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Freed UB Student Recalls Life In Prison 

By Claudia Ndobegang & Tazo Agbor* — Dickson Ashu is one of 12 University of Buea, UB, students freed recently by the Buea Magistrate Court, having been declared innocent of charges brought against them in a recent strike action on the University campus.

Ashu’s arrest, detention and final acquittal might have hurt him and made him lose a semester, but staying at the Buea Central Prison for close to three months was apparently meant to acquaint the journalist-in-training an unusual place, prison. In this must-read interview, Ashu talks of his arrest, the despicable condition of the prison and inmates and the lessons that will never leave his mind.
Read on:

The Post: Why were you arrested?

Dickson Ashu: On that fateful May 15, 2013, I went to the University but was not aware of a strike action on campus. It was about 10 am and I had to shoot an event on campus as a Journalism student. When I got to school, I noticed that a strike action had taken place but everywhere was calm then. But, things were, however, in disorder. The first thing which attracted my attention was a dark smoke spewing out from the Central Administration. I quickly rushed there to gather information. To my greatest surprise, I saw people loitering around doing nothing. So, I thought the strike was over.

After that, I went home because I had nothing to do and told my friends all what I saw at school. At about 1 pm, I went back to school with my friend, Jerry Kome, because we had Continuous Assessment (CA) test at 3 pm. So, we went earlier for the test. When we arrived on campus, we noticed that police officers were randomly arresting students. My friend ran home when he saw the police coming. I didn’t budge because I had not done anything wrong. So, I was arrested in the process.

How long were you in jail?

We were first taken to the Buea Central Police Station where we were kept in a cell for six days. Later on, we were transferred to the Buea Central Prison, where we spent close to three months.

How were you treated there?

The treatment was in two phases; first by the warders and then the inmates. The day we entered prison, warders welcomed us with beatings, to let us know that it was not a favourable place for us. They flogged our bare feet and asked us to jump on gravel so that we feel the pains of committing crimes. From there, we were taken to our various cells, where the living condition is, to say the least, deplorable.

The cells are in alphabetical order and the warders decided to put us in one of the worst cells, which was like a form of punishment since UB students have become notorious for strike actions. Rules and regulations also govern the prison as the warders instruct veteran prisoners on what to do because they are the ones controlling the cells.

New inmates like us were under a veteran. A new prisoner is referred to as a “Bindi” and kept under the custody of a veteran. We were 16 of us, eight were sent to “J” ward and eight to “K” ward. We had “bigs” who gave us rules and regulations because they had their ways of doing things there not known to us.

What were your daily activities?

We started prayers from 5 am to 5:30 am and stayed awake till 10 am; that is the time cells are opened for prisoners to stroll around the prison yard. At 3 pm, the bell is rung for prisoners to go back to their various cells and pray. At about 7 pm, we prayed again before going to bed.

Tell us about feeding…

We were served food once a day and the quality of food was poor. From Mondays to Fridays, prison officials served mostly corn fufu and soup, without any meat or fish. Soup is just a name for what is served there. However, we, UB students, ate only food that came from outside. Also, the sanitation there is very poor. There is overcrowding in the cells reserved for those awaiting trial. Diseases are widespread in the prison, and the toilets are very disgusting as inmates just dispose their waste in the full glare of everyone. People just spread waste where they do their laundry and bathing.

Where did you sleep?

We slept on the floor for few days before asking our family members to bring us things to sleep on. As usual in the cell, you pay “new man” tax. The rate is not fixed; it varies from cell to cell. In my cell, which was the “K” ward, we pay FCFA 3,850, while in “J” ward new inmates pay FCFA 6,000. But we were later transferred to a new ward, where we did not pay any tax.

What did you learn there?

There are many things to learn there: good and bad things. One can learn bad habits like smoking, stealing and homosexuality. On the other hand, people have developed talents such as knitting bags, weaving, making jewellery out of spoons and folks, and painting. I also liked the fact that we always prayed.

Is there anything that has stuck in your mind after prison?

Living without passing through a prison is like living an incomplete life. Some people get closer to God when they are in prison than when they are out of it. When many people leave prison, they are changed mentally as they are ready to confront the world. There is a common saying there that goes thus: “Don`t frown but take heart, or rather drink water and have faith”.

(UB Linguistics & National Polytechnic Journalism Students On Internship)
First published in The Post print edition no 01456

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