A six-year-old Funke Adeoye was expecting her dad to return home on a usual weekday evening in the late 1990s. Adeoye waited till she fell asleep, and she went to bed for the next two weeks without her dad coming home.
The Nigeria Police Force had detained Adeoye’s father along with some of his coworkers for a crime she insists they never committed.
With the breadwinner of her family locked up, Adeoye’s mother had to visit her husband in detention at the State Criminal Investigation Department, Panti Street, Lagos. She went there every day to feed him and think of a way to get him out fast.
Adeoye recounts that those weeks of injustice left her father with the dream of one of his children becoming a lawyer, a dream he voiced to the hearing of his children.
“So, I was born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, but I grew up in Lagos. We were six kids and I was like my dad’s favourite,” Adeoye recounts.
A CRIME HER FATHER DID NOT COMMIT
“For some time during my childhood, I can’t remember the exact year, I think it was ‘97 or ‘98, I just noticed that my dad wasn’t at home. And we later found out that he had been arrested and detained for a crime he did not commit. Something had happened in their office, and they had picked him and some of his colleagues up. Now, his boss was influential, so they sort of had the upper hand.
“So, for about two weeks or three weeks, my mum frequented the notorious police station in Lagos known as Panti. She went every day to give my dad food. At the time, my dad was the breadwinner of the family, so we didn’t really have money to afford the services of a lawyer. It was a really traumatic period for my family. Eventually, we got someone, a distant relative, who helped us get him out of detention.
“I was quite young. And then my dad came back home, he would always say that, for everything that he suffered and all, one of his kids must become a lawyer.”
Adeoye had two elder siblings who chose different career paths but her father’s words stayed with her till it was time for university.
Law was Adeoye’s only career choice and she went ahead to work on restorative justice and prison reforms as her undergraduate thesis. Adeoye’s passion for this prison and justice thesis earned her an excellent A grade.
“Doing this undergraduate research in 2012, I found out that about 65% of the people in prison were awaiting trial, and it was more than a project for me. It became personal to me, like, oh, what can we do about this?”
MESSED UP BY A GOVERNMENT HOSPITAL
After her undergraduate studies, she attended the Nigerian Law School in Abuja, where she visited prison inmates as a student in the law clinic. Her interviews with the prisoners corroborated her undergraduate thesis research.
Everywhere Adeoye went, her interest in reformative justice and prison reforms were strengthened. She returned to Lagos after Law School and did more prison outreach work through the church she attended as a volunteer. She eventually started working at the law firm of Olumide Sofowora, a reputable litigation lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).
Adeoye left Olumide Sofowora after getting married and relocating in 2017. She decided to focus on criminal justice and applied to work in that capacity but got no offers from law firms in those first few months in Abuja.
Adeoye volunteered for Amnesty International a couple of times. She got pregnant with twins after her marriage.
“I registered at a government hospital and they messed me up. I lost one of my kids,” she told FIJ.
“That was in March 2018. I was initially bent on suing the government because our health system was a shambles, but I went back to my faith because I am a person of faith. So, I knew that I had a heart for people in prisons, and I felt that that was the time to take it up. I wrote a letter to the Controller of Nigerian Correctional Services (NCS) stating that I was a lawyer who wanted to offer pro bono legal services to indigent prisoners. That was how I started.”
JOBLESS ADEOYE REPRESENTED INNOCENT PRISONERS FOR FREE
Adeoye didn’t have a job at the time, she had just had her baby, but she started to offer pro bono legal services to indigent prisoners immediately after the NCS controller approved her letter.
Wasn’t this risky?
“Let me start with personal risks. It didn’t make a lot of sense when I started my organisation. It was about four years after my call to bar, I was relocating from Lagos to Abuja and I had recently had to resign at my job. After my resignation, I had another offer in a bigger law firm that had a branch in Abuja.
“So I had an offer but I declined it because I really wanted to do something outside the regular law practice. That was a big risk because we didn’t know what the future held. I had just moved to a new city, I was newly married, and all the things that came with that situation.
“Another thing was I entered into a space where I did not know anybody and I really was just learning on the job in a new city. I tried to get experience but that kind of experience wasn’t forthcoming. So, I think it was really risky that I was putting everything into this thing I wasn’t sure of. In terms of organisational risk, we started out providing free legal services but you would agree that this kind of problem has different angles to it. It was after we started that we learnt more about some of the issues and root causes — from the problems with the police and the problem with corruption and bureaucracy. We have laws, but the government doesn’t have the political will to carry out those laws. So we saw the need for advocacy. We understood that we needed to do some form of advocacy.”
Advocacy can, however, be tricky when one does the kind of work Adeoye does at Hope Behind Bars today.
“Once in a while, whenever I picked up some of those cases back in 2018, I handled the cases I could work on for about three to five months,” she said.
“When I could, I posted the work I did on Facebook. I never posted on Instagram or Twitter. But whenever I posted on Facebook, people would reach out to me to appreciate it. Some asked how to support me and my organisation. At the time, there was no organisation, it was just me. But some other lawyers showed interest to assist and I started thinking of having an organisation.”
THE COMPETITION THAT CHANGED THE GAME
“That same year, I applied for a competition. I had this idea that it appears that many lawyers wanted to provide free legal services but the problem is where the prisons are located. Many of the prisons are located on the outskirts of the town. So, my idea at the time was called ‘Connect Lawyers’; it was a web-based platform that would connect lawyers to indigent pretrial detainees. So I saw the competition that had called for people who had ideas on Sustainable Development Goal 16. I applied and I got in. It was the SDG 16 Innovation Challenge. There were about 20 contesting ideas and I won the challenge in 2019. This got me into an incubation programme.
“So, during the incubation, they gave us stipends of about N150,000 every two months and that fund was what I used to register Hope Behind Bars in May 2019.
“When I started, I really wasn’t experienced with managing an organisation in the non-governmental and nonprofit space. So, for about two or three years, I wasn’t looking for funds I was only getting donations from friends and family around me. Now, as much as that seems really noble, it affected us because we couldn’t do as much as we wanted to do. So, we had our first set of grants last year. Early last year, we had about $10,000 from Fund for Global Human Rights and $1,000 from Pollination for some projects. Now, we finished the funds from FGHR in June and the Pollination grant.
“By September of last year, we were out of funds and back to working with volunteers only. On our way to India, we were dead broke. People did not know because we were still working, but we were dead broke. Going to India for the UNLEASHlab Dragon’s Den, we had people from different parts of the world, and winning the $25,000 meant the world to us. I had already told my full-time team that they may need to find something else to do because we were cash-strapped at the time but that money helped us to continue. It’s not like we would have stopped doing the work because we still had volunteers but it made a lot of impact for us.”
416 INMATES SAVED
This goes a long way to validate the value we provide and it would help us take more action for pre-trial detainees in Nigeria. pic.twitter.com/Dpb4LJj3fC
— Funke Adeoye (@thefunkeadeoye) December 10, 2022
Hope Behind Bars has reached out to 7,000 people and successfully represented 416 inmates. It is currently operating in eight states, including Edo, Kano Nassarawa, Niger, Rivers, and Kaduna. Hope Behind Bars will launch Justice Padi, a tech platform allowing companies to help more lawyers offer pro bono legal services as corporate social responsibility (CSR), in 2023. Adeoye is planning to focus on fundraising for Hope Behind Bars in the next five years.
“It has not been our focus in our first five years but we will focus more on that moving forward. We have made a lot of impact. Our fundraising direction is going to encourage Nigerians to invest in this project. We need to put our money where our mouth is,” Adeoye told me.
Adeoye has earned a Mandela Washington Fellowship this year.
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