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Pre-trial inmates’ families share tales of stigma, anguish, endless wait for incarcerated loved ones


•Lawyers, psychologists advocate social welfare system for dependants of awaiting trial inmates

GODFREY GEORGE writes about the hidden pains of families whose loved ones are awaiting trial

An Imo State-based former restaurateur, Mrs Uzoamaka, would have to lead her life with the constant reminder that her only child, identified only as Victor, was remanded in a correctional facility awaiting trial for alleged rape and sexual assault of a minor.

The 56-year-old woman said she sought a child for seven years before Victor came, and it broke her heart that that child may be sentenced to jail for a long time if found guilty.

Uzoamaka’s home in Lagos is a shark-like apartment made of corrugated iron sheets on the outside and plywood on the inside. She shares the room with another woman, Mma, whom our correspondent later knew to be Victor’s paternal aunt.

The area looked deserted despite being located in the heart of the town. It had a tiny path which led to the door of the house, decorated by bushes on both sides and a stinking stagnant pond in front of the building. There is a small opening with dirty pots and dishes accommodating lizards and flies.

 “Who you dey find?” a heavily built woman who emerged from the backyard with a scarf tied around her waist like she was ready for a fight asked. “She no dey! Una don come again? I say she no dey. Make you dey go!”

A lad, about three or four years old, emerged from a dark opening which looked like a door, prompted by the hollering lady, and whispered something to her in Igbo and she returned in the direction she came from humming an unfamiliar tune.

“Good afternoon, Sah!  My mommy said I should tell you that she is coming.” He ran off and returned with another woman, Uzoamaka.

She spoke no word as she emerged from the same opening as the lad and offered our correspondent a seat, apologising for Mma’s perceived ‘misconduct.’ Uzoamaka said, “Don’t mind her. She has been like that since Victor went to prison. She used to be a happy woman. Victor reminded her of her younger brother, my husband, Peter, who died on his way back from theological school. He wanted to be a pastor.’’

Uzoamaka’s skin appeared discoloured. It had white patches like dry starch. She sat with the lad whom she introduced as Everest’s son.

“A lady gave birth to him while he was in prison and dumped him with me in Owerri. She left for Ghana, or was it Liberia? Some said she is now married and had two sons. Others said she died, giving birth to her last boy. I don’t know which to believe. This boy is my only consolation that no matter what happens to me, I have the hope of someone burying me when I am gone.” She rubbed his head with her right hand and hugged him tightly. They both smiled.

Uzoamaka said Victor had always been a ‘street boy’ whom she had done everything humanly possible to provide for since his father’s demise, adding that he had refused to change from his ways.

“At 14, he already smoked marijuana and drank different strong drinks. He kept funny-looking friends, and the more I begged him to turn a new leaf, the worse he became. I simply handed him over to God, because it was beyond me,” she hissed and gazed in the direction of Mma.

She stated that it was a surprise when she heard the news that he had been arrested for rape and charged to court. She noted that she was in Imo State where she ran a restaurant at the time. Everest had long travelled without letting her know, so when the news broke that he was remanded in a Port Harcourt correctional centre, she knew it was the final straw.

She added, “I didn’t go for any of the court sittings. I thought it was like the other ones where they would go to court and keep him in jail for a week or two and release him. It is so surprising that for over four years, I haven’t seen him. I don’t know which of the facilities he is in. I don’t even know if he is in prison or has died. Though Mma, who followed them to some of the court sessions, said she saw him, she has refused to talk to anyone about it. She just buries herself in work and hums sad songs always. She, too, has stopped going for the court sessions. We sold almost everything we owned to pursue the case. My business even crumbled because Mma kept saying the lawyers needed this and needed that.’’

As it began to drizzle, she moved the bench we both sat to another place.

The room looked empty. It must have been painted, but with the amount of dirt from smoke on the wall, one would wonder when it was painted. A monochrome picture of a man dressed in royal apparel hung on the wall. There were buckets stationed in some parts of the house so that anytime it rained and the roof began to leak, it would fall into the buckets.

On questioning the boy, he said with childish innocence, “My mommy said my daddy travelled and will return next week. I want to go back to school. I miss my friends. My mommy brought me here and I had to stop school. I would have been in Primary Two.’’

Sensing that the boy had ended his statement, Uzoamaka stated, “We named him Junior. We didn’t want to call him Victor so he wouldn’t end up like his father. It has not been easy for us at all. When I sleep, I see my husband in my dreams, asking me where I kept our son. I see my son crying from out of a pit sometimes. It is traumatising,” she added.

On why she left Imo State to Lagos, she said, “I will be leaving for Imo State next week with Mma. We only came here temporarily. The people we came to see have left the country so we would be returning to the village.

“Going back to Imo State was not what I would have wanted right now. Everybody in the area knows Everest is in prison. They even use it to describe me – That woman wey her son rape person, go prison. It is painful. The shame is too much. That is why I am looking for a way to take this boy to a safe place,” she added.

As our correspondent was about to leave, Mma emerged from the backyard and said blankly, “He is awaiting trial. He has not been sentenced yet. But we are tired. We have spent everything to see if we can secure bail, but…” She did not finish her statement before she walked briskly back to the backyard, singing.

Tears of a long wait   

In a similar turn of event, a wife of an inmate, Mezie, awaiting trial at the Kirikiri Correctional Facility, Lagos State, identified only as Blessing, continuously lies to her children about their father’s whereabouts for five years and ten months since he was remanded.

She said she could not bear to see their reaction, knowing that their father was being kept in a place with ‘criminals.’

“How will they see him when he returns? Would the love and respect still be there? I am afraid the eldest one knows, but it is all a rumour until I confirm it, and I won’t, at least, not for now.”

Thirty-nine-year old Blessing had been married to Mezie for 14 years, so when she got a report that her husband was arrested for theft, she could not bear it. All she knew was that he was a commercial driver who always went to work in the morning and returned before 8pm. But on January 14, 2016, things went awry when he did not return even after midnight.

“I called my parents and told them about the situation. His lines were switched off. I thought the worst had happened. I was pregnant with our last child who is five now; there was little I could do,” she added.

After days of searching for her husband, a family member who was in the Police Force told her that her husband had been remanded in a police cell in Ikeja for theft.

“I kept asking myself how my husband would steal from someone. I have stayed with him for 14 years; we have five kids together. To date, it is still surprising to me,” she said, wiping off the tears on her face with the back of her hands.

Blessing said she could not go for the court sitting because she did not know the date it was fixed, and she was almost due for delivery. She added that she was only told by relatives who witnessed the court proceedings that Mezie was remanded at the Kirikiri Maximum Prison, awaiting trial.

“I went there to see him, but before we could even talk, they said we had exhausted our time. I used to go see him, but, after some time, he told me to focus on the children. We have five children. The oldest one is 14 years old. The children need care. I was a sit-at-home mom before this happened. When he left, it was not just the thoughts of not having him around that bugged my mind; how I am expected to survive the harsh economy with five kids makes me shrink every day,” she said.

In search of a better life, Blessing said he borrowed some money to start a petty trade which lasted only for a few months before the expenses from running a family and catering to a newborn gulped both the capital and the profit.

She stated, “I had to borrow some more money to pay up the one I borrowed earlier. Life without my husband is tough. I became a beggar. Some people I met started demanding sexual favours from me. It was humiliating. . I don’t know how long I would keep holding on. I am breaking gradually.”

She stretched her trembling arms, gulped a glass of water and heaved a sigh.

“We were asked by our landlord to vacate the house so I moved out with the kids and my newborn to stay with my mother. People have said all sorts of things to me, but I know that one day my husband will come back and this problem will be over,” she added.

It was a similar fate for 42-year-old lady, Pamela, whose husband has been in the Kirikiri correctional centre for three years, awaiting trial. She said they were together since 2007, before some internal marital squabbles tore them apart in 2017. She said they never communicated for those years until her daughter called her to tell her that some policemen arrested her husband.

“It was 8am that day in March when the call came. I was confused. I had to see him at the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad Headquarters in Ikeja. He was even surprised to see me. I held his hands and asked him to tell me the truth of what happened. I couldn’t make sense out of what he was saying as he began to cry. I cried, too. The SARS men later told me that he would be charged to court,” she said.

According to her, she has never gone to see him in the correctional facility but attended a few court proceedings.

She said, “They kept adjourning the case and I kept spending transport and money for a lawyer. I just stopped going after a while. I am human; seeing him in the dock whenever I go to court breaks me.’’

According to her, her three children, aged between 12 and eight years old, have never stopped asking her of their father’s whereabouts.

“The first one can tell what is going on, but the other two are not old enough to understand. People around us wanted to tell them, but we had to leave the area. I couldn’t pay for both house and shop rents, so we moved into a shop I rented. I have fears. My children are growing fast and if I cannot provide for their basic needs, I am scared they may explore wrong ways to get it.

“As a woman, I am trying to make sure I provide for them, but it is not easy. The country’s economy is difficult. Surviving is hard without him,” she added.

For a boat driver, Fanyefori, he gets panic attacks, knowing that one of his sons, Tonye, was remanded in a correctional facility in Imo State. He told our correspondent that he would sit at night after the day’s work and stare into thin space, thinking of his wife, who recently passed on after a battle with breast cancer, and his third son who is in prison.

He said, “Tonye has been a fragile boy from childhood, but his friends were a problem. They were rugged-looking and visited only at night. I remember one of his brothers asking him where he met those friends but he laughed it off and followed them out that night. He was a man, so I didn’t want to restrict his movement. His mother was also in the hospital battling cancer at the time, so there was little I could do.”

Fanyefori said on one occasion, Tonye was arrested and in the police cell for three days before he learnt that he was there.

He added, “I went there and bailed him and his friends. The police said they were caught selling marijuana and other narcotics.’’

Fanyefori further said that the situation opened the road for more arrests by the police as he was always involved in one crime or the other until when he was finally arraigned in court and never returned.

“He has been there for two years and nine months. I used to cross from Andoni to Port Harcourt for the court sittings and it was taking a toll on my health and finances. Seeing my son on the dock every time I went there made me cry,” he stated.

Fanyefori said when he went to see him in prison after two months to give him some money and tell him of his mother’s death, he saw that he looked lean and malnourished and had wounds on his head.

“When I saw my son in cuffs coming to see me, I cried like a baby. He looked like a stockfish. ‘Don’t they give you food?’ I asked. He asked me of his mother’s health and I paused and began to cry. He also started crying, too. Before we could finish talking, the warders said the time was up. I went to see him last week and he told me he was sick. I gave him some money and left. Looking at him saddens me,” he added.

Fanyefori said his last son, Soso, was badly affected as he could not concentrate at school and was always asking me of his brother.

“They were close; he is young and wouldn’t understand what is going on. He asks me of his mother and his brother. It kills me as I lie to him every day of their whereabouts,” he noted.

A cloth maker, identified only as Mrs Koko, cut a gloomy picture when Sunday PUNCH spoke to her. She said she had been in that state since her son was arrested and arraigned in court.

“I don’t know what they said he did. My blood pressure has increased and I don’t want to die without seeing him. It is his stepfather who goes to the court sittings, and he tells me that our son does not look good at all,” she said.

According to her, she takes medicine to sleep every night as she is always lost in thought because she desires to see her son.

Koko added, “It has been almost four years since he went there and my life is shattered. His wife and two sons cry every day. I don’t know who told his children where he is. They would ask me, ‘Grandma, when is daddy coming back?’ and I will begin to cry.”

Identities of the individuals and their loved ones facing trial have been protected against stigmatisation.

Statistics on awaiting trial inmates

A PRI Insider’s recent publication in 2020 noted that there were 73.5 per cent of pre-trial detainees in correctional facilities across the country. This puts the percentage of those convicted at 26.5 per cent.

Also, a report by the World Prison Brief, the proportion of prisoners awaiting trial was 33 per cent in Australia, 38.7 per cent in Canada, 22.5 per cent in the United States of America, 38.2 per cent in Denmark, 12.1 per cent in England and Wales, 12.2 per cent in Ghana, 29.3 per cent in South Africa, and 72.2 per cent in Nigeria.

There have been reports of suspects spending many years in prison without trial. In Nigeria, there are currently 50, 593 persons awaiting trial as of August 30, 2021. This number of pre-trial/remand prisoners fluctuates day-to-day.

This number is a significant part of Nigeria’s estimated 212 million population according to the United Nations. These pre-trial inmates have families who are not sure of when their loved ones would return. They have to keep up with court sittings and adjournment, making sure the case is pursued to a logical conclusion.

The brunt of the law is not only felt by the inmates, but also more severely by their families in a society which stigmatises them and gives them no support.

Commenting on the issue, the Executive Director, Prison Fellowship Nigeria, Benson Ngozi, said if the Nigerian system had yet shown concern to those in freedom, was it those termed ‘misfits’ of society that it would bother about?

For those, like Blessing, whose breadwinners are in these prisons, life has become an unending cycle of hardship as they have to live from hand-to-mouth.

Dependants of pre-trial inmates deserve a social welfare system – Lawyers

Reacting to the issue, an Abuja-based lawyer, Hussaini Hussaini, said it would only be fair if dependants of inmates on pre-trial were enrolled in a social welfare system to cater to their needs pending when the courts would take a final decision on the case.

He said, “I am sure that dependents of inmates really deserve a social welfare system which will take care of their needs. Some inmates have been subjected to pre-trial detention for years and they are the breadwinners of their families. Remember these are people who are neither tried nor convicted for any crime. Having no institutional plan for their families may put the society in danger as the individuals may take to crime as a means to survive the harsh realities of life.”

On his part, an Oyo State-based lawyer, Malik Akanbi, said the issue of awaiting trial was one of a faulty justice system and attitude problem on the part of involved parties.

He stated, “The issue of people awaiting trial is an issue of our justice system and the attitude of the people involved. The police force also has a role to play. If you don’t have enough evidence to prove that one is guilty in court, then, this means you don’t even have the right to make the arrest in the first place. How many police stations in the country even have a lawyer to check if the cases they are taken to court have merit?

“There is something they say in law that justice delayed is justice denied and justice rushed is justice crushed. So, there must be a balance, which is what the Nigerian justice system has not been able to strike yet,” he added.

Also, Ngozi urged governments and concerned individuals to invest in the welfare of families of pre-trial inmates to have a wholesome reintegration process for the inmates when they returned from incarceration.

He noted, “The sustenance of the family is a critical reintegration bridge. Society must always try to interact with the family periodically to know how they are faring, especially when the person who is in prison is a breadwinner. At Prison Fellowship, we have our Angel Trip Programme during which we buy clothes and shoes to the children of the inmates and tell them it is from their absent loved ones. It gives them a sense of belonging and filial warmth.”

Sociologists, psychologists examine the issue

Besides, a professor of sociology at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Martin Ifeanacho, described the Nigerian justice system as being ‘class-based’, urging the government to serve justice to the guilty suspects and exempt their families to avoid stigma from society.

“The serving of justice in Nigeria is grossly inadequate and it is class-based. Only the poor who cannot buy their way out of the justice system go to prison. Sometimes, when you find out that the people awaiting trial have been there on trumped-up charges, there is no compensation from the government. The lawyers also have ways of making cases linger so that they can sustain themselves. You will keep taking a date till you are tired and dump the case. This is why people have lost confidence in the system.

 “Beyond the person who is in prison, there is stigmatisation attached to other members of the family. The Nigeria legal system does not have a way of excluding family members from alleged criminal activities of individuals. This is why the police would come to arrest a person, and if they don’t find that person, they’d arrest a family member. The moment there is an allegation, it is assumed that that person ab initio is a criminal,” he stated.

For a professor of sociology at the University of Calabar, Cross River, Abia Pius, the family members of pre-trial inmates should go through sensitisation to know how best to cope with the inmates when they return.

“While waiting for their loved ones to return from prison, there should be a kind of sensitisation on the family members to tell them about how to receive the former inmates when they return from the correctional centres. The government also has an enormous responsibility to get back to the family members and provide them with some tools to help them cope while these people are in these facilities awaiting trial.”

On stigma, Pius said that it emerged from a place of absolute ignorance regarding what a correctional centre is for.

He added, “We need to educate society to know that stigma does not help the families; it worsens the plight of coping, knowing that people are constantly wagging their mouths, gossiping about one’s predicament. Imprisonment is not punishment.’’

Also commenting, a professor of social psychology at the Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti, State, Suleiman Adebayo, stated that the fact that a family member was awaiting trial had a significant psychological effect on the significant other and their offspring for it could cause trauma and depression.

Adebayo said, “The family is already in a state of doubt as to whether or not their loved ones committed a crime or not. The family image goes into question and so the family would mobilise their resources to prove otherwise. This is even worse if the person who is incarcerated is a breadwinner.  They can run into economic problems. They may sell properties and be indebted to people. The loyalty of some of the family members left behind may be put in question. People may begin to promise help only if one ‘bends over’ for the benefactor.

“The family may also experience sleepless nights, anxiety, trauma and depression, because the integrity of the family is challenged. There is stigma from society. Even if the inmate is later released, having proven not to have committed any crime, the stigma lingers. The children may fall into wrong company and then the cycle of crime continues.’’

He urged the government to take charge of the suspect and their families till they were able to ascertain the guilt or otherwise of the suspect.

Identifying what he called the victim of the crime and the victim of the trial; the inmate being the former and the family being the latter, Adebayo said, “ It is time for the government to take care of both sets of victims otherwise we would be killing an ant with a sledge hammer. We should not say we are handling the suspect and injure the family.”

In his comment, a senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, Dr Johnbosco Chukwuorji, advised that the attention of society should be  drawn towards, not just restoring the inmates to society, but ensuring that they had a wholesome reintegration with their families.

“The close knit of family relationships imply that there is a bond holding them together. So, if someone becomes incarcerated, the bond is threatened and this may bring about a sense of loss. Loss has a cascade of several direct and indirect effects. One of such is from the social perspective where the needs which are supposed to be met by this person who are in prison are not met. Some of what we see would be anxiety and depression. This would be from not knowing what the outcome would be. The danger of awaiting trial is that one would not be sure of when, so the hopes are kept high; and if this doesn’t happen, it brings despondency.’’

He noted that as family members were almost neglected in such a situation, to ensure total healing, as the inmate was being returned from prison, there should be effort to return the family circle.

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