Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt

A non-governmental organisation, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), has flayed plans by the Federal Government to build new 3,000-capacity prisons in each geo-political zone, saying the plan would not solve the problem of prison congestion in the country.

Addressing journalists in Port Harcourt on Saturday, the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria, Sylvester Uhaa, said building new prisons without addressing the root causes of the rising crime rate in the country would not solve the problem as the new prisons would soon be filled up with awaiting trial inmates.

“This will lead to prison expansion and mass incarceration in our country,” he said.

Uhaa noted that the nation’s prisons are characterised by prison overcrowding, poor feeding, inadequate access to healthcare, poor access to justice, and the prevailing dehumanising prison conditions in which prisoners live.

He averred that out of the 74,508 prisoners in Nigeria, 50,427 are awaiting trial, representing 67 per cent, making Nigeria the fifth country with the highest awaiting trial population in Africa, trailing Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Benin Republic.

He attributed the growing prison population to low investment in welfare spending and “the excessive and abusive use of pre-trial detention, which is also one of the biggest forms of human rights violations in Nigeria that is often ignored”.

He stated that research indicates that there is a direct relationship between welfare spending and imprisonment, adding that countries that spend more of their GDP on welfare like Denmark, Sweden and Finland have lower prison rates than those who spend less on welfare.

Giving statistics on the state of prisons in the country, Uhaa said, “The Medium Security Prison in Lagos, built for 1700 inmates is locking 3,798, out of which 3,150 are awaiting trial, only 648 are convicted. Ikoyi Prison, built for 800 is locking 2,845, only 515 are convicted; 2,330 are awaiting trial. The situation is the same in Enugu Prison. Built for 1,947, the facility is locking 2,123. 1,793 out of this number are awaiting trial; only 196 are convicted.

“Port Harcourt Prison, built for 804 is locking 4,151, out of which 3,694 are awaiting trial. Only 457 are convicted. Owerri Prison built for 548 is locking 2,307, with awaiting trial population of 2,114, only 193 are convicted. Kaduna prison with an official capacity of 547 is locking 1,579, with an awaiting trial population of 1,014; only 99 are convicted. Kano Central Prison with the capacity of 750 is locking 2,138. 1,418 are awaiting trial, only 102 are convicted. Katsina Prison, built for 237 is locking 1,235. Out of this number, only 234 are convicted; 1,001 are awaiting trial.”

He expressed regret that although the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, after all other basic principles of fair hearing and access to justice have been met is well established in international, regional and national laws and human rights instruments, pre-trial detention remains rampant, “making it the most overlooked human rights violation in Nigeria and the most common crime against the poor by those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to protect and defend the rights and dignity of all Nigerians, both rich and poor”.

“As I speak with you over 50,000 people, some of whom are innocent of the alleged offences are languishing in our prisons, some for more than 10 years. This number does not include the thousands of undocumented people in police cells and other detention facilities around the country,” he said.

He stated: “Reducing the number of pre-trial detainees will resolve prison overcrowding, limit the spread of diseases, reduce poverty, and spur development. The present cohort of over 50,000 pre-trial detainees is a terrible waste of human potential that comes at a considerable cost to a country like Nigeria that is struggling to provide access to education, health, water, housing for its population, pay its work force, and improve basic infrastructure. The money used to feed innocent people in prison can be used to renovate our schools, pay pensions and provide electricity.”

He also stated that it is urgent to address the chronic problem of pre-trial detention because it predominantly and disproportionally affects the poor, economically and politically marginalised people, who are powerless and lack the money to hire a lawyer, procure bail or pay a bribe and lack the social and political connections and influence that can facilitate pre-trial release.

“This is why we are calling on the Federal and State governments to take immediate steps to ensure the release of people who are illegally and innocently held in prison and detention centres throughout the country, and to take every step to ensure that prisons are used only as a last resort,” he posited.

Ukaa also called on the National Assembly to remove prisons from the Exclusive list so that states would take more interest in the condition of prisons located in their domain since most of the inmates are indigenous to the host states of its neighbours.

He also lamented that despite the approval for the purchase of over 300 vehicles for the NPS, the problem of inadequate vehicles to take inmates to courts remains unsolved, severely hampering access to justice and resulting to damaging reports that inmates are made to pay money to prison officials in order to be taken to courts.

According to him, Enugu Prison with inmate population of 2,336, serving 95 courts has only one big Black Maria, three Green Maria, one Hilux and one Ambulance; Nsukka Prison with an inmate population of 297, serving 38 courts has one Hilux and one old Black Maria; while Oji River Prison with an inmate population of 1,208 and serves seven courts has one vehicle.

“The situation is the same in Lagos. Ikoyi Prison which is currently locking 2, 888 and serves over 70 courts has only four vehicles. Medium Security Prison in Lagos serves about 70 courts and has only four functional vehicles. Maximum Security Prison covers 30 courts and has only four vehicles. Port Harcourt Prison with the inmate population of over 4,155 and serves over 70 courts also has only four vehicles while Ahoada Prison serving many local governments has one functional vehicle and Degema, serving 40 courts also has one functional vehicle.”

He therefore called on the Federal Government to urgently address the severe inadequacy of Black Marias for inmates’ transportation to and from courts.

“Also, we call on the State Governments to support the efforts of the Federal Government by donating Black Marias to prisons in their States. A situation where Governors donate hundreds of vehicles to the Police and none to the NPS even when the prisons in their states are unable to take inmates must not be allowed to continue,” he said.