yes. He arrested me three times in the past for smoking weed, but I would pay a bail of ₦‎10,500 and go back home. He knew the job I did, and that I smoked weed, but he also knew I wasn’t a cultist or troublemaker. Cultists weren’t strangers to the area and whenever they fought we’d have to run home from the bus stop.

Okay, let’s go back to that morning
My cousin came running inside to alert me because he knew I could be caught with weed, but I wasn’t smoking that morning, so there was nothing for them to find on me. When they came in, they searched me and handcuffed me immediately. When I asked Brother Sunday what I did, he slapped me and told me to move. My aunt changed it for him.

They didn’t catch you with anything?
One of the officers was already tearing up my aunt’s apartment looking for anything. They found my friend sleeping in my aunt’s room, his name is also Sunday, and they handcuffed him. When we got to the station, they called us cultists and said my job was a cover. They said I roll with bad boys at night to do all sorts of things.

They even accused my aunt of storing guns for us and arrested her too. I was shocked because this officer knew us well and had been to my aunt’s house to arrest me twice before. He insisted that’s where we kept our guns, but they found nothing. They refused to grant us bail, but my aunt got out very soon.

What happened next?
Sunday and I spent three days at the police station before they took us to the SARS office. There was another person in custody there I recognised from the neighbourhood, we called him Swagger — everyone thought he was a cultist, and even I feared him.

They asked him if we knew each other and we said we lived in the same area. But when they asked him if we were also cultists, he said no, that we only worked at the bus stop. The officers didn’t listen.

They made us write statements, and then they locked us in the cell for two weeks. The next time they let us out was to go to court — Court 18, I can’t forget.

What did the Police tell the judge you did?
They charged Sunday and I with cultism, conspiracy and stealing three motorcycles. The judge kept reading the case file and asked the investigating police officer (IPO) for the complainants, and he said he would produce them during the next hearing. That was the last time I ever saw him.

What did the judge say?
The judge just set our bail at ₦‎100k and two sureties each. Sunday got out before me. My mother was working on getting the bail money and settling the sureties but then my father died. That messed things up.

I’m sorry about your dad. So you ended up in prison?
The judge remanded me at the Kirikiri Medium Security Correctional Centre. I first landed in what we call a welcome cell where new inmates stayed for the first two or three days. The room is a bit spacious, but there were like 25 people in my set and the only beds were for old inmates who lived there. When they hold you in the welcome cell, it gives warders time to take your records, pictures and everything before going to the general cell.

How did things progress?
When I was processed to my general cell, there were about 95 of us with only 14 bed spaces in the room. I had been in police cells before but prison was a whole different world. Everything changed for me.

I drank the water there and things were crawling out of my skin — the same thing happened if you ate the beans. You can have stuff like maggots coming out of your ass. Some people would sit with only one side of their ass. If you sit for too long, the seat may get wet with liquid coming out of you.

That sounds rough. Let’s go back to your cell
So there’s a place called Jankara — it’s for people with no money or connection in prison. They’re the ones who sleep in the general area and are packed together like sardines. People who have money get certain privileges like sleeping on the bed or in a corner — which is on the floor in the space between bunk beds, so you can sleep on your back instead of on the side like in Jankara.

Did you buy a space?
When I got in, the Marshall said I should plan well. He was also an awaiting-trial inmate but he’d been there longer than anyone in the cell and was the number one whom the warders allowed to control the place.

I called one of my bros outside and he sent the Marshall ₦‎5k. He became very nice to me and cooked me okro soup and eba. It was the nicest thing I’d had since I was arrested — I was very thankful.

How does prison work?
There’s a cell officer who knocks a tin on the ground — we call the tin the key. Once he knocks it on the ground, and says, “Silent hour,” everyone must shut up. There’s a law there and whoever speaks has jammed it. The punishment is usually to pack shit.

Pack which shit?
There’s a soakaway behind the cell and the top is open all the time, and whoever commits an offence is taken there to relieve the soakaway. They give you two kegs to pack from the soakaway and dispose in a nearby river. That’s the punishment you usually get for most offences. Whatever Marshall says is final, so everyone respects himself.

How long did your ₦5k last?
I slept in Jankara that night o — my money only covered food. The next morning, the Marshall called me to his barracks, a corner at the back of the cell with a curtain that makes it look like his own room. You have to jam your legs on the ground three times before you enter.

He gave me a phone to call my family, but the person I called said he didn’t have money. He said, “Aren’t you in prison? What do you need money for?” But trust me you need money in prison to plan well. If you don’t plan well, you won’t chop pepper.

The person said I should call him back on Saturday, and that was four days away. The Marshall asked me to make another call, but that was the only number I knew offhand. He was angry and called Mopol 2 to take me to the back to pack shit. Pack shit ke?

Luckily for me, I knew guys who were already in prison, and one of them knew a Marshall in another cell who came to beg for me, but I already carried off like three kegs of shit.

Rough start. How did you adapt to prison?
I figured out quickly that if you respect yourself, you won’t have a problem. Any time they announce the silent hour, I’m very obedient. It’s usually highly charged as we’re all packed together and breathing on each other’s necks.

The silent hour is called locking the state and can last as long as two hours. You can’t even whisper or the Marshall will punish you. The cell officers just want to show you they’re in charge. The Marshall noticed I was a calm dude and made me an officer after one year in the cell, which we call a state. I became Mopol 2.

The cell is called a state, and inmates can be officers?
The Marshall is the Head of State, followed by the Inspector General (IG), the Adviser, the Chief Judge, and the Commissioner of Health, who’s the guy you go to when you’re sick so he can connect you to the prison hospital. The GOC controls the state and is the one in charge of the key to lock the state.

Mopol 1 is the enforcer who mounts the state and watches for anyone who jams the law — he’s like the one writing the noisemakers’ list. Mopol 1 is senior to Mopol 2 but they do the same thing. The only others left are OC Lavatory and Police Lavatory who are in charge of toilet affairs, including monitoring people who pack shit.

How did becoming an officer change your prison experience?
I finally left Jankara and got a corner where I could now sleep on my back. As an officer, I had more freedom when the state was locked down — I could even whisper. I was also the one who caught offenders, so you’re lucky if you’re my guy because I can look the other way.

You mentioned food earlier. I’m curious about how prison food works.

I immediately noticed the food was messing with me, but I had to eat it because I didn’t have options. After a while, I started trying to game the system, so whenever I got beans in the morning, I would wait until evening when there was garri to mix them up.

Some people love the beans and would save and gather rations to put in the pot to add pepper, maggi and oil and reheat it. The prison’s food doesn’t have any of these things, even the stew that comes with white rice is basically water.

How was your relationship with the other inmates?
I wasn’t looking for trouble with anyone o. If you fought, you’d pack shit together. The normal thing if someone gives you word is to report to a cell officer and the issue would be settled.

It’s easy to offend someone in prison. You can step on someone’s slippers and he’ll accuse you of stepping on his leg and seriously square with you. But once you understand he’s just irritated by everything else, just apologise and move on.

If you fight, everyone would gather around you but warders hate any gatherings and would come running to see what was going on. If you fight in the yard, they’ll move you to isolation cells. If the fight happens inside the cell, the Marshall is the one who will punish you — pack shit.

What was your worst day in prison?
When the COVID-19 thing started, they locked us all in our cells for one month — none of the awaiting-trial inmates could go anywhere. Only convicted prisoners were allowed to roam and people who had money before the lockdown usually sent them to help buy things for us — sometimes they ran away with your money. Everyone had to eat the prison’s food because we could not go anywhere, even the Marshall ate the ration.

Did your prison experience affect your faith?
Before prison, I only went to church once a year for crossover service on December 31. But you see when I went to prison, I understood it’s important to serve God. I went to church every Sunday, and I was even an usher. Church services started at 9 am but pastors would come to the cells to get church workers like me out early for service.

Going to church also meant getting good food to eat, because RCCG people brought takeaway packs for their outreach programme every Sunday. Some people only went to church for the food.

What was happening with your case this whole time?
I went to court a total of 16 times, but we only sat four times. The IPO and complainant didn’t show up for the second hearing so we got an adjournment. Sunday got out on bail after that second one and would come to court from home.

I went to court like 11 times back-to-back and the court didn’t sit. They’d say the judge wasn’t around, and I thought my village people were after me.

I used to look at Sunday and wonder why I couldn’t be out free too, but he was nice to me — he could bring me a shirt, trousers, or even footwear. I figured that’s how God wanted it.

So how did you get out?
On my 14th appearance in court, the judge didn’t come, again. While waiting in the prison van to return, a lawyer came to meet another cellmate whose case she was handling. He said she was a human rights lawyer with Headfort Foundation so I asked him if she could help with my case. I explained my situation to her and she gave me her card.

When the court doesn’t sit, there’s no adjournment date, but the warders will get one the next time they’re in court without you. When I got my next date, I called her, but the judge didn’t come, again. I wanted to curse him. I also didn’t see the lawyer in court that day.

The next time I came, a lawyer came up to me from nowhere. I’d never met her in my life but she said I was the one she was waiting for. She didn’t have time to say much else. By the way, this was the day I got out — I wasn’t expecting it.

Oh, this is the big day?
Yes. I went into the courtroom and saw the judge — I was happy. When he asked who would represent me, this lawyer I didn’t know approached the bench and started talking on my behalf. I didn’t understand the English they were speaking.

The judge was writing in his note for a long time and then started reading everything he wrote. I didn’t know what he was talking about with all the English but I understood “discharged” when he said it and the lawyer smiled at me. After three years. I was so happy.

Finally. What was the first thing you did?
I went to my aunt’s place in Ogudu, different from the other one in whose house I was arrested. It was around 2 pm and she was surprised because she wasn’t expecting me. She even asked me if I escaped from prison.

She served me amala and egusi but I didn’t want to rush it because it was outside food and I didn’t want it to mess with my system. I only ate a small portion just to ease myself into it.

How did your day of freedom feel like?
Man, after my meal, I just sat down and started hearing cars with their loud horns passing by, it was unbelievable. Prisoners are very happy to go to court for their cases because it is their only chance to see the outside world. You’d think they were going home, but they’re just happy to be out. Some people can be in prison for nine years without seeing outside even though they’re awaiting trial.

I still couldn’t believe I was free so I went to sleep and woke like 6 pm. Cells are locked by 5 pm, so if I was still in prison, I would be in a room with dozens of other men. I sat outside in the breeze watching people go and come, it still felt like a dream. I went back to sleep again just to be sure and when I came out later I could see the sky. It was mad.

How did prison change your life?
My behaviour changed o. I used to be rash and hot-tempered — like a tout, a hard guy, not anymore. I don’t smoke weed anymore since I came back, I’m not lying. If I smoke now, I may get on the police radar again, and I don’t want that. I don’t fight or make trouble with anyone. When I went back to my old bus stop, my chairmen were very welcoming and would give me handouts. Eventually, I stopped working there and moved to a bus stop in Ogudu. This meant I hardly saw my old mates anymore unless they came to my new side. We just do, “How far? How far?” and keep it moving because I don’t want any more problems.

Do you think returning to your old work may still put you on the Police radar?
If I see something else to do, I’ll leave it. When I first got out, there was nothing to do and I hate to beg. So I said let me continue with it like this. Maybe if I find something else.

What about your picture frame thing?
That has crossed my mind, especially every time I see a picture frame. But if I go back to completing my training now, I won’t have the time to hustle for the money to survive at the same time. I can’t start begging anyone for money for my upkeep. The equipment is still expensive too.

What do you think should have been different about your experience?
Judges should be a bit more sensitive. How can you not show up on a date you adjourned a case, not once but many times? It feels like you’re just making people suffer.

Prison is only for suffering. The government should only take convicts there — people you know for certain are guilty. Even he’ll understand he’s suffering for what he did. Prison is not a place for someone to be. Even for the people who are rich in there and can afford an easier life, there’s still nothing like freedom.

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