As dreaded as Nigerian prisons are, if you think that admission into the ranks of inmates is free, think again. In this report, KUNLE FALAYI sheds light on some of the funny and sometimes downright nasty ‘initiation’ practices that guarantee a newcomer a ‘pass’ into the belly of the beast
Like every ‘closed’ organisation – private club, boarding school, the armed services etc., prisons have customs and codes of behaviours, which outsiders may find bizarre.
Across Nigerian prisons, a set of initiation practices exists, which a newcomer may not be aware of before getting into prison. For many inmates, it may be nothing more than a slightly embarrassing display for inmates who have been inside for very long time.
But for others, especially, those who prove stubborn,Saturday PUNCH learnt that the punishment can be quite nasty and bizzare.
Though, initiation practices in prisons may contain few different elements, it seems the recurring factors, as our correspondent learnt from ex-inmates of different prison, are singing, news delivery and gruelling interviews by fellow inmates.
A banker, Olanrewaju Olorunsola, who once found himself locked up at the Olokuta Prison in Akure, Ondo State for 11 days, told the story of his bizarre and embarrassing initiation ceremony.
According to him, as he knotted his tie and smoothed the creases on his well-starched shirt that Monday morning, he had no idea whatsoever of the long, brutal journey that was ahead of him.
Shortly after getting to work that day, he was informed by his boss that he needed to make a short journey to the National Industrial Court in Akure, the Ondo State capital, to represent the company in a civil case involving an outstanding monetary settlement with another company.
With file in hand and hope for an outstation allowance for his troubles, the administrative officer arrived in Akure and the court premises one hour later.
No owl flapped over his head at that point, to warn him about the load of troubles that was about to land on his head as he took a seat inside the court that morning.
But shortly after his company’s case was called with their lawyer absent, the opposition lawyer argued that the company had wasted the court’s time enough over a meagre sum of money and suggested that the company’s representative be remanded in prison to “teach the company a lesson”.
Without any waste of time, Olorunsola heard the judge’s stinging words a moment later: “The case is adjourned till November 23. The company representative should be remanded in prison custody till the adjourned date!”
“Remanded in prison custody for eleven days without committing any crime? I was not the owner of the company and neither was I a director. I was just a mere employee and a new one for that matter. That was the beginning of my journey to Olokuta Prison,” he said.
Olokuta Prison is the main Federal Government-run prison in Akure. Here, Olorunsola, who dressed corporately and left home with gaiety that morning would spend the next 11 days.
The experience of his “initiation ceremony” into the ranks of inmates made up of hardened criminals and other less guilty individuals within the cell blocks of the prison, was one he said he would never forget for the rest of his life.
In the prison’s Cell B made up of 117 inmates in which he was locked up, Olorunsola said there was hierarchy – there was a ‘president’, ‘minister of information’ and a host of other titles.
He described his experience thus, “I was informed of the traditions of the cell, which a new comer must fulfil. I must introduce myself in a peculiar way, intimate the inmates of how I got the ‘visa to enter the place’ and I would be asked questions which I must answer.
“I had to greet the audience four times, facing each of the four directions each time. Each time, I was made to prostrate. When I greeted the first time, I almost had a heart attack when the response came.
“I said, ‘E kule gbogbo cell (I greet you, all inmates) and the response was ‘Kaabo, odaran (Welcome, you criminal). I told the audience my name and what I did for a living. I narrated my court experience earlier in the day. I answered all their questions.
“The last part of the initiation ceremony was humiliating. I was required to sing one entire song from either Shina Peters, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey or Ayinde Barrister. I settled for Shina Peters.”
According to Olorunsola, as he began the first stanza of the singer’s ‘Afro Juju’, the shouts of “Volume! Volume!” came from the inmates who were thoroughly enjoying themselves despite his croaky voice.
But at a time, when he forgot the lyrics, one of the inmates asked him, “Egbon, se NEPA mu ‘na lo ni? (Brother, has NEPA taken power?).”
He said when he eventually finished that part, the inmates rolled out the “drums” for his next performance.
“Buckets, steel plates, and spoons and wooden items emerged from nowhere, I was asked to dance!” Olorunsola said.
But he said he would not bulge.
“I stood watching the drummers. I won’t demonstrate like a monkey to please anybody. My tormentors were waiting,” he said.
The new entrant was finally allowed to pass but not until he related every recent news in the free world.
“The ‘information minister’ said some of them had been in the prison for up to seven years and that since they had no access to radio or newspaper, they knew nothing about what was happening beyond the walls of the prison,” he explained.
But the questions his ‘news’ elicited from the inmates stunned him.
Realising that they knew nothing about who was ruling the country at the time or any political issue affecting the country, he told them all he could about what they had missed in the last seven years as his initiation finally came to an end.
Olorunsola said his 11-day prison experience gave him an insight into the totally different world prison inmates live in.
Olorunsola’s experience took place in Akure, Ondo State, but Saturday PUNCH learnt that similar funny traditions take place across other prisons in the country. And in some cases, inmates are forced to go through some bizarre experiences including “making love” to the wall.
In a chat with our correspondent, an ex-inmate of the Ikoyi Prison said his cell had a hole in one of its walls for that purpose. According to him, that part of the initiation is usually for those who prove stubborn or slow in doing the bidding of the cell leaders.
He related a nasty experience of a new inmate, who drew the ire of his new cell leaders, when he was instructed to start the set of activities that constitute his “initiation ceremony, but he ignored them, was forced to “make love” to the wall.
The ex-inmate, who preferred anonymity, said, “He was being pompous. I think the young man was from a very rich family. He hit someone with his car and the person died. That was how he ended up in prison. I had been in the prison for about six months when he was remanded.
“When it was time for his ‘welcome party’ and they told him to tell stories of what was happening outside, he refused. They asked him other personal questions, he refused. They asked him to sing, he refused. I still cannot forget what happened that day. Presido of our cell and his ‘executives’ forced the young man to make love to a wall. It is a way of punishing errant inmates. There was a hole on the wall of our cell, which he was forced to put his manhood in and make love to it till he started bleeding and crying. The hole was there exactly for that purpose.”
Another ex-inmate of the Kirikiri Medium Security Prison, Lagos, Victor Aguma, told our correspondent that he went through almost the same experience when he found himself behind bars in 2012 at the start of a four-year incarceration.
But he said at Kirikiri, the initiation process, which is dubbed “Alejo Story” (newcomer story) at the time he was there, was taken so seriously that any new inmate who refused to do what was asked of him was beaten up and punished by the other inmates.
“The first day I got to the prison, I was told right away that I could not just get a stay in the cell even though prison officials had assigned me to the cell.
“During the Alejo Story at Kirikiri, there were so many questions you had to answer on politics and social life in the free world. Some of them don’t know what has happened in the free world in the last 10 years, so they are always eager to get information from you. Whether you do what they want will determine if you sleep on the bare ground or at least on a semblance of cushion on the ground since beds are reserved for the leaders.
“I had to answer questions on my life story, what brought me to prison, who and who I had dated, what was happening in politics and even what the current hit song was in the free world. It was a gruelling process.
“At the time I got to prison, they took it so seriously that it did not matter whether you were a rich man or not, you had to do it. But by the time I left few months ago, things had started changing, they had started collecting money in lieu of the Alejo Story. If you wanted to avoid it, you had to pay.
“Then it became clear that older inmates were using the initiation ceremony to make money, entertain themselves and also catch up on things that had been happening in the free world. You know prisoners are not supposed to have money in the prison, but let me just tell you the truth, inmates have their ways. How much money you have determines how much respect you will get from inmates.”
Apparently, a similar ‘initiation ceremony’ exists among the inmates of the Kuje Prison in the Federal Capital Territory.
A 38-year-old artisan, who was an inmate at the prison between 2008 and 2013, said inmates who had been in the prison for very long were always excited when they had a newcomer in their midst whom they could milk for information about contemporary issues in the real world.
The man, who pleaded anonymity, now runs a business and a prison reformation NGO in Lagos.
According to him, when he was jailed for robbery in 2008, in the cell he was attached to, he was made to sit in a circle of inmates, who poked and prodded him with “uncountable questions” which they told him he must answer as a form of gate pass into their rank.
“Then, I remembered that I had to teach those in my cell a new song that was in vogue at the time. They enjoyed that part so much.
“Even after that first day of me singing and answering so many questions, many of them still continued to come to ask more questions days later. To many of them who had been inside for long, getting answers to those questions was as important as their daily meal.”
This is similar to what Philip Balogun, an ex-inmate of the Ikoyi Prison told our correspondent.
Balogun, who was exonerated and released after being an awaiting trial inmates for seven years at the Ikoyi Prison, said that some were punished if they refused to accede to the initiation practices.
He said, “Truthfully, I was not beaten or maltreated anyway. But one had to sing the latest song, narrate the latest movies.
“The funny part was the leaders in the cell handed me a book which contained more than 90 rules I must read and memorise and must abide with in order not to have problems while living in the cell.
“The rules were not so bad. They were things like where you can go or not go, how to conduct yourself in the cell, ban on homosexuality, etc.”
But curiously, psychologists say this sort of initiation practices may be an effective coping mechanisms since a society without norm or custom is one where anarchy may likely reign.
In the opinion of psychologist, Dr.Biyi Adekunle, any form of entertainment and activities that take the time off the hands of prison inmates are essential to keeping their sanity in confinement.
“The only problem is that these kinds of activities should not serve as a way to torture other inmates. But customs and traditions are essential in the context of the institution which prison inmates exist. These kinds of initiation activities serve that purpose,” he said.
Lecturer and psychologist, Victor Dalua, gave the same opinion.
According to him, an inmate who has lost a chunk of his life in incarceration, any tiny bit of information about what is going on in the free world is vital to his emotional wellbeing.