Prison

By Henry Ojelu

BIDEMI Oladipupo is Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Anchor Heritage, a Non-governmental organization, with focus on training, empowering, rehabilitating and reintegrating prison inmates back to society.

In this interview, he talks about how his organisation has facilitated the release and reintegration of over 150 inmates across prisons in the country. He also identifies challenges in the justice system and proffers solutions.

Excerpt:

How did Anchor Heritage start?

After my graduation and National Youth Service Corp, I joined the banking sector and worked meritoriously for 14 years. Sometime in 2005, an incident happened that changed my course in life. I had joined my fiancee who was then working with the Legal Aid Council in Makurdi on a prison visit. During that visit, I met a young man who narrated how while on a bus from Makurdi to Abuja, he was robbed along with other passengers and unfortunately the police arrested and dumped him in prison as a suspect.

His story kept resonating in my head until 2011 when I had a car accident that almost took my life. After I survived that accident, I just knew there was more to me than just coming to this life. I resigned from the bank in 2017 and on October 2, 2019, Anchor Heritage officially started.

How has the journey been so far?

It was not easy to leave banking because the money I was earning was good. But I trusted God and so far, it has been a wonderful journey. We started with the vision to help indigent persons who are unjustly incarcerated and cannot afford to pay for legal services. We were able to get legal services for many of them. Along the line, we started to empower them through training. From there, we move on to beautifying the prisons by painting the walls.

The purpose was to beautify prisons across the country and also use it to work on the emotional therapy of inmates. With time, we also began to offer aftercare services by empowering released inmates and regular follow-ups to ensure that they are not stigmatized by society. Working with many partners we have been able to facilitate the release of over 159 inmates so far.

What are some of the challenges you have identified with our prison system?

I think it is wrong to detain a real armed robber in the same cell as an innocent person who was just unfortunate to have landed in prison for nothing. That innocent inmate will most likely come out of that place with a corrupt mind after mixing with real criminals. From my experience, I know that not all inmates are criminals. So I strongly suggest that the prison system should have a way of separating real criminal suspects from the seemingly innocent ones.

Why do you think Nigerian prisons are still heavily congested?

We need to recheck the process of investigation, arrest, prosecution, and detention of suspects. Presently, awaiting trial inmates population is over 70 percent. Before people are arrested, there should be a thorough investigation. When suspects are arraigned, the trial process should be sped up. I also suggest that there should be fewer custodian judgments for lesser offenses.

Do you think Nigeria’s prison system has capacity to reform inmates?

The government, NGOs, and other partners are trying in terms of providing enabling environment to make inmates become better persons but I have come to realize that a man cannot change another man. No matter how much effort is being made, a decision also needs to come from the inmate to be transformed. It behooves the inmate to also adapt to the changes and the corrections that are being offered.

What is the idea behind your one-inmate-one-roller initiative?

The goal is actually to teach every inmate how to paint and also produce paint. After the training, we give them one roller each as a souvenir so that when they come out of prison, they would never forget what they learned. Many of them have successfully started their painting jobs and have even employed others. Secondly, we also use paint to appeal to their emotions by showing them how a deteriorated surface like their heart can be transformed with a deliberate act of painting. It shows them that their hearts can also be beautified.

How do you finance your activities?

Our funding is mostly from family, friends, and a few corporate organizations like Ishk Tolaran Foundation. We also have partnerships with Wapa Apparel, Tri Standard Paint, Broadbridge, Spacer Creative, Global Giving, Igwe Links, Live Line and DTL Systems.

How serious is the problem of stigmatization among ex-inmates?

Stigmatization is a very big problem for most former inmates. As humans, we are ‘love animals’ so, when an inmate is freed from prison and comes back into society, it is where love is shown to them that they gravitate to.

 If we don’t show them love and continue to be judgemental towards them, the only place they will go is into darkness. We must show them love and affection. Most times, when we hear that someone besides us was a former prisoner, we suddenly begin to adjust. I always tell people that because someone has been to prison does not mean that he or she is criminally minded. We just need to be less judgemental so they don’t go back to the other side. There is another side calling on them, there is still the criminal side telling them to come back.

You have made a huge impact in the last five years, what are some of your plans for the coming years?

By the grace of God, in the coming years, we are looking at a situation where the vision of Anchor Heritage would have become fully established and we will have been able to say practically every Correctional Centre in the country has felt our impact. We are launching into another aspect now that will last longer in the minds of people in incarceration. We want to have an IT hall and then a National Open University Centre. There is a National Open University Centre in Kirikiri maximum, but we also want to have another one because of the population. The new center we are proposing to build will double as an IT hub where inmates can learn graphics, design, and painting. It is a pioneering initiative that is not yet in any correctional center in the country. We hope that in the next 10 years, the project would have been replicated in other correctional centres in the country.

Some stakeholders have advocated for compensation for persons who have been unjustly incarcerated. What is you view on the issue?

I strongly recommend that they should be some form of compensation for victims who have been unjustly incarcerated. The government should compensate them when it is established that they were wrongly detained or imprisoned. A person’s lifetime should not just be wasted because of wrong justice system and you ask the person to go home after spending over 10 years in prison. That is wrong and should not be allowed in any civilized society. The person does not necessarily need to sue government to get compensated. It should be the responsibility of the government to identify such people and take steps to compensation or at least give them some forms of encouragement to start life afresh.

What are some of the discouraging experiences you have had doing this job?

Visiting the prisons with my teams regularly is not an easy job. Sometime we spend over five hours in traffic just to get to Kirikiri Prisons. Sometimes I begin to ask myself, ‘what are you doing here? There are other instances where you will run through an inmate’s story, do verification, get across to the family and at the end of the day the person finally gets freedom and you don’t even get a call.  Money has been spent on engaging a lawyer and other court processes and finally he is free and he doesn’t call. It gets my team downcast sometimes but over the years, we have gotten use to it.

We have also had some scenarios where an inmate tells us his stories, engages our emotions and by the time we conduct investigation, we discover a completely false tale. It discourages us and there are some instances that I just said I am not even going to that prison again.

Another thing that makes us downcast is when we see genuine needs, but can’t meet up with them financially. We have inmates who presently want to register for GCE and NECO but there is a limited fund to be able to help them. When I see an inmate that has been freed and wants to start something, but there no fund, it really gets me discouraged. Those are just some of our challenges but we believe God to do more for those who have been truly reformed and are willing to become useful to themselves and society.

Disclaimer

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