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Maltreated and neglected: The plight of pregnant women in Nigerian prisons

Maltreated and neglected: The plight of pregnant women in Nigerian prisons
December 04
10:33 2021

Amina Abubakar(not real name) still remembers the days of horror and pain she spent at Suleja prison in Niger state. Life was beautiful for the 28-year-old when she got married in 2012. She had hopes of a blissful marriage, but little did she know that hers was going to be painful and tough.

In February 2013, she got into a fight with her husband, and he died a week later from the injuries sustained on his head. She was accused of killing him and eventually landed in Suleja prison. The experience would change the course of her life for the worse.

“I was two months pregnant before the incident happened,” she recalled. “Life wasn’t easy for me at all while I was pregnant in the prison.”

Despite their varied and complicated needs, female offenders admitted to Nigerian prisons are subjected to the same conditions as males.

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Out of Nigeria’s 70,000 inmates, 1,297 or two percent are females, including 984 who are awaiting trial. As at November 2021, the Nigeria correctional service places the number of pregnant inmates at five.

During her time at the female ward in Suleja prison, Abubakar cohabited with 11 other inmates; sharing six double-bed bunks with small mattresses.

With her due date approaching, it did not take long before she fell sick. As she would recall, “there were no medical doctors when I was there. My family was taking care of my health challenges each time I went to the hospital and they would have to fuel the prison vehicle”.

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“My birth experience was not easy,” she said, adding that her pregnancy lasted for 12 months. 

“At Suleja General Hospital, (where most pregnant inmates go to), I was told that the placenta has covered the baby’s face… and that’s why the baby is not moving at all.”

What could have happened?

Back view of Amina Abubakar.

Fred Achem, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, said a normal pregnancy should last for about 280 days or 40-42 weeks, and when the baby stays beyond the normal time frame, the placenta begins to fail.

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“The placenta works very well until 36 weeks which is about the end of the eight months. By the end of the ninth month, the placenta fails critically and starts to affect the nutrition of the baby. And this causes stress to the baby, causing it to produce fetal cortisol that ignites labour pains,” Achem said.

After she was eventually delivered of a baby boy, then came a bigger problem: breastfeeding. “My breast milk production was low. There was no special food for me in the prison except additional things like tea that my family brought for me,” she said.

Abubakar was eventually acquitted on July 7, 2019, after seven years in prison, and subsequently returned home to meet her son who addressed her as “aunty” because of the years spent apart.

LEGAL BACKING OVERLOOKED

In addition to international laws protecting incarcerated pregnant women and their children, which Nigeria is a signatory to, President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2019 signed the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) Act which provides improved welfare for pregnant prisoners.

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Section 34 of the bill contains specific measures to address their “special” needs, which includes the provision of a creche for the wellbeing of babies in custody, and prenatal and antenatal health care for the mothers.

But compliance with the provisions is quite low, worsening the fate of pregnant inmates like 18-year-old Kemisola Ogunniyi — even though she stayed at an all-female prison in Ondo state, one of the three built for women in the country.

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She was arrested during the #EndSARS protest in October 2020 and accused of burning public property. Unlike Abubakar, she was not aware of her pregnancy until she was transferred to the Ondo Female Prison on November 24, 2020. There, she stayed with 16 others in a room she says was “not big”.

“The prison has no bed frame, only a foam and it is kept on the floor,” she said. “The foam is like a normal student foam and we have a blanket each to cover our body. We were given one uniform each to be worn from Mondays to Fridays, then Saturday and Sunday, we normally wear our own clothes.”

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She was also denied proper antenatal care neither did any doctor visit her.Ogunniyi said she was only taken to the hospital when there was an emergency and that the cost was borne by her lawyer and family.

“They did not take me for antenatal until two weeks or a month to my delivery. They don’t have any hospital in the prison but there is a health centre located behind the prison though it does not belong to the prison,” she said

“No hospital, no dispensary and no sickbay in the prison. All the time I was there, no doctor came to check me and my baby and I was the only person pregnant in the prison. They have no special food for pregnant women.

“They serve us less than one cup of beans every morning. [In the] afternoon, sometimes they give us ordinary garri to soak without sugar or anything else, or sometimes, eba. And in the evening, garri with soya beans soup that is tasteless and has no oil, fish or meat in it. They normally serve us rice only on Sundays.”

Section 34 (1) of the NCS Act mandates that there shall be a provision of separate facilities for female inmates in all states of the federation but this has only been established in Ondo, Lagos, and Edo.

HANDCUFFED TO HOSPITAL BED

On the days she visited the health centre behind the prison, Ogunniyi was made to walk and was handcuffed despite her pregnancy. On her delivery date, she spent hours trying to convince the warders she was in labour.

“I started having labour pains at 1:00am. The provost (senior inmate) in the prison called the warders to open the door for me, that I’m about to deliver. But the warders refused, saying that I’m lying and that I’m only trying to escape. They refused to open the gate until around 8:00 am,” she narrated.

“They called the matron and she arrived around 10:00am. When she arrived, she kept me waiting, and said that I should go and sit in a place… that she wants to dress up. They took me to Surulere health centre at 11:00am.

“Four armed squad and two warders usually follow me to the hospital. They handcuffed one of my hands to the bed after I gave birth while my baby was placed beside me. I had a tear and I was bleeding. I didn’t have a choice.”

She spent barely five hours at the hospital before she had to return to the prison.

Kemisola shortly after giving birth at the Surulere health centre, Ondo state.

Ogunniyi shortly after giving birth at the Surulere health centre, Ondo state.

ARE PRISONS IDEAL FOR BABIES?

The NCS Act allows new mothers to keep their babies for a maximum of 18 months, after which the babies shall be handed over to the families of the inmates. In the case where they have no one to care for their babies on the outside, they shall be taken to designated welfare centres.

But is prison a safe place for babies?

According to Etoro Inyang of the Carmelite Prisoners Interest Organization (CAPIO), children born in prisons barely have their needs met because they are not the primary focus of the government.

“These children are not the focus of the custodial centres so nothing much is really done for them. The mothers are left to care for them. The children only get to have certain kind of benefits from NGOs such as the provision of baby food, diapers, clothes,” Inyang said.

NGOs like CAPIO and religious groups provide the majority of the toiletries used by inmates. These organisations also provide free counselling, food, medical treatment, and clothes to detainees; otherwise, the situation would have been worse, particularly for pregnant and nursing mothers.

Francis Onobore, NCS spokesperson, said there are only 30 children below the age of 18 months living in custodial centres with their mothers across the country.

Section 34 (3) of the NCS Act provides for a creche in every female custodial centre to cater for the well-being of babies whose mothers are in custody but checks done by TheCable revealed that such facilities are non-existent in most detention facilities. Only Kirikiri Female Prison was found to have a creche.

TheCable found that, in most prisons, babies are made to sleep on the same beds as their mothers as there is no special provision for them.

Ogunniyi and her baby after her release.

BATTLING THE TRAUMA FROM ABUSE

“My most traumatising experience in the prison was when I was insulted,” Ogunniyi said. “Their thought towards me is to die in the prison because I don’t have anybody but I have God.”

With her baby suckling on her breast, the young mother couldn’t hold back tears as she recounted her experience in detention.

“The second day after I gave birth, some warders came to talk to me that why did I allow the welfare officer to take my picture. I told them that I don’t know anything about it. I began to apologise. The boss in the prison insulted me and other officers too and I was still in pain at that time from the delivery,” she said.

On June 18, two days after Ogunniyi had her baby, the correctional service issued a statement on the condition of the young mother — after news and pictures of her birth went viral on social media.

“All necessary medical care and legal attention needed was accorded accordingly within the ambit of the operational orders of the service,” the statement read.

Nigerian Correctional Service headquarters, Abuja

Nigerian Correctional Service headquarters, Abuja

GOVERNMENT RESPONDS

Funke Oladipo, director of gender affairs at the ministry of women affairs and social development, said she is not aware of special programmes targeted at improving the welfare of women in correctional facilities.

“From my end, nothing in particular,” she said. “But I know that there is a gender desk in the prison.”

However, Francis Enobore, NCS spokesperson, said although the prisons are faced with several challenges, especially funding, the service pays special attention to the needs of women.

He said pregnant women are profiled on admission “to enable us to place you on appropriate management scheme” and he said the service can boast of having “standard medical facilities in several custodial centres across the county”.

“We establish a very vibrant collaboration with the nearest tertiary hospital. So if there is any medical condition that is beyond the capacity of the personnel on the ground or the facilities available, what we do is to take the inmate to the nearest tertiary hospital,” he said.

Enobore insisted that the NCS — not families of inmates — bears the cost of medical treatment. He also said standard creches are built in some facilities where women are kept but only made reference to that of Kirikiri Female Prison, Lagos.

On implementing the provisions of the NCS act pertaining to pregnant women and nursing mothers, he said: “You know when these are signed into law, there is a gestation period, there is a time that some of the provisions will have to be put in place, will have to be operationalised and all of that. But to activate the provision of the act, of course, you need funding, and I can assure you that as soon as adequate funds are provided, we will work on it.”

Abubakar now lives with her mother and son in Kano. It took some time for her son to start calling her ‘mummy’ since he was raised by his grandmother.

She said she’s been unable to get a job since her release in 2019. Although she learned how to sew in prison, she is yet to start making clothes for sale because she cannot afford a sewing machine.

As for Ogunniyi, her case has not been heard in court since she was granted bail in June 2021.

Living with her family in Akure, life has been tough. She said she would love to start a trade in order to support herself and her son. She also plans to go back to school when her son turns four-years-old

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