As national elections quickly approach, the contesting candidates have laid out their policy plans for Nigeria. Many of them cover the fundamental issues the country faces, but none address prison reform; an integral part of Nigeria's looming security crisis.
Sometime in August 2018, the image of Jones Abiri, a Bayelsa journalist who was imprisoned for his alleged involvement with a militant group flooded social media timelines. The images of Abiri before he was jailed and upon release were extremely disturbing, yet they perfectly captured what Nigerian prisons do to inmates. It seems to break them; defeating the purpose of prisons as a corrective facility.
Ideally, prisons are supposed to reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into society, but it is difficult to accomplish this goal in Nigeria, because most, if not all prison facilities are in a dilapidated state with little to no concern for the welfare of inmates.
When Justice is Not Served
Crowded, condemned and unsanitary. These are a few words that describe the deplorable state of many Nigerian prisons today. Based on past incidents, including Boko Haram kidnappings, many believe the Nigerian government places little value on the life of its citizens. One could use the condition of prisons nationwide as further evidence.
The government is very much aware of the situation. In a visit to Port Harcourt prison in 2018, Vice President Osinbajo expressed "There was no room for prisoners, and anybody who goes into that place as a human being is coming out as an animal".
According to the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS), out of 75,772 inmates, 51,384 are awaiting trial. They further revealed that most of these Awaiting Trial Persons cases (ATPs) were delayed indefinitely. In fact, some of the prisoners were not even aware of their case status in court, leaving them behind bars to an unknown fate. For those whose cases managed to get through, conditions for bail were strict and difficult to meet.
Most prisons in Nigeria were built during the colonial era, and very little has changed since then. Over 150 inmates inhabit several cells that were designed to accommodate about 50 people. For instance, Nigeria's biggest prison, Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison located in Lagos, was initially constructed for 956 inmates is now occupied by 3,000 prisoners. These prisons are also understaffed; posing a security risk to wardens. With the imbalance in the prisoner to warden ratio, it is no surprise that several successful prison break attempts have been made in the past few years.
More people also means more mouths to feed. The Comptroller-General of the NPS, Ahmed Ja’afaru, complained that the ₦17 billion allocated for inmate feeding was highly insufficient. He identified that the measly sum of ₦450 was being spent on each prisoner; approximately $1.24 per day.
A former inmate narrated his experience in Enugu prison, "Our little cell rooms measured about seven feet by eight feet. We would bathe, sleep, eat, defecate, piss, play and pray in there. For us, it was our entire world", he told Amnesty International. As a result of being forced to live in such dehumanising conditions, most of these prisoners damage their physical and mental wellbeing; it has even cost some of them their lives. In 2016, 32 inmates died in a Lagos prison due to the poor living conditions they were subjected to.
A dysfunctional prison system is not only a severe violation of human rights but a ticking time bomb if not urgently addressed. The poor administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, unethical activities and unlawful arrest by the Nigeria Police force have led to a surge in inmates which has fed into the harsh conditions visible in prisons across the country today. The current penal system is failing to rehabilitate inmates; instead, it is hardening already hardened criminals and breeding frustrated individuals. Today's prisoners are potentially tomorrow's criminals.
All things considered, it is clear that Nigeria's prison system desperately yearns for a reform. Now, the Federal Government has already made promises to build six ultra-modern prisons nationwide. While this is a necessary step forward, focus should also be on the provision of legal and administrative frameworks to guarantee that every inmate is given a fair trial to decongest overcrowded prisons. Next, the Nigerian government needs to ensure that the judicial system is fit for purpose, to prevent unnecessary and unjust arrests in the first place. In this case, prevention is surely better than cure. Prison reform has significant implications for development and should be considered a national priority. At the end of the day, most of these prisoners are still citizens of Nigeria, and the government needs to take full responsibility for their welfare.
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