As the new year sits just a few a away, Benjamin Okoro celebrates six years of being released from state prison (in Maryland) and two years of completing his probation. Now Okoro is probation free, employed, and looking to stay on the straight and narrow. “It took me a long time to get to this way of thinking,” the 43 year old said, “but I am finally here, and I want to stay out of trouble.”
Okoro tells the story of him being involved in a fraud scheme with three other people right outside Baltimore, MD, and two of his friends got arrested and worked out a deal where they implicated him in their criminal activities. He and his friends eventually pled guilty to fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, and he served a few years at a facility in Cumberland, Maryland. He said he didn’t enjoy the experience, but he’s fortunate he didn’t end up in prison in Nigeria. “Things aren’t that great behind bars, but at least I wasn’t in prison in my native Nigeria,” he said.
Prisons in Nigeria are run by the Nigeria Prison Service (NPS). It’s a government agency based in Abuja (the nation’s capital). The head of the NPS is known as the comptroller; prior to this, the prisons in the North were ran by the Northern Inspector General of Police, and the Director of Prisons ran the prisons in the South.
The NPS was established in 1861, which is around the time when western style prisons made its way to Nigeria. This was created with the aid of the acting governor of the Lagos colony. He also created a law enforcement component of 25 constables, and two years later established a Police court to resolve petty disputes, a criminal court to try the more serious cases, a slave court to try cases arising from the efforts to abolish the trade in slaves and a commercial court to resolve disputes among merchants and traders.
It’s believed that the modern concept of the NPS didn’t take shape until 1968. There are upwards of 155 prison (including farm centres) and 83 satellite prisons; 12 were built in the last decade, along with 3 prison hospitals. Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison and KiriKiri Medium Prison (both in Lagos), Kuje Medium Prison in Abuja, Makurdi Prison, Port-Harcourt Prison, Sokoto Prison Farm, Kano Prison, Goron-Dutse Prison, and Umuahia Prison are just a few of those under the NPS.
Okoro says he’s never been in a Nigerian prison, but he’s had two family members who have been incarcerated. One of them has died, while the other still lives and shared his experience with Okoro. He said, “My uncle told me about many of the prisons he ended up at didn’t have fully functioning toilets, and some even didn’t have proper running water. And one of the worst things that could happen to you was to get sick. If you got sick, you were in a world of hurt.” This is surprising since nearly 80 percent of annual prison expenditures are spent on medical care and food; and while many of the more rural prisons have an agricultural program, the food is still inadequate. “What I thought was the personal worse,” Okoro went on, “was the mistreatment of the inmates, by the officers and staff. When a person is sentenced they have to do time, but when the people that run the prisons are mistreating you too — its like being in a prison in a prison.”
It’s believed prisoner mistreatment was so rampant in Benin Prison, that a riot over this and food supplies took place and twenty-four inmate were killed by armed police officers. And there is the “secret” ten-year-old detention camp on Ita Oko Island, off Lagos, that was discovered in 1998 and quickly closed. Okoro says he didn’t enjoy the experience behind bars, but it taught him a valuable lesson.
“Going to jail for the first and only time has taught me that I have to do the right thing. I have a good opportunity here in America and I need to use it properly. I surrounded myself with the wrong people, and did the wrong things,” he says. “I have U.S. citizenship, something some people strive and dream if achieving, and I shouldn’t waste it. America’s been good to me and it’s time to return the favor.”
Okoro is planning on going back to Nigeria for the first time in many years. He hopes to go back a different person than he did on his last trip.