Over two decades after relocating to the United States of America in pursuit of a better life, Ilesa, Osun State-born Dr. Silas Olayiwola Falokun, says he has no regrets, confessing it was the best decision he ever took. Today he does stuffs of legends, superintending over prisons in the State of Texas and championing prisons reform across Africa, volunteering as coordinator, Prison Rehabilitation Mission International (PREMI) in North and South America. He spoke on these as well as his other roles which include teaching, counseling and serving in the Lord’s vineyard as Minister with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf.
When and why did you travel to America? Was it to pursue the Golden Fleece or to achieve the much hyped American Dream?
Let me begin by saying that any decision I made, I prayed about. By the time I took the decision to leave the country, nothing seemed to be working. The policies and programmes were stifling the economy. I found that I had fewer opportunities to be successful in Nigeria, hence when the opportunity presented itself; I decided to leave the country in 1998. Talking about living the good life and the American Dream, I think we have to define what the good life really is. What I can tell you is that compared to what I would have been back home, I think I’m living the good life here, all thanks to God’s grace and favour. The decision I took to leave the country when I did was a lifesaving one. Today, I’m living comfortably well in my country of sojourn with my entire family. The concept of the American Dream is that in this country, there is regard for the welfare of the people; the people come first. I have friends whom I left in Nigeria; who after the mandatory 35 years retirement age don’t have anything to fall back on. For those in service, their salaries are being owed, just as those entitled to pensions don’t get paid, while some die in the struggle to get it, following long waits on queues. Whereas the International Labour Law says that people should be adequately remunerated when they work, it is an irony of fate that in most African countries you may not even get paid after doing an honest work. But it is a different ball game here in the US, where you’re guaranteed of the good life. You live in your dream house, you have a car, and you don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from and all. I’m really blessed to have all these things here. But more importantly, I think we need to realize that when people are no more in active service, we need to put the right programmes in place for them, so they can have something to fall back on? I love my country Nigeria and wish for things to really get better, but looking back in time and with the fate that has befallen a lot of my contemporaries back home, I shudder at their misfortunes and wonder what would have become of me too if I had stayed back. Right after graduation I joined the Kwara State government employment, teaching at Offa Community School, in Kwara State, where I worked for about 12 years. I know a lot of people who have worked all their lives but ended up not getting the stipends paid in form of pensions, which cannot even take care of their needs. I’m not trying to delve into the realm of politics but I think there must be a long lasting pension scheme to cater for people who have put in years of meritorious service in the system.
Of all the lucrative jobs overseas, how did you end up working in the prison in the State of Texas?
First, every job I have done in the United States has been lucrative. When I first got here, I worked as a clerk at a gas station. I later got a job as a social worker at the State of Texas, where I worked for nine years and rose to the position of a Unit Manager. But when I found out that the job I was doing was no longer fulfilling for me, I decided to pursue further studies and in 2012, I was led by the spirit of God to work in the prison as an instructor. In the school here, I work as a College Professor and Counselor, which is an administrative position. Here, most prisons have their own schools. I can tell you that with my experience as a prison counselor and student advisor, I have been able to get some skills set that equipped me to be able to standardize any prison facility by helping them generate revenue, work out reasonable rehabilitation plan for inmates, which enables them to be self-reliant, helps to reintegrate them into the society and helps them get behaviour intervention. As I said earlier, to prepare myself for the onerous task of the assignment at the prisons, I got certification in Applied Behaviour Analysis from Brandman University in Irving, California in 2014 and also became an Approved Provider of Drug Offenders’ Intervention and Anger Management Intervention in Texas before capping it up with my doctoral degree in Behaviour Health from Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona in USA in 2016. In my work in the prison, I feel fulfilled and I can tell you for a fact that working in the prison could be one of the most self-fulfilling and rewarding job you can find anywhere in the world. At least, I can attest to that.
How did your family come to accept your new role as a prison worker?
I worked in two public school districts as regular and special education teacher until 2012 when I applied to work at the prisons. When I went for the interview and was considered suitable for the job, I came home and told my wife about it. None of my family members objected to the offer.
Texas is seen as home of gangsters and cowboys prone to crime. How has this impacted on your job? Have you ever been threatened by inmates?
Let me start by saying that your own definition of who a cowboy or cowgirl is a bit misplaced. It’s true that some movies may have depicted them as gangsters but in reality this is not the case. Cowboys and cowgirls are very hardworking people. Among them you have the whites, blacks and Hispanics. If you look at the history of black cowboys, especially those born during the struggle, a lot of them have become successful with vast interest in major commanding heights of the economy such as Information and Communication Technology, oil and gas, ranching, and several other businesses. We have third generation of these sets of blacks today who have continued along the success trails of their progenitors.
Texas is generally a peaceful place, even Houston, the biggest city in Texas, remains a melting pot of commerce and industry. Texas is the second largest population in the USA. As much as one cannot deny incidences around the prisons, I can tell you for a fact that since I joined the employ, I have never had such fears – whether real or imagined of a protest anywhere near the prisons. Neither have I been threatened with attacks of any sorts. I have never witnessed any form of attacks. The inmates are good people ordinarily before they fell on the wrong side of the law because they lacked the right information, advice and whatnots at the time. If they got timely assistance from relations, families and friends, things would have been different for them. Besides, here we have well-trained personnel who can deal with such matters of threats. What I can say is that when the inmates realize that you have their interest at heart, they are able to see you as their friend and confidante and can indeed be dependable. That has been my experience thus far.
The perception out there is that there are too many blacks holed up in prisons in the USA compared to whites. What is the true situation? Has there been any incident of prison breaks?
To answer that question, we have to look at the population of people in certain locations where the prisons are located. Take for example, if you go to any typical prison in Southwest, Nigeria, chances are that you will find more inmates in those prisons populated by people from the southwest and vice versa. The same applies here. I don’t have the stats and may not want to make any conjectures at this point. But all I can say is that the system follows the law clearly on what should be done to any felon. Regardless of your race, you get prompt punishment. The popular refrain, ‘if you do the crime, you’ll do the time’ applies to everyone here. Texas is a no-nonsense state. The State of Texas has prisons that are well-secured. I can talk better about Texas prisons because I work here. When you visit the prisons, you have more checkpoints than normal and every prison in Texas is largely monitored both remotely and onsite. There are lots of gadgets to do this just as you have more than enough manpower in place physically too.
As the Coordinator for the United States chapter of the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International, Inc. (PREMI, USA), in charge of North and South America, what exactly is your role?
My role as the Coordinator of the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International (PREMI) in North and South America is to set up a volunteer committee carefully select the board of trustees, and register PREMI as a chapter. This adds to the international influence of PREMI because there is an active chapter of PREMI in the United Kingdom under the leadership of Reverend James Ademuyiwa. Today, the North and South America’s chapter of PREMI has eight other very experienced prison experts currently working in various Texas correctional facilities. They are Mr. Oliver Obi (MSW) (Correctional Officer at TDCJ/Education and Vocational Training), Mr. Ezekiel O. Laleye (Sergeant at TDCJ/Food Services), Dr. Johnson Olusanya (Nurse Practitioner/Medical Services at TDCJ), and Mr. Alfred Ekemezie (Agriculture/Supervisor at TDCJ). Others are Dr. Norbert Nkwelle (Captain at TDCJ/ Administration and Security), Sergeant Adebayo Quadri-Shitta (Alternate Captain at TDCJ/Food Service), and Sergeant Oki. Mr. Ayo Sopitan and Mr. Akin Akanni are free-world volunteers with several years of experience in business management and accounting respectively.
Could you expatiate on the mission of PREMI?
The Prison Rehabilitation Mission International wants to partner with the people and government of Nigeria and other African countries to reform the prison and penal systems by helping to add more vocational, academic, and life skills classes to every prison and transition facility, build PREMI Transition Village that will provide vocational training to released offenders in many trades. Released offenders will partake in the programmes and get paid. This will discourage recidivism. We will engage transitioning tenants in mechanized agriculture, installations and repair, hospitality programmes and academic training. We will produce, assemble, manufacture and provide services to the government and people of the country.
PREMI proposes to build the African Institute for Corrections for the purpose of training and developing correctional officers, conduct international workshops, lectures and seminars for correctional officers and Expo for released offenders. PREMI will build and operate the Centre for Behaviour Intervention for anger management, drug and alcohol addiction intervention, effective parenting, and domestic violence for all prisoners and the public. We want to partner with the government of Nigeria and other African countries to introduce standardized medical assistance to all prisoners and keep them and their environment healthy and clean.
PREMI will introduce effective parole and probation programmes to complement the amnesty programme in use for serving inmates and implement other programmes such as Mandatory Supervision, The Innocence Project, Second Chance, Bonding Programmes for Parents, and Mental Health and Mental Retardation Programme.
What is your perception of the management of correctional centres in Nigeria?
Prisons in Nigeria have not got it right all. I recall that the 2005 prison reform did not travel far before failing, and the change of name from prison to correctional facilities by President Muhammadu Buhari is not enough. PREMI has skilled volunteers working in Texas correctional facilities that effectively manage their departments at the units where they work. They are ready to help Nigeria and every country in Africa to implement the proposed reform.
If you compare prisons in America and the rest of African continent, do you think they’re ever going to get it right?
I deign to admit that prisons across the continent have the same malady, which is under-funding, inhuman treatment, poor living conditions and what have you. Most correctional institutions in Africa are not implementing the recommendations in the Doha Declaration, The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (The Nelson Mandela Rules), and the recommendations by the Amnesty International that state that prisoners are to be provided the opportunity to further their education and get trained in profitable vocation and academic classes, and that prisoners are entitled to working in the capacity that will not enslave or afflict them. The late nationalist and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, said that a person can know a nation when he visits their prisons and see how their prisoners are treated, not the affluent. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Article 5) states clearly that every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in human being and to the recognition of his legal status. These are not being religiously practiced in correctional institutions in Africa. To this end, I urge leaders of nations in Africa on the need to partner with the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International (PREMI) to reform and rehabilitate serving prisoners, and reintegrate and resettle released ex-offenders. As change is susceptible to hostility, PREMI assures every worker in correctional institution that any change we propose will not render a single correctional officer unemployed. That is, the change we propose will keep the job of every correctional officer and promote their job satisfaction. Besides, officers at State of Texas prison conduct international workshops, lectures and seminars for correctional officers and expo for released offenders. The change will give opportunities to correctional officers to eat freely in the units three times a day because prisoners can grow food and keep animals for food in abundance and for sale. The proceeds go into the coffer of the government and the correctional institutions as required. The reform will give opportunities to inmates to use modern mechanized agricultural equipment to farm and rear animals. This will help them to establish their own after release. For released offenders, these same training opportunities will exist in the proposed PREMI Village.
Will you be willing to speak about the national leadership of PREMI?
Certainly. First and foremost, I wish to say that I draw my inspiration and encouragement from God, His people and His creation. I think deeply every day and appreciate the love that Bishop Kayode Williams has for my family. It was a phone call in August of last year that connected us and since then, he had made me his son. My wife, Sijuwade, speaks highly of him daily and we all call him “Daddy”. We speak daily about the problems facing the correctional system, detainees, the unemployed youth, and the safety and security of African countries in the light of growing crimes every day and seek lasting solutions. Bishop Williams is the founder of the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International (PREMI). He is a constant voice that calls for the reform of the system of correction in Nigeria and other African countries. He gives me the needed inspiration to live a selfless life.
The work of General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, is also my source of inspiration. He lived for other people and when he died in 1912, his work lived on, and still lives on. PREMI is led by its life patron and former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the founder of the Afe Babalola University, Aare Afe Babalola, His Royal Majesty, Oba (Dr.) Adedapo Tejuoso, the Osile Oke Ona Egbaland, Retired Justice Seun Shogbola, and Dr. Hannah Adegbola, among others. It was founded by His Lordship, Bishop Kayode Williams. Since its foundation, our message has been constant and our mission is to overhaul the administration of correctional institutions in Nigeria and other African countries without necessarily losing any officer. We must reform the prison and rehabilitate every prisoner now because the next convict released from that prison may be your next-door neighbour and if nothing was done to rehabilitate him; he will be back in your community to wreak more havoc.
You must have a very busy schedule joggling different roles – being a life coach, student advisor, minister; you also have a bit of something for music.
Oh, yes I try to get by somehow but let me just say it’s God’s grace upon my life. It’s not by my own making really. I have gotten to a stage of my life now where all that matters to me is service to humanity and to God ultimately. The driving force for me as I said is God Almighty. When I minister in the church as Sunday School teacher, which is the Christ Apostolic church founded by the late Obadare, what is uppermost in mind is service to God. You know we’re nothing in the sight of God, but just vessels to propagate His cause. In my church, for instance, I’m also a member of the choir, where I play percussion instruments and drum sets. I write books too amongst other hobbies. I believe I’m serving my purpose and continue to hope on God for divine directions as He orders my steps in life.