Imprisonment in Nigeria: A Fate Worse than Death

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Death Penalty

On February 14th, 2017, we featured Olawale Fapohunda and Chino Obiagwu, who are against the death penalty generally, and the Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Adeniji Kazeem, on the issue of the new Lagos State Anti- Kidnapping Law and its provision for the death penalty for kidnappers whose victims die in the course of the kidnap.

While Lagos State found it necessary to ‘up the ante’ and impose the death penalty with the increase in the rate of kidnapping, Olawale Fapohunda and Chino Obiagwu felt that apprehending the culprits with the fear of punishment, would be a far more effective deterrent to kidnapping, especially as the imposition of the death penalty has not stopped other crimes like armed robbery, for example.

While I agree with Lagos State and the imposition of the death penalty by the Anti- Kidnapping Law, I also agree that the fear of apprehension and punishment is an effective deterrent. However, I see things a bit differently.

Antanimora Prison, Madagascar

I was watching a program on the Crime Channel last week; a program that features the worst and toughest prisons in the world. That day, Antanimora Prison in Madagascar, Eastern Africa was the focus. It is purportedly one of the toughest and worst prisons in the world; overcrowding, unimaginable filth, no running water, disease, epidemics, rape, hunger, lack of access to legal advice and representation due to abject poverty, and so on are prevalent there.

Madagascar itself is apparently a very poor country, so you can imagine the condition of the prison, or rather, you probably cannot or would not want to imagine it. Horrid, deplorable, disgusting, abhorrent, shocking, hellish, to mention a few synonyms that describe the place.

Nigerian Prisons

Guess what? Looking at the place reminded me so much of the inside of a Nigerian prison. Antanimora Prison bore such strong similarities to the Nigerian prisons. I thought to myself, given the choice of life imprisonment in any of our Nigerian prison facilities and the death penalty, I would probably opt for the death penalty! Being in a Nigerian prison to me, seems like a fate worse than death. I decided that by imposing the death penalty, Lagos State is letting these kidnapping criminals off the hook rather easily. They would certainly face untold hardship and unimaginable pain and suffering, if they had to serve a life sentence in any Nigerian prison.

Government needs to undertake some prison reform, sharply! I’m not saying that prison should be transformed into a five-star hotel, but people should not be treated worse than animals, especially as so many occupants of the prisons are not convicted criminals, but are awaiting trial; some of them may even have been randomly arrested for crimes as ridiculous as ‘wandering’, and because they cannot afford legal representation or to bribe their way out, they just end up languishing in prison. There was a 75 year old man in Antanimora. He said he had been in prison for 38 years and he had never seen a lawyer, talk less of being taken to court!

Antanimora is legendary like Nigerian prisons, for overcrowding. Originally built to house 800 inmates, it has about 3,000 occupants. Just like Ikoyi Prison that was built with a capacity for 800 prisoners, but houses 2,239 and Port Harcourt Prison with a capacity for 804 but houses a whopping 3,593. People sleep on their sides, almost on top of each other, an arrangement that looks just like a mass grave.

Vile Conditions in Nigerian Prisons are Inhumane

Unlike Olawale Fapohunda, Chino Obiagwu and the learned Senior Advocate, Femi Falana, who believe that the death penalty is inhumane and unconstitutional, I am probably using the same constitutional provisions that they are relying on, but in my own case, to say that I believe that incarcerating people under such vile conditions is also inhumane and contrary to Sections 17(2)(c) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2010)(1999 Constitution) which provides that “government actions shall be humane” and 34(1)(a)which provides that “no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Apart from the gross overcrowding in our prisons, there is a high level of filth, lack of hygiene and disease. In my days as a young lawyer in the very early 90’s, I remember conducting several criminal cases, one of which involved two young men that were arrested for examination malpractice and were facing 21 years imprisonment. They had to be interviewed, and as the ‘baby lawyer’ in the chambers at the time, the burden of going to Ikoyi Prison to conduct the interview, naturally fell on me.

My Two Clients

When my two clients were brought out to meet with me in some dirty kind of visitors’ room, I was shocked at how bad their condition was. They were already quite ill from their short stay in prison. There had also been an outbreak of scabies, a skin infestation, where tiny mites get inside the skin and lay eggs there. The outward manifestation of the skin condition is a terrible rash and relentless itching. Antanimora Prison also has that type of thing. Lice, mites, rats etc; sometimes epidemics like the plague, also break out in Antanimora.

Of course, the boys had contacted scabies. To make matters worse, one of them also had jaundice too. I was practically sitting on the edge of what I thought was a somewhat suspect chair, when they came in. When they started scratching their bodies furiously, I had to ask them “ki lon se yin ti en hora be?” (“what’s wrong with you that you are scratching your bodies like that?”). When they informed me of their skin condition, I flew off the edge of the chair that I was sitting on. Throughout the duration of the interview, I prayed that I would not be infected with scabies. They had not been given any medical care per se. As soon as I finished conducting the interview, instead of going back to the office to write my report, I ran straight home to disinfect my clothes, bath in dettol and change.

I was able to win their case, but sadly, the pressure of the deplorable prison conditions was simply too much for one of the boys to bear. He died before he could enjoy the fruits of his victory. Today, the prison conditions which were already terrible then, have deteriorated even further to unimaginable depths.

Some Proposals for Prison Reform

In our January 3rd, 2017 edition, Olawale Fapohunda and I, in our piece “2017: Administration of Justice Options for Buhari Government” made some proposals for Prison Reform. For instance, the establishment of a separate Prisons Service Commission to take over from the combined Immigration, Prisons Service and Civil Defence Board, appointment of a Chief Visitor of Prisons to conduct regular inspections of all prison facilities in Nigeria and see to the complaints of prison staff and prisoners, address the issue of the poor prison conditions, decongestion of prisons with emphasis on those that are awaiting trial and access to legal advice and representation for them, employment of more prison staff, review of the laws like the 1972 Prison Act, and provision of adequate medical care for inmates, among several other proposals.

Government needs to heed to our advice as regards Prison Reform.