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Jonah sat in prison awaiting trial 4 years after he should have already been released

Why did Jonah have to suffer for five years awaiting trial behind bars?

Jonah had no case to answer, but he spent 4 extra years awaiting trial in prison [Ejiro Eyanohonre]

In its legal advice in 2017, the Lagos Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled that the 32-year-old had no case to answer in court, but because no one processed his release order, he remained in prison for an extra four years until June 2021.

Data compiled by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) shows that 69% of people in prisons across the country are awaiting trial, praying for the chance to prove their innocence — many times for minor crimes or alleged crimes police officers are unable to prove in court.

Jonah Daniel was one of them. This is his story.

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I was born and bred in Makoko, Lagos. My father took care of the family but when he died, I dropped out of school in JSS 3. I started hustling, and would often do conductor work for bus drivers. I was 14 or 15 years old at the time. After a while, I also did some work at a sawmill in my neighbourhood.

When the machine splits the wood, you need people to load it — that was my job. I did that for a while until I turned 22 and went to Aba where my mother had been bugging me to go live with her sister. But her children were making life hard for me — maybe it was because I wasn't their blood but I was suffering.

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I left there after a while, around 2011, for Onitsha where I started hustling again. But Bakassi boys were disturbing many people — they could arrest you, accuse you and kill you. It wasn't working for me, so I left again for my grandmother's place back in Abia State. I was there for three years but there was nothing to do and because I didn't have the strength for farm work, I returned to Lagos.

I went to my uncle's shop in Yaba to start working for him, but then one of his apprentices ran away with ₦750k in 2015. I didn't even know the guy but my uncle called the police and they arrested me. My mother had to come bail me with ₦85k.

By 2016, I was tired of the suffering, so I went to Makoko to be with my childhood friends. Some of them were living rough street lives but you know how childhood friendships can be. There was this fight problem in Makoko that year — I wasn't a part of it, but there was this gang that always threatened to kill me. It was very wild, I didn't understand it.

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Eventually. I used to play football around the neighbourhood pitch at that time. When I was returning from training one day, they cornered me and beat the hell out of me. It was my assistant coach who stopped them from killing me because he told them I wasn't a troublesome person. I was bleeding a lot and my friends were angry.

The next time I saw one of them, I told my friends and they beat him up. I later heard he died after he escaped their beating and his gang came to Makoko to start causing problems. Everywhere scattered, and the Peace Corps was summoned to settle the issue.

There was this neighbourhood brother who called to meet him and I went to his place. Before I knew it, police officers surrounded me and one of them hit me with his gun. They asked where my friends were but I told them nothing.

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They took me to the police station and I thought it was a sick joke. I ended up at Ikeja SARS the next day and met one of my friends and another person from Makoko who had also been arrested. People from the neighbourhood also came to antagonise us that we were terrorising the area.

The OC SARS said they would kill us, I started crying that I was fatherless and didn't know anything. This was in April 2016 and he said we would remain in the cell till December.

But three days later, they took us to court, and it was in the court cell I found a relative who informed my mother about my whereabouts. She came to court and started crying about how she had warned me about the people I associated with.

In court, the investigating police officer (IPO) accused me of murder, cultism and disturbance of public peace with three other people. The judge refused us bail while we awaited legal advice from the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) — this will be important later. He remanded us in prison for two months.

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I wasn't happy, but I knew I couldn't kill myself. I borrowed a phone from someone to call some of my family members to tell them where I was, and they would come to visit me. I spent a week in the welcome cell — it was supposed to be one month, but someone I knew came there to move me.

The main cell was a bit more spacious, but over 80 people were living there at the same time. Some people were privileged and got the limited bed spaces, but the rest of us slept on the bare floor. It was tight and you could only sleep on your side — if you slept on your back, someone would wake you up with a cane. I didn’t get a bed until after four years in there.

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I hired a charge-and-bail lawyer for my first appearance and he charged my family ₦70k. Once we paid ₦40k upfront like this, he disappeared. My mother went to see another lawyer and gave that one ₦120k, but he also disappeared. It happened with the next lawyer who took ₦150k, so I told my mother to stop paying lawyers, that God would set me free if it was His wish. I was already nearing five years in prison at this time.

I was living anyhow. I ate everything I got from the prison kitchen. Sometimes, my family sent me money to buy better food. I could take the eba from the kitchen and find money to buy soup because the soup from the kitchen could cause you all kinds of nasty stuff. I started adapting to my fate because I saw two people die in the cell from thinking too much.

After my first appearance in April 2016, the court adjourned to October, but the warders didn't take us to court because our case was still awaiting DPP's advice. We didn't see the court again until around October 2017. Nothing was even happening with the case — we would just go to court and return to prison.

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Two of my case mates got bail but the remaining two of us couldn't. We didn’t even go to court at all in 2018 and the warders were doing anyhow. The same thing happened in 2019. Some pastors who used to come for outreach in prison begged the warders to start taking us to court, at least.

By 2020, just before COVID-19 fully hit, we finally went to court and got another nine-month adjournment until November 2020. We went to court twice and it didn't sit at all — more adjournments.

I was tired. In December 2020, I saw this lady in court, a lawyer, who gave me her number and made promises. I started calling to beg her to help me, but when I went to court in January, the court didn't sit and I didn't see her.

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When we went back in April 2021, I saw another lawyer who came to meet us to say the same thing and raise our hopes. I didn't want to say anything at first because I was tired of promise and fail, but my case mate pressured me to speak.

I told her I had spent a long time behind bars and begged her to help me. She gave me her card and promised to track down my file, and that's when I started calling her. I even offered money but she said she didn't want any money and was doing it for free for Headfort Foundation.

When she eventually found my case file a day after we met, she said the court already released me in 2017.

Nobody processed my file. The DPP advice recommended my release but the prosecutor had not acted on it. The lawyer promised to work on getting me out soon. I got another court date for June, this time without my case mate. They called a lot of cases that day and I started worrying again that I would not get my chance. When the judge stepped outside for a break, my lawyer went to meet the court clerk who checked and brought my file from the bottom to the top.

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Yes. When I was finally called, the judge read the offences against me again and asked how I pleaded, I said not guilty. He was writing for over 30 minutes without saying a single word; before finally telling me I had found mercy, that I should have been released four years ago. He finally discharged and acquitted me and I just sat down, laughing inside, and thanking God.

The lunatic warders said they would return me to custody for their boss to confirm my freedom. I was even considering following them but I didn't want to, so I asked my lawyer and she said no. These people were trying to put me in handcuffs again even though I was a free man now.

The lawyer and her boss were kind enough to give me a ride back to my mother's house. She was waiting for us at the junction eager to see me, because we'd not seen since COVID-19 messed up prison visits.

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Headfort asked if there was anything I could do, and riding a motorcycle came up and they promised to get me one. The foundation also bought me a new phone, but I lost it when I went to charge it two weeks later, so I lost contact with them till the end of the year. I needed to hustle again, so I went to Jibowu to do transport work.

I help load customers' bags into the buses. I was first in Yaba hustling for customers to buy bed sheets and curtains. My job was to convince and guide them to the real sellers, but it wasn't working out well. When I started, I needed a guide to help link me to the sellers, but he was defrauding me. So, if there's an ₦80k gain on a deal, he'd give me ₦30k when I should be getting like ₦60k. I did it for four months before giving up because I got many customers but wasn't making anything.

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I wasn't happy. The warders used us for all sorts of things. I packed shit so much that I was sick for like six months because of all the smell I was exposed to. I was always alone almost every day. I only left my cell for church service and went back straight after. I don't plan to do anything that would make me return to prison.

Bro, I calmed down. All the gra gra I used to do vanished. I didn't have a bad record in prison and never did a thing that would make warders notice me. Now that I'm out, I still see the warders from the prison whenever they're transporting prisoners past my route, they would hail me and say, "Better boy." If I had a bad record in prison, they would not even greet me at all.

I still live with my friend, so I need money to move out and also start a business. I helped my brother set up his clothing business, but I don't have the capital to start my own. I've been trying to figure that out since I've been out. I'm too old to start being an apprentice so business is what I want to set up.

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Whoever has never been to prison cannot understand anything about it. I don't pray anyone goes there. I tell everyone that you have to know what you're doing. Just because someone offends you doesn't mean you have to carry it on your head. If you overdo it, you can find yourself in prison and it's hard to get out.

There was a mechanic boy in my neighbourhood who was sentenced to death because he accidentally killed someone. The person refused to give him the ₦15,000 they agreed on for work he did, so he hit him with a brick. It's horrible.

I was happy when my lawyer informed me I had actually been released after tracking down my file. If the other lawyers who ran away with my money just bothered to check my case file, I would have been out since 2017. It also made me angry, but there was nothing to do about it at that point.

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I can't forget the many years I lost in prison. When I speak to people about my experience now, it becomes heavier. No one knows they can stay in prison that long. There are even some people who didn't do anything and still end up there. I know someone who's been there for over 10 years without a sentence in court. He was arrested during a police raid and no one bailed him. He's just there.

The last person has also been released. I saw him last year and he said the case was dismissed in April 2023. Nothing happened to it in the end.

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I regret it. I just thought as I was with my friends and spotted someone who was part of a gang that beat me for no reason, I couldn’t let it slide. I only pointed him out and thought they would beat him like he beat me. I was sad to hear he died.

I just need to start a business and feed my family. My first-born child from 2014 is with my grandmother in Abia and is the person I'm hustling for. Six months after he was born, his mother abandoned him with a neighbour and I don't know where she's been since then. I send my grandmother money for upkeep as I earn from my job. I just need a good job.

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Tomorrow, Lanre narrates how he went from minding his business doing his job to landing in prison to await trial for a crime that was impossible for him to have committed. He never got a court date for eight years.

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