Oscar Wilde was unsparing of the prison system of his time.
Perhaps it was for good reasons he interrogated the idea of the prison.
In his highly regarded poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he launched scathing attacks on the prison regimes, exposed the pernicious and inhuman conditions of Reading Prison where he was incarcerated for two years with hard labour for homosexual practices, and subsequently drew attention to the appalling failure of the prison system in his letters, The Prison Reform and The Case of Warder Martin, Some Cruelties of Prison Life.
For Oscar Wilde, “every prison that men build is built with bricks of shame and bound with bars lest Christ should see how men their brothers maim”.
Wilde wasn’t a lonely figure in the growing movement of prison writers, nor was he a stranger to writers who interrogated the prison system. He found good company in writers like Gramsci, Cummings and Genet who were unsparing in their attacks on the prison system.
Wilde was familiar with the prison system. He knew where the prison regimes hurt most. He understood the dangers the prison system posed to human civilization,
so he wrote for humanity as one of its foremost eyewitnesses, as its unimpeachable witness of truth, and captured the plight and traumatic experiences of prisoners, particularly child-prisoners of his era. He was concerned about the way the prison system punished prisoners, turned children into monstrous beings. He captured the fate of the child this way: “The child consequently, being taken away by the people whom it has never seen, and whom it knows nothing, and finding itself in a lonely and unfamiliar cell, waited on by strange faces, and ordered about and punished by the representatives of a system it cannot understand, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern life- the emotion of terror”.
Our prisons are Wildean in character and outlook.
They are pernicious and inhuman. They are strange and unfamiliar places where children who suckle their mothers’ breasts become prey to the emotion of terror. They are places where pregnant mothers keep constant watch on the calendars of freedom. They are the lonely places for the forgotten- folks whose experiences shame their gaolers- the patches of inhumanity walled only by the heartlessness of men.
They are the distant and bitter places, far from our humanity, where cries and anguish are muted. They are the halfway places with borders that skirt the boundaries of life and death.
Kirikiri isn’t Reading. But they form part of that un-civilizing discipline of power that seeks to reform law-breakers – men, women and children – by banging them up under pernicious conditions that eventually turn them into half-humans.
The children of Kirikiri aren’t Oscar Wilde. They are victims of our administration of justice system, who bear hurt but cannot make meaning of it or make sense of the loneliness of life behind the wall.
Yet, we must thank Oscar Wilde. Through his writings we have become aware of the children of Kirikiri, so we can write their experiences into time and memory. Through his experiences we glimpse into our administration of justice system to view those corridor boys who snatch streets children to serve time for loitering, for breach of peace, for public nuisance, for playing truant like the notorious Skolombo Boys of Calabar. We thank him for letting us into the world of that child who begged Warder Martin for biscuits. Imagine how the children of Kirikiri beg our own Warder Martin for bread! Not biscuits!!
Last week the newspapers revealed that “there are eight babies and nine pregnant women in Kirikiri prisons, Lagos”. This revelation is neither new, nor strange.
Three years ago, a non-governmental organization, the Prisoners Rights Advocacy Initiative (PRAI), revealed this to the media: “We visited Kirikiri Female and Maximum Security Prisons and to our dismay we found young boys and girls who were alleged to have committed obstruction, breach of peace and being disorderly without proof”.
The organization also accused the Lagos State Government of helping to increase the number of children in Kirikiri and Badagry Prisons by imprisoning children over minor offences, an accusation the state government dismissed as untrue at the time.
Three years after, we are still where we are at. Nothing has changed.
Two issues have since emerged, though.
First, the culture of snatching street-children and sending them to prisons without records of prisoners reformation, or efforts at turning prisoners into good citizens.
The second issue deals with the practice of keeping babies and infants behind prison walls along with their jailed mothers.
The culture and practice are disturbing. They are neither new- they have always been part and parcel of the way we live, here.
It was Odinkalu and Ehonwa who documented the culture and practice in their 1990 groundbreaking work, Behind the Wall, and highlighted the inadequacies of our prison system which “seems to have for its aim the wrecking and destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result. That is a well-ascertained fact. It causes are obvious”.
Making sense of the conditions the children of Kirikiri live through everyday isn’t hard for me. I know the Kirikiri Prison well.
As President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), I was detained there by General Babaginda in 1991. I can make sense of the lonely cells these children are kept, their sleep deprivations caused by warders who bang on bars to test their strengths and the orchestra of mosquitoes the same way I made sense of my cell and loneliness.
But what I cannot make sense of is our administration of justice system that turns children into preys, scarred by terror and the discipline of power. I am shocked that we have allowed the pernicious practice of banging up children and their mothers to go on for too long.
While I concede that the prison system forms part of the discipline of power, I find our poor variant of the discipline of power that punishes the weak and vulnerable and traumatizes the poor shameful.
It is a shame that our administration of justice system punishes children for their mothers’ crimes. The greater shame are those magistrates who impose custodial sentences on children who fall on the wrong side of the law when mere raps across the knuckles are sufficient punishment.
There are six thousand children in our prisons, the African Union on the Rights and Welfare of the Nigerian Child revealed three years ago.
Knowing the poor state of our administration of justice system I am convinced that police officers who arrest and prosecute children for the smallest infractions of the law, and magistrates who impose custodial sentences on children and pregnant women when there are optional fines for non-capital offences, have since doubled the figure.
The children of Kirikiri deserve compassion- they deserve homes outside the prisons high walls. It doesn’t hurt to demand the return of these children to humanity, does it?
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