Nigerian Prisons: Death Traps or Reform Centres?

13 May 2012

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Comptroller General of Prisons, Zakari Ibrahim

Prisons in Nigeria are dehumanising. Olaolu Olusina, with additional reports from Davidson Iriekpen and Chiemele Ezeobi, examine the state of the nation’s prisons as well as the various attempts at reforms, concluding that a massive overhaul is required to transform the prisons in the country to correctional facilities which they are really meant to be

Former Minister for Interior, Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho, is undoubtedly a tough merchant marine professional who still cherishes his training, although he is now retired. But Iheanacho who had been trained not to succumb to his emotions was to buckle while on a visit to Kuje Prison, Abuja, sometime last year, as he expressed shock at what he saw.

Confronted by one of the inmates who had summoned courage and told him that some of his colleagues had been awaiting trial for over 10 years, blaming their woes on the country’s judicial system and the tough conditions required for bail, Iheanacho, who was touched by the plight of the prisoners, was left with no choice than to apologise to them on behalf of the federal government.

He also promised to liaise with the Ministry of Justice to find a lasting solution to the congestion, assuring that before his tenure ends, the issue of overcrowding in Nigerian prisons would have become history.

Members of the Senate Committee on Interior, who also embarked on a tour of prisons in the country recently, were shocked by what they saw as they decried the dilapidation of the prisons, concluding they were no longer fit for human habitation. In its annual report to the Senate, The committee said that “a majority of the cells leak during the rains and the perimeter walls and some cells have, in some cases, collapsed.”

The report, signed by the chairman of the committee, Senator Olalekan Mustapha, noted, “In many of the prisons visited, the committee was moved by the plight of the inmates,” adding, “ many of the cells meant to accommodate about 50 inmates were found to accommodate about 150 inmates, all cramped together.”

Prisons as Correctional Centres

Prisons all over the world are set up by law to provide restraint and custody of individuals accused or convicted for crimes by the state. In Nigeria, like every other place, the prison system dates back to the colonial era and is modelled after the British system. It is a system that lays emphasis on punishment and deterrence.

All prisons in Nigeria are managed by the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), a parastastal under the Ministry of Interior, headed by a Comptroller General of Prisons, Zakari Ibrahim, who presides over the administration of all prison facilities including regular prisons, special penal institutions and lock-up centres. At inception, however, the NPS was a department under the Ministry of Internal Affairs headed by a director who oversaw all facilities of the service but was assisted by chief superintendents, superintendents and assistant superintendents. The NPS is also an important arm of the criminal justice system solely charged with the responsibility of taking into custody all those who have been interred to correct them for eventual release and to help integrate them back into the society.

Its operational powers, which was derived from CAP 366 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, charges the prisons, among other things, to take into lawful custody all those certified to be so kept by courts of competent jurisdiction; produce suspects in courts as and when due; identify the causes of  anti-social behaviour; set in motion mechanisms for their treatment; train inmates for eventual reintegration into society as normal law abiding citizens on discharge; administer prisons farms and industries for this purpose; and in the process generate revenue for the government.

The Lagos State Command of the NPS currently headed by Mr. Ebenezer Abayomi Oguntuase, for example, has five prisons, which boasts the highest number managed by any command in the country. They are the Kirikiri Maximum and Medium Prisons for males and females; the Ikoyi Maximum and Medium Prisons as well as the Badagry Prison. Some of these prisons, THISDAY gathered, have mechanised farm centres and skills acquisition centres, amongst others.

The noble goal of the prisons service is to reform those who pass through the prison gates and also to protect the society from convicted felons. It also has a duty to keep in safe custody persons legally sentenced to jail and identify the causes of their inherent anti-social behaviour, and treat and reform them to become law-abiding citizens. The prison also has the responsibility to train inmates in trades that will make them useful to themselves and the society at large.

Amnesty Report on Prisons

But many observers have argued that these objectives are not being met. They contend that instead of reforming inmates, the prisons system is hardening them and subjecting them to horrible, degrading conditions and punishment, sometimes exceeding the crimes committed, in the process, rendering inmates physically and psychologically damaged, unwanted, unloved and abandoned in an uncaring environment.

In fact, according to a recent report by Amnesty International, more than three of every five prison inmates in Nigeria have not been convicted of any offence; instead, they wait years for their trial in appalling conditions. This fact was corroborated by the immediate past Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), Mr. Olusola Ogundipe, while testifying during a public hearing on the proposed prisons amendment bill before the Senate Committee on Interior.

Ogundipe revealed that pre-trial detainees now constitute about 80 per cent of the prison population. Most of them, according to him, are held for minor offences, for which bail is available. He added that for many of the detainees, there are no case files.

The NPS has been riddled with the ever increasing number of Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs) which, according to report, is put at 30,000 persons, representing over 65 per cent of the estimated prisoners population of 46,000. As in virtually all the prisons in the state, the challenge of awaiting trial persons is one too many. From Ikoyi prison through Kirikiri to Badagry prisons, the challenge has been the same. It has not only overstretched the facilities to breaking point, it is also a contributing factor to prison breaks nationwide. For instance, from genuine cases of major crime to minor misdemeanours such as of petty theft and environmental issues, the number of persons awaiting trial at the Lagos prisons alone is indeed astronomical.
While many observers maintain that cases of unconvicted felons make managing the prisons unbearable, others add that it goes against the gains of the much touted reform policy of the NPS, a view Prison Public Relations Officer, Lagos State Command, Chief Superintendent of Prison, Chuks Njoku, refuted and dismissed as off the mark.

Again, many also argue that the prevalence of ATPs is an anomaly which at best frustrates crime prevention and control as they are mixed up with the convicts who might end up influencing them for good into becoming hardened criminals. This position stems from the fact that one might go into the prison for an environmental offence and after months, maybe years of being on the awaiting trial list, might come out as a hardened criminal who takes to crime as water to fish.

On the challenges posed by inmates awaiting trail, Njoku said, “We only keep those awaiting trial and produce them on their court days. We only keep them in prison pending when their case will be determined and we can’t keep them without providing for them. So through the welfare and legal unit, they are taken to court and depending on the judgement, training starts because it is easier to train one that has been convicted.

“In accordance with the criminal justice system, the police arrest convicts and take them for prosecution at the courts. The courts may then convict them with jail sentences. But in 2002, the awaiting trial inmates were put under the jurisdiction of the prisons to provide them for the court as and when due.”

In addition to thousands of cases awaiting trial are the deplorable conditions of the prisons which has become worrisome over the years with no serious attempt being made by successive governments to improve the plight of detainees and other inmates in the nation’s prisons. This has cast doubts over whatever claims of successes that are touted by the prison authorities through the reform agenda and reintegration programme.

Records show that the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos, for instance, is overcrowded by 250 per cent. The prison, which was built for 956 inmates, is, today occupied by over 2,600 inmates. Most of these inmates are awaiting trial.

Prisons overcrowding is, without doubt, a major concern of the Nigerian criminal justice system hence the agitation to decongest them. Remand prisoners account for a substantial number leading to congestion, as a greater part of awaiting trial detainees in the nation’s prisons are held under the holding charge and many have spent up to 10 years waiting to be tried.

Reports obtained by THISDAY further revealed that the total prison population in the country is 46,000, out of which some 30,000 are awaiting trial and more than 800 are on death row, including women and juveniles. Only very few of the inmates, according to the report, can afford a lawyer, while the government funded Legal Aid Council has inadequate lawyers who can effectively provide the needed legal assistance to the inmates.
Many experts have argued that one of the reasons for prison congestion is the reckless disregard of Section 35 of the 1999 Constitution and the indiscretion of judges and magistrates handling some of the offences. While the section states that “a person shall be tried within two months from the date of his detention,” judges and magistrates most often give stringent bail conditions on some minor criminal offences.

Correctional Agenda

However, THISDAY was told that at inception, the NPS had mapped out three cardinal points as the hallmark of its agenda as a correctional centre, namely, inmates training, infrastructure development and staff training and re-training.  Speaking to THISDAY in his office at Alagbon, Lagos, Njoku, who also doubles as the command’s legal counsel, said the current administration was living up to its cardinal reform agenda, which according to him, incorporates inmates training, rehabilitation and re-integration, infrastructure development and staff training and re-training.

According to him, the prison service has been charged with keeping in custody deviants and correcting them for eventual release as well as helping their integration back into the society. He said with these cardinal objectives in mind, a goal was set up on how to achieve correction, rehabilitation and re-integration because ordinarily, the inmates are deviants who deviated from the rules and regulations guiding the society before being incarcerated.

He noted that after their period of incarceration, those discharged are not expected to return to the society the same way they came in. “We are burdened with the need to see that they fit into normal life after their sentences. So what we do is, immediately they come into prison, as a reform agenda, we conduct the preliminary investigation to find out at what point they deviated, as this helps us plan a regime of correction for them.
“Part of this regime is engaging them in works like skills acquisition. For this purpose, we have carpentry workshops, soap making machines, salons, welding and tailoring sections, among others. So whatever you want to learn, we detail you to the workshop,” he told THISDAY in an interview.

While admitting that some of the prisoners might not have a flair for either skills acquisition or formal education but would rather focus on the arts, Njoku said the prison authorities had to invite Nollywood actress, Stella Damasus, to come to the prison to lecture the inmates in this area. Buoyed by the raw talents she saw in the prisons, THISDAY learnt that Damasus agreed to continually contribute her quota when needed. Accordingly, she promised the prisoners that they have her support once they leave the prison and also promised to help them practice what they learnt in the make-belief world of movies.

On what determines the field each prisoner veers into, Njoku said the first step whenever a convicted prisoner is sent to the prisons is to find out where their interest lies. Njoku said this method has helped the authorities not to push inmates into areas where they have no flair. According to him, “If someone has the flair for acting and you push him to carpentry, at the end of his training, you set up a shop for him, but he will run it down and might still go back to crime.”
Those that crave formal education are not left out of the correctional programmes either. “We send them to schools too like at the Ikoyi Medium and Maximum Prisons, we have a partnership with government universities through the Onesimus Project and Open University and many of them attend the university and are trained. For instance, in Kaduna, the prisoners are allowed to write the General Certificate Examination and are allowed to attend university. We have teachers to help out and we also partner with non-governmental organisations that come in to teach because at inception, we take cognisance of those with skills and they are groomed,” he disclosed further.

Reintegration Programme

One of the cardinal reform programmes of the prisons is re-integration of inmates back into the society after serving their jail terms. Having taken cognisance of the difficulties and uncertainties faced by inmates on discharge, Njoku said the prison service has programmes to help ease them back into the society as reformed citizens. Again, the question is if the regime is followed judiciously and not done haphazardly? 

To this, the spokesman said the prison After Care Service has recorded successes that have helped keep discharged persons on the straight path instead of going back to a life of crime. He said: “On discharge, we have the ‘After Care Services’ whose duty is to follow up the discharged persons.

“For example, we get a shop for them and make sure they are functioning in their given skills. But before this, assuming an inmate was incarcerated for five years and has served for three years, he will write the ‘Trade Test’ through the Ministry of Labour and Productivity and they will give him a test from grade one to three, in accordance with the number of years the inmate has spent in prison. The test is to help him prove his/her mettle outside prison.

“The aftercare officers will then follow up, because by then, we must have paid for the shop and equipped it. The reason for imbibing skills acquisition in them is not to make money for government even though we pay revenue, but to help ease them back into the system. Essentially, this is what we mean by reform and rehabilitation before re-integrating them back into the society.”

When asked if the settlement and set up of the discharged prisoners was done primarily from government funds, he answered in the affirmative. According to him, the funding comes basically from the government and has sustained the programme so far. He, however, added that some NGOs have responded in part with equipment and materials to assist in setting up the discharged prisoners. He noted that some organisations too were not left out in providing assistance to the discharged prisoners, as they absorb them into their companies without any discrimination whatsoever.
Major Challenges

Despite Njoku’s spirited defence of the NPS, it is widely acknowledged that the Nigerian prison system has been bogged down by considerable challenges and funding has always posed a major challenge for the service. Njoku, attested to this, saying the challenge has always been how to fund the reforms of the current administration.

“Like my Controller-General has always said, we need a lot of money to achieve the reform agenda because it involves infrastructure development, training and re-training. We need the assistance of NGOs and institutions to partner with the NPS. The NPS is the major engine of security because even if other security agencies arrest criminals, they are better than the ones that have not been arrested.

Decongesting the Prisons

The growing call for the decongestion of the prisons and reform of the entire system may have informed the decision to inaugurate yet another prison decongestion committee by the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke on assumption of office in 2010.

A statement issued by the AGF’s media aide, Mr. Onyema Omenuwa, said the minister was particularly bothered by the controversies that have dogged the programme since it was introduced in 2005 and as such, upon assuming office, resolved to immediately set the necessary machinery in motion to reform the programme.

Omenuwa said considering that the anomalies the programme was set up to address were yet to be eliminated, the committee would create a synergy between the ministry and other stakeholders for a more coordinated approach towards ensuring the success of the programme. The nine-member committee is headed by the Solicitor-General/Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Alhaji Abdulahi A. Yola. 

Omenuwa explained that the AGF’s action was informed by his determination to “aggressively and purposefully deal with, without exception, every component of the justice administration process, and enthrone holistic reforms that will be a positive legacy in the ministry. The programme, which seeks to address one of the major causes of the congestion of prisons, such as lack of legal representation for indigent, accused persons by engaging a large number of private legal practitioners (over 3,000 solicitors) to undertake the defence of such persons in courts across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), has unfortunately not been attained owing to policy inconsistency and continuity

THISDAY reliably gathered that as at December 2009, of the 47,956 cases farmed out, a total of 11,833 cases had been completed and 7,711 accused persons granted bail, while 28,412 cases were still pending before the various courts in the country.

Faulting the Reforms

However, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law University of Jos, Professor Nnamdi Aduba, disagreed with Njoku’s perspective that the reforms have been effective. In a paper presentation, he said Nigerian prisons are characterised by overcrowding, poor staff morale, inadequate funding, need for new rights for prisoners, right to food, clean environment and human dignity and need for other alternatives to imprisonment. Aduba maintained that as laudable as the cardinal objectives of the NPS reform agenda are, they were far from the reality on the ground.

“The philosophy of the Nigerian Prison Service is that treatment and rehabilitation of offenders can be achieved through carefully designed and well-articulated administrative, reformative and rehabilitative programmes aimed at inculcating discipline, respect for law and order, and regard for the dignity of honest labour. Judged by the visits and inspection of the various prisons during the duration of the reform exercise, it is very clear that the objectives, impressive as they are, were far from being realised,” he stated.

According to him, it was beyond doubt that when more than 60 per cent of the total prison admissions were awaiting trial, an indication that the administration of criminal justice must be faulty. “It is also clear that imprisonment has been overused as a means of punishment. Consequently, there is need for other alternatives to imprisonment,” he said.
Observers have also wondered what the previous committees set up by successive AGFs, from Chief Akin Olujimi, to Bayo Ojo and Michael Aondoakaa achieved with the different committees they set up during their tenure. They said that instead of proposing reforms for the administration of justice and addressing the root causes of the problem, they used to dispense favours to their friends and cronies.

One observer who spoke to THISDAY but asked not to be named, revealed that the enormous resources expended in past prison decongestion programmes should be investigated and the culprits brought to book. He expressed surprise that some people were benefiting from keeping awaiting trial victims in jail indefinitely only to reap from problem by setting up endless committees.

He submitted that the country’s correctional facilities would not live up to their name if policy makers kept playing politics with prison reform or showed more interest in the money they make out of the process. According to him, “That prison decongestion has been corrupted is no longer in doubt; it has become a way of settling friends and political associates to the detriment of the prisons. We are all eye witnesses to the bogus and meaningless decongestion exercise of Chief Bayo Ojo, which was further worsened by his successor in office, Aondoakaa.

“In spite of the whopping sum put into that programme, the money ended up in the pockets of friends and political associates with no job done. Some who got part of the largesse pretended to be doing prison decongestion projects without any aim or purpose. The enormous resources used in past prison decongestion programmes must be investigated and the culprits brought to book and punished. The time to put an end to politics of prison decongestion is now.”

Investigation by THISDAY revealed that prison decongestion was one avenue through which former ministers used to dish out patronage. To comply with international charters on human rights, the federal government periodically decongests the prisons of persons who are believed to have been wrongly detained or whose offences did not warrant the prison sentences they received. About N100,000 is often paid per prisoner by the ministry to lawyers as legal fees.

The practice, THISDAY further gathered, is for ministry officials to commission relations, girlfriends, market women, petty traders and sundry contractors to “decongest prisons”. They are often paid huge commissions in return. Nigerians are still awaiting the ‘magic’ that the Adoke committee will perform.

The Way Forward

Opinions differ on the way forward. Njoku said one sure way to decongest the prisons is by adopting the alternative to imprisonment, which includes community sentencing and supervision. However laudable the initiative may be, there is a major impediment to its implementation, as the alternative is not part of the prison programme because it has no legal backing.

However, making reference to the Zimbabwe case study which practices community involvement in sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment, Njoku called on government to expedite action. “Ours is to bring the report (bill) to the government and see how they can make it a law because we bear the weight of the system. This is not in our laws yet and it should be made a law so that it can be implemented,” he advised. The Lagos State Government, nonetheless, has already introduced a community service programme as punishment for environmental offences as a way of reducing the congestion in its prisons.

Aduba further urged the government to see the need to champion prisoners' rights in its totality, including the right to decent food, a hygienic and healthy environment with good toilet facilities, as well as access to medical facilities.  “There should be a right to sleep on a mattress. A situation where inmates sleep in turns on the bare floor is cruel. Crowding of inmates like sardines and animals meant for slaughter is a disgrace to humanity. There should be a right to medical services. Incarceration should not be a route to the death chamber. Prisoners should have a right not to be assaulted by either fellow inmates or prison officers.

“The point must be made that time has come when our government should be made to realise that confinement in prison is in itself a punishment, inflicting further punishment by way of in-human conditions in penal institutions is cruel, especially when it is realised that keeping  these inmates are expensive in terms of cost. The side effects are devastating, so a conscious effort should be made to enact acceptable alternatives like suspended, and partly, suspended sentences, community service orders, and the generous use of a parole system, especially for non-violent offenders,” he said.

On his part, NPS’ Public Relations Officer, Mr. Kayode Odeyemi, said recently that the most viable way of decongesting the prisons across the country was for the criminal justice system to speed up the prosecution of inmates, as congestion can be blamed largely on inmates awaiting trial. He observed that the problem of congestion in Nigerian prisons can only be tackled if the Federal Ministry of Justice as well as other security agencies sped up the prosecution of such persons, so that the efforts of the prison service can be realised with respect to decongestion and as correctional facilities.

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