For Dr. Uju Agomoh, Executive Director, Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Actions (PRAWA), it is an experience turned dream that snowballed into passion. This passion, she chases and still chasing with every fibre of her person. In this interview with OLUWATOSIN OMONIYI, Agomoh proves that course of humanity does not just start and end as words of mouth, it is actually an action projected into active motion
To her credit, her organisation has trained many prison officers, police officers and other justice sector practitioners since its inception. In addition to her efforts, PRAWA has provided direct support services and rehabilitation to over 108,000 prisoners, exprisoners, youths at risks, torture victims and their families.
What motivated you into establishing PRAWA?
I think I can trace it back to when I did my youth service in Akure. I was serving with the police and I had to do a little research. I tried to do the background of technical terms what we call the demographic characteristics of those we find in police net or in prisons. So, I went out and spoke with the people who were in the criminal investigation department unit, those who were detained in my command- Ondo state command of the Nigerian police.
I also interviewed persons who were in the prisons which of course included the Ado-Ekiti prisons, Ondo prisons, Owo prison and the rest of them. The evidences that I saw were really shocking, before that time I used to think that those people we find in prisons were really like the very bad, terrible people we all need to run away from. But when I looked at the outcome of my research, I was shocked to realise that many of them were people who were just like you and I. There were people who were innocent, people who were not so innocent but the offence were not such that they should be locked in prison.
Based on your researches and programmes so far, do you have any special programme for female prisoners, any special attention for the pregnant women and babies?
First and foremost, my Ph. D. is on women in prisons. Women make up a very small minority in the prisons, in Nigeria women are less than 2% of the prison population that are females. Now in many countries of the world, which population ranges from 0.1% to maybe maximum of 12%, rarely will you find up to that high, sometimes 2%, 5%, 7% of the total population in prisons will be female. Because of that, females are usually not taken as the problem that needed to be focused on because they see us as the minority.
So the core prison regime is built on what I call ‘the male stream’ not really a gender-sensitive prison. Oftentimes, the female prison looks neat because women keep their environments clean, so you think they don’t have problems, but the problems of the female prison is beyond what you see. It’s beyond physical, it is more of the impact of imprisonment on the woman because men and women are not the same by nature. When a man is in prison, he can come out and have as many babies as he wants, but a woman who is kept in prison during her reproductive stage becomes incarcerated at the end of the day.
By the time she reaches menopausal stage of her life, you bring her out, you find out that the incarceration will not only physically limit this woman but will have also made retardation in terms of her ability to reproduce; and in some cultures that have very terrible consequences and repercussion.
Now in terms of the activities that have PRAWA has done on this, I will say a couple of them. First, we have had programmes and looked at developing reports and assessing the impact of imprisonment on vulnerable prisoners, including developing reports on women in prisons, children and in Nigeria.
We used to have just one exclusively female prison, which is Kirikiri female prison that has about population of 222 as at the last time I knew which was sometimes in January this year. The most important point here is that first and foremost, it is useful to know that we need to do all that we can that a female who doesn’t need to be in prison doesn’t get into prison, prison is not just a bad thing but the effect it has on their reproductive life and their ability to produce. Plenty women in prisons have high level of depression, many of them use sedatives while in prison higher than the males because I have done a research that compare both of them, because of these issues, female prisoners are more concerned about their families. Again, many females by the time they get released from prison and go home, they don’t usually find their homes the way they left it and it usually have a heavy impact on them.
What does the programme innocent women out of prison stand for?
‘Innocent women out of prison’ was a progremme supported by the US Embassy and the idea was to look for women who were innocent, didn’t need to be in prison in the first place. Let me explain it. They become victims of prison when the real offenders are not seen. It is called hostage taking. When police go look for the offender and can’t find him, they take the wife, girlfriend even if it is the mother, they will pick, if they see the sister often time they pick, the idea is that they know if they hold the woman, the man will show up. Unfortunately, often times, the man doesn’t show up and when they go into the record, you will not see in the description why she is there.
Then, they put conspiracy theory. But, I have never seen where they have gone to look for a woman and they pick the man in her absence. So we found some instances of that and through that project we are able to follow up those cases and through a little bit of advocacy, the Police Service Force says we don’t have this as our policy, hostage taking is against the policy of the Nigeria Police, so we began to campaign, that’s another activity that we did.
There was also another programme whereby people were donating money and we were using that to procure sanitary towels for people especially females but it is currently not running.
There has also been intervention around those who were mentally ill, we have found some women who have suffered from post-partum depression, that is, when they have babies and some of them have the blue moon.
We have had instances of when the husband did not show up because he felt he could not cope with the process. Before you knew it, they were kept in prison as prisoners in asylum and nobody bother to ask for them. We were able to help some through our mental health programme and to divert some of the people away. Not just females and men are classified as civil lunatics, they were processed and taken to the psychiatric hospital for assistance, but we do not think that a lot has been done, there is still much to be done.
Children gotten in prison, how do we ensure they are properly taken care of and sent to school?
In terms of policy for women who come into prison pregnant. There are specific numbers of years that they cannot keep the kids. Therefore, the process is that if the family don’t come, the Ministry of Welfare and the Welfare department of the state is supposed to come in and protect them. That is what the process is meant to do.
Now you and I know that raising child within a prison is not a healthy environment. I can give you an example, some years back I was in the prison at Abakaliki, Ebonyi state, I got into the female wing and saw a child and when I tried to reach out, the child ran so far from me.
I noticed that everyone around had some form of uniform so they were used to the males who are in uniforms, the females who are in uniforms, they were used to the prisoners, but that was what the child was used to, and saw me external person and in mufti. It hurt me that day and got me wondering the type of education, social engagement, lifestyle and even nutrition the child will be exposed to.
You will agree with me that even nutrition has an impact, how much will the brain of this child develop, the kind of food the child is utilising and this is basically the reason why the United Nations have minimum developed a standard for female offenders-it is basically targeting these issues.
The second issue is to make sure that while a child is there in prison with their mothers, as much as possible they required nutritional food, antenatal care, crèche and all that is necessary to make us ‘normal’ is done. And I think at this juncture I must also commend the works that some of the security and the officers in charge of the prison in Kirikiri is doing in terms of making the prison a little bit humane.
As a woman, how has it been running PRAWA and managing your home front?
Dealing with the home front has always been a struggle, right from the time I founded PRAWA. I remember when I have to carry my baby to work, I never took a break; I was taking care of my children, I was running the programme and I was in school.
It is not been easy but for the grace of God, I am also blessed with a wonderful husband who understood and I think this is important. We need to support women in our lives, starting from my father. My father was unprecedented and I don’t think there is a father that is as great as my father because he gave me all that I needed, when people were saying why are you allowing this girl to do so much, I have eight degrees.
My father believed in me and supported me. I also cannot ask for better kids. It is important for us to know the issue about the quality of time we give to our children is not just anytime we must make sure the time counts and we have to try to be in touch. It is not easy for women but I believe God made women well so that we can multitask. We can do many things and yet by His grace we can do everything and be in one piece.
In situations of stigmatisation, how do we deal with them?
One of the first thing I tell people is that the people you see in prisons or people who are caught by police are not the worse. Many who are worse are actually outside. But for the grace of God, it could be anybody. My point is that the fact that you have a roof over your head, or the fact that you are living a legitimate life or the fact that you are not into crime, or the fact that one is not inside the prison is but for the grace of God.
So if you know this, therefore, there should be a little bit of humility that tells you that even though it is not me, it can be me but what can I do to help this person.
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