The First Lady and Her Prison

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Chiemelie Ezeobi writes on the positive changes initiated by the First Lady of the Kirikiri Female Prisons, DCP Lizzie Ekpendu, the officer-in-charge, that has not just given the residents of the home a sense of belonging, but has also helped in their reformation process

As a frequent visitor to the Kirikiri Female Prisons, at the Apapa area of Lagos State, often at the behest of churches and organisations that regularly donate and fellowship with the inmates of the female prison, the recent invitation to visit was supposed to be normal. But that was not to be. It turned out to be a visit that has entirely changed the perception of the reporter about life behind the prison walls.

After the customary checks at the entrance and having been given a tag for easier access, this reporter walked in and sat down at the provided seat. It was all business as usual until this reporter looked around cursorily and saw many recent renovations. The walls were gleaming of fresh paints, the grasses were evenly cut, the walkways sparkling clean and the residents organised. It was a strange and unexpected sight. Containing her curiosity as to the enormous changes, the reporter tried to pass time by working on some well due stories.

Suddenly, the atmosphere became charged and loud shouts rent the air. It was a startled reporter that turned because the first thought that crossed her mind was that an uprising had begun in the prison. That turned out to be far from the truth.

The shouts were merely that of the inmates rejoicing when the Officer-in-Charge of the Kirikiri Female Prison, Mrs. Lizzie Ekpendu, a Deputy Comptroller of Prisons (DCP) walked in. With cries of mummy, as they fondly call her, renting the air, she walked into their midst, a cuddle and a peck for some, a high five for others, she mingled amongst them, breaking the class barrier.

Still confused as to whom the lady in uniform was that the inmates were relating so freely with, the reporter had asked a prison official and was told that that was the First Lady of the Kirikiri Female Prison. THISDAY checks revealed that the prison has undergone considerable transformation since August 2015 when DCP Ekpendu took over office. Welcome to the Kirikiri Female Prisons, where love reigns supreme and the residents of the home are treated as human beings.

The prison’s transformation

Having met the female prison in a squalor, she took up the gauntlet and changed it for good. She repaired the broken down walkways, constructed the soldier’s house for the security guards, built a fully equipped gym for the residents, repaired the damaged ceilings, installed 22 ceiling fans in cells and offices and electrical earthings.

She also dug a new soak away pit and bought freezers and refrigerators for preservation of food, placed five metal waste bins around the prison, put new toilet doors in 10 cells, installed an outdoor table tennis court, bought 10 tables, lanterns and chairs for the students.

Also, she constructed an outdoor cloth hanger, donated 10 sanitary buckets and tables for the 10 cells and for the staff, she installed five big waste bins and chairs for those on duty in the offices and in the laboratory. She also gave the walls a fresh coat.

But the high point of how she transformed their psychology was first she started working on their psychology. She banned the word inmates and started using the word ‘residents’. She treated them as residents and not as prisoners. Slowly, they started opening up to her and they truly became a family behind the walls despite their incarceration.

She went on to build a ‘Love Garden’, a sit-out where the residents of the home could bond and forge ahead in unity regardless of religion, tribe, language or colour. The garden has also been used as a avenue to reconcile feuding inmates.

On the reason behind her move she said upon resumption of duty on August 2015, she not just took over the responsibility of managing the prison but also ensuring the residents are made comfortable.

She said, “Upon arrival, the condition of the prison met me in the face and the state of mind of the inmates who are my children. They were not happy before but now they are happy. There was no light in the prison and all ceilings were totally removed leaving my children (inmates) and staff on duty in darkness.

“They were using kerosene lanterns and I didn’t like that. The septic tanks were broken and we built a new one but we haven’t connected that. I built two sit-outs; one a love garden, a bond amongst us and a uniting factor of oneness instead of religion, language or colour.”

Aisha Buhari’s testimonial

Like others like the Lagos State Commissioner of Women Affairs, Mrs. Lola Akande; the Minister of Interior, General Bello Dambazzau (rtd); the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of Lagos and Lord Bishop of Lagos, Most Rev. Ephraim Ademowo, who also doubles as the Dean, Church of Nigeria of the Anglican Communion and his wife Mrs. Ranti Ademowo, who had in the past visited and commended the transformation, the recent maiden visit by the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, was no different.

Accompanied by the then Controller General of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), Ezenwa Ekpundu; the then Lagos State Prisons Commissioner, Vincent Ubi; and the National President, Naval Officers’ Wives Association of Nigeria, Mrs. Theresa Ibas; wife of Lagos State Governor, Mrs. Bolanle Ambode and Imo State Liaison Officer, Hon. Steve Asimobi, amongst other dignitaries from the navy, army, immigration and even the police, the visit was in a bid to interact with the prisoners.

After a tour of the facilities and interaction with some of the inmates, she testified about the transformation that she saw behind the walls. Her visit, the first of its kind in the anals of the NPS, was to interact with the inmates (now referred to as residents) and to feel the pulse of the female prison. While there, she recently visited the prison to inaugurate some projects like the laboratory, health centre, gym room, love garden, soldier’s home and a new toilet built by the Officer-in-Charge of the Kirikiri Female Prisons, Mrs. Lizzie Ekpendu.

Mrs. Buhari, who was represented by the wife of the Vice President, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo, had said, “I never imagined that a prison is a place where I will feel love at every time. She asked me to greet not only the officers in the prison but also the residents. We appreciate you and salute your labour of love.

“What you are doing is that where society dropped the ball, you are correcting and where society failed, you are repairing. Women are exceptionally pivotal to our nation and people. We are told that the hands that rock the cradle rules the world, so the women that take care of the residents should be appreciated.

“I must mention someone I only met today but can never forget, the exceptional lady Mrs. Lizzie Ekpendu. So many messages have been passed through her today. We can see this is a Nigerian woman. For so many years, we have heard the worst about Nigerian women but today we can see that this is a Nigerian woman; hard working, dedicated and effective.

“There is a difference between teaching and training. Many people are taught by mothers and teachers but very few are trained. To teach is to mention what you want them to know while to train is to stand over them and make sure they do it and even be there when they make mistakes.”

Treat for Lagos Comptroller

As is her nature, this week, she hosted the new Comptroller of Prisons, Lagos State Command of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), CP Tinuoye Olumide. The CP was treated to prayers, more prayers and fun by Ekpendu, her officers and her residents.

In an interview with journalists afterwards she said it was a decision to welcome the new comptroller. “It is always a custom for Prisons to welcome new Comptrollers. We are planning a general one in Lagos but we at the female prisons, we are unique family. We decided to welcome him to Lagos.

“Our expectations from him as our comptroller is that he should always be sensitive to our needs and so far so good, he has been doing that for the past one month he has been here. He has been sensitive and caring especially when it comes to the affairs of the women. We are very tender people and men, usually, fathers are very sensitive when it comes to their daughters. We expect he would take us as his daughters and would continue to bear in mind the needs.

“We are a family here and I don’t consider anybody to be an inmate because it could be anybody. There are three places you least expect to be: a prison yard and a hospital and a morgue. We expect not too much from him because he is human but we expect that he should always be there for us.”

On the inherent challenges she said, “We don’t have too many challenges. The only challenge that we have, which every other prison has, is to open the doors and let the children go free. We are praying that the lawyers should work hard, and the justice system should work so that our children can go out there and fulfill their destinies. That is the only challenge in any prison environment.

“The last time the wife of the president came they promised to equip the crèche with television and CD player for the children and money was provided for that but we are yet to fix them. The first thing we did was to fix the lab. There were two places to be fixed: the crèche and the lab. They supported us and we have fixed the lab. It remains for us to buy the television and the CD player.”

Refuting claims that they handle VIPs differently she said, “In prisons round the world, and Nigeria to be specific the female prisons, everybody is special. Every child is a VIP, you can see the way we relate with one another. Everybody is VIP.”

On the issue of overcrowding and nursing mothers she said, “No, we are not overcrowded but we have a lot of awaiting trials and some come in pregnant. So, we receive both mother and unborn child. We have to look after them and it is our duty; we are guardians and can’t turn anybody away. As far as you are pregnant and you come in, it is our duty to make sure you have your baby and we take care of you as best as we can. We have a clinic here and capable doctors, matrons and nurses. This year, we have about nine children and 257 residents. Both convicted and awaiting trials. The number fluctuates because some go to court and are released. It is always about 200.”

On his part, Olumide urged both the Federal Government and the judiciary to commute the life sentences of 168 condemned inmates to life imprisonment. Fielding questions from journalists afterwards, the CP, who recently resumed work in Lagos, unveiled his plans for the command and the prisoners in general, especially the condemned ones.

On the major challenge he plans to tackle first he said, “First, the problem we have majorly is that of awaiting trials. Now that I have come to Lagos, I would like to liaise with Ministry of Justice most importantly so that inmates who have stayed longer don’t have any reason to be in the prisons. Another thing, I definitely want to address is the issue of condemned prisoners. As I speak now, we have a total of 168 condemned inmates. Globally as it were, nations are gradually leaving the issue of killing people even when such people committed an offence.

“I think that is a general thing. I would like to ensure that those who are condemned, their sentences are converted to life imprisonment. By that, we would be able to decongest the cell where they are. We have a lot of prisons that can take life imprisonment inmates. That is definitely what we are going to do.”

Given the recent issue of jail breaks in some states he said, “When people say prison break, to us that are working in the prisons, it means that the inmates in the prisons rioted and they broke the jail and ran away. I want us to get the two concepts – prison breaks and escapes. Escape is not new to the prisons and with every escape that happen, whether here or maybe in foreign countries, it is a sign that there is security lapse somewhere and we need to block that loophole. The recent escapes that we had, we need to see that all those areas that need to be amended, all those security features that need to be enhanced are improved and that is what we need to be doing.”

Also speaking on the issue of discipline he said, “Those that committed offences against the laws of the prisons services are being tried. A lot of them are being dismissed and a lot of them are reduced in ranks and a lot of them are being punished. But if the offence is just very minor, we give them extra duty but if the offence is such that could warrant bringing drugs in, we have handed a lot of cases to the National Drug Law and Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Sometimes, we handover to the police authorities for prosecution where they committed crimes that are criminal offence. Prison service is a very discipline service, we don’t take laxity. If you commit an offence, definitely you will be punished.”

Commending DCP Ekpendu for deeming it fit to welcome him, he said, “It was a surprise thing by the officer in charge of female prisons. She thought it fit to welcome me to the state since I resumed in March. I am rather surprised because she didn’t tell me what she was doing. I only came here and met a very elaborate programme. I say thanks to her.

“For her work here, she has done marvellously well. She has built a laboratory where whatever illness an inmate may have can be tested and diagnosed here and built a lot of resting places for inmates. She has done a lot of things. The prison can however be improved. In the prisons, apart from remanding an inmate, which is basically confinement, another function we should be doing is reformation of prisons inmates. We have a lot of steps to take in that direction. We are putting a lot of things in place but definitely, we have not gotten there. What we are waiting for is for enabling laws that make them to be re-integrated better back into the society.”

About the prison First Lady

Mrs. Lizzie Ogugua Ekpendu was born on January 1, 1972, in Kaduna State, Nigeria. She attended St. Annes Primary School, Kaduna and Baptist High School, Jos. Thereafter she attended the School of Basic Studies, Keffi, before she gained admission into the University of Jos where she studied Theatre Arts and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1996.

She has also gotten her Masters Degree in Public Administration at Enugu State University in May 2013. She has another Masters Degree in Human Resource Management at the same university in 2015.

In 1997, Ekpendu attended the mandatory one year Youth Service Corps programme in Owerri, Imo State, where she distinguished herself as the best Youth Corper of the year. According to Compass quarterly magazine of November 2003, by the time Ekpendu finished her NYSC the Secretariat including government insisted she deserved a national merit award.

The NPS broke their four-year-old employment embargo for the young lady of substance and employed Ekpendu as the only ASP recruit for that year and within an eight year gap. Her journey in the NPS from station to station has been marked with footprints of compassion and charity bringing relief and succor.

Although she is a prison officer, her interest in community and humanitarian service found expression when she was posted to serve as a corper in Owerri Prison. Ekpendu contributed a lot to the welfare of inmates of the prison while she was there.

Among these are donations of drugs, food items, clothing of provision of three GP ranks and securing the release of some awaiting trial inmates. In the words of Late Rt. Rev Bishop Benjamin Nwankiti, the then Anglican Bishop of Owerri Diocese, Ekpendu is another ‘Saint Francis of Assisi’.

As a student of the ASP Basux Course at the Staff College, Kaduna, she with her father’s support provided three GP tanks for the school, treated and rehabilitated an abandoned well in the staff college. As a result of her excellent performance and benevolence, she won the Commandant’s award as the Best Student in Community Development in the course in August 1999.

In Keffi Prisons, Nasarrawa State where she worked briefly in 2000, she donated three water tanks and some items for recreational activities as well as church drums. The story is the same at Kuje Prison, FCT Command, where she carried out a similar project the same year. Aside the aforementioned, she has left a mark wherever she has been posted to, thus earning the sobriquet the ‘First Lady’ and rightfully so.