Why I’m passionate about helping prisoners — Joke Aladesanmi

I studied Law at the University of Benin and subsequently attended the Nigerian Law School in Yenegoa, Bayelsa. I am currently in the final stages of completing my Masters programme at the University of Lagos.

Following my admission to the Bar, I commenced my legal career at Victor Okpara Chambers. I later joined the Legal Defense and Assistance Project in 2014. My roles extended to the position of Programmes Manager at the Nigerian Coalition of the International Criminal Court, after which I established my own organisation— the Centre for Legal Support and Inmate Rehabilitation— in 2020.

It is a non-governmental organisation dedicated to providing free legal services for indigent incarcerated individuals and victims of human rights violations. In addition to our legal advocacy, CELSIR places a profound emphasis on comprehensive rehabilitation through a range of programmes, including education support initiatives, skill acquisition and self-development programmes.

The organisation’s vision is centred on a future where justice is not only accessible but where justice-impacted people live productive lives upon re-entry into society.

Our work extends to post-incarceration by providing re-entry support to formerly incarcerated individuals. In furtherance of this objective, we recently launched a kind of safe house (halfway home) for formerly incarcerated women to aid their transition into society.

It is one of the few NGOs that advocate for the rights of incarcerated people beyond the regular welfare services. We take comprehensive rehabilitation seriously. We have engaged in educational services, prison library support, in-prison skills acquisition, health and safety trainings, and mental health services.

With my legal background involving the representation of over 150 individuals within the criminal justice system in Nigeria, I identified a significant rehabilitation gap. I found out that many individuals, often from the lower socioeconomic strata, lacked comprehensive plans for reintegration into society after they had been incarcerated. The incarceration experience tended to increase and worsen their circumstances, resulting in a high rate of recidivism. The individuals would return to the crime for which they were formerly imprisoned or even a worse crime. This realisation prompted me to ask, what measures could be taken to enhance their reintegration and address this gap, and the answer was what birthed CELSIR.

As the CEO of CELSIR, I bear many responsibilities, including overseeing various aspects of the organisation. Juggling these roles becomes even more complex as I also serve as an employer. My approach involves delegation and maintaining open lines of communication to ensure the seamless execution of tasks and the well-being of our workforce.

Some of the challenges encountered involve helping employees grasp the transformative nature of the changes we aim to implement, particularly in fostering understanding and support for individuals with a history of incarceration, rather than treating it as routine work.

The journey to overcome these challenges is continuous. Engaging employees in the transformative process, and witnessing improvement with each success story, contributes to a progressively positive atmosphere.

The Centre for Legal Support and Inmate Rehabilitation initiated the ‘safe house’ for women released from prison with the aim of providing a supportive environment for their reintegration into society. The motivation stems from a belief in second chances and the understanding of the vulnerabilities women face on different levels. We believe that women who have been impacted by justice should be given another opportunity to get back on their feet and make substantial contributions to society.

A major challenge has been funding, given that our beneficiaries don’t typically gather widespread sympathy, particularly amidst the escalating crime rates. We continually explore innovative ways to communicate our message to the public, aiming for a shared vision that underlines the importance of supporting individuals who have undergone incarceration

My achievement cuts across every aspect of my life— from family, to work to meaningful relationships. I am grateful for the opportunity to give back to society, having to provide support to the dejected members.

Through initiatives such as virtual classes and facilitating enrollment in General Certificate Examinations, we have witnessed individuals progressing into the National Open University, a testament to the transformative power of education. The feedback received from beneficiaries of our library books and motivational workshops has been heartening, revealing a renewed sense of hope.

Our skills acquisition programmes have equipped people with valuable tools for personal and professional development. Notably, the establishment of a safe house for formerly incarcerated women has provided a fresh start, allowing them to restructure their lives and embark on a path of recovery.

These collective accomplishments have profoundly shaped my perspective on life. I am grateful for the experiences and the opportunities.

First, I would suggest that they really understand the problem they want to solve. As they start their journey, they will face distractions and challenges, but understanding the ‘why’ sustains the momentum. It is important to be truly passionate about the reason behind solving the problem.

Our justice system grapples with several critical issues, such as the protracted delay in dispensing justice, the overwhelming workload on judges, prison overcrowding, and more. It is imperative to address these challenges comprehensively by implementing long-overdue reforms. For instance, considering the alarming population in prisons, where over 70 per cent of inmates are awaiting trial, there is a pressing need to explore effective alternatives, such as non-custodial measures, like community service, and contemplate the adoption of plea bargaining. To alleviate the strain on the judicial system, increasing the number of judges is crucial. I commend Lagos State for recently establishing two additional divisions, a commendable step in the right direction. Additionally, we must address the issue of arbitrary arrests by the police. A holistic approach is essential, extending beyond the courtroom.

Every person who wants to be successful must have determination, perseverance, embrace hard work, maintain quality relationships, and most importantly, trust in God.

As a woman and mother, different aspects of life demand our attention daily. However, I try to prioritise tasks and acknowledge that it is an ongoing learning experience with occasional clashes. The key is to find a balance to ensure that no aspect is neglected.

My family, friends, and the joy we bring to our beneficiaries serves as the driving force that keeps me going every day. I find it fulfilling to be able to settle in people who believe they have nothing and no one to run to, especially after spending years in prison.

I think in the context of marriage, what truly matters is finding what works best for you and your home. There is no indication that she felt obligated; rather, it seems she did what she believed was essential for her loved one.

In addition to overseeing the foundation, I continue to actively engage in the legal profession, providing a range of legal services. Also, I operate my own interior design business on the side.

As an indigene of Ondo State, I love everything yam related.

I love anything that makes me look smart, preferably in bright colours.

Unwinding for me involves watching movies and enjoying quality time with my family. I am able to deal with stress by watching interesting movies.

I am grateful for all aspects of my life— the strengths and weaknesses have their roles in the journey. I would not change anything.

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