Inside Nigeria’s Prisons

Caleb OlumhenseMANY of us do not think about the Nigerian prison, let alone about what may be called our “prison system”.

Well, it is time. Here is a link to the website of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), and another to a table on our prisons and their capacity.

The Nigerian prison system, perhaps like our criminal justice system, is in some kind of political time warp. There are no State institutions; only the federation operates prisons.

According to the NPS, as of October 2014 there were 240 prisons nationwide; 155 of them (mostly in the South), are “convict prisons” of the “maximum” or “medium” configuration.

The other category, the “satellite prisons”, is described as “intermediate prison camps set up mainly in areas with courts that are far from the main prisons.” Most of those are in the Northern part of the country, and they sometimes have capacity only for 20-50 persons.

And now it gets really interesting.

According to the statistics published by the NPS, while Nigeria’s prisons have a capacity to hold 50,153 persons, as of last October they were holding 57,121.

That is, they were holding nearly 7,000 more men and women than they have room for. What does that mean?

I can understand inmates having to take their meals or showers at different times so that the facilities can accommodate everyone, but do they also share beds and stagger sleeping times? Do some of them sleep in corners and hallways and courtyards? Do they send surplus men to women’s prisons, or women into juvenile facilities?

There are further many fascinating questions in the prison statistics. Bayelsa and Ekiti, for instance, each has only one prison; followed by Abia, Imo, Oyo, Osun, Ebonyi and Benue which have two or three apiece.

And then there are States such as Bauchi, Cross River, Katsina, Kebbi, Jigawa, Kano and Taraba, which have between 10 and 13 each. Borno, Kaduna and Yobe have 15 each.

The national champion is Adamawa, which has 17 (just one fewer than Bayelsa, Ekiti, Ebonyi, Osun, Oyo, Benue, Imo and Abia combined).

The following are our biggest jails in terms of capacity: New MSP Abeokuta (600); Enugu (638); New Maiduguri (680); Ikoyi (800); Port Harcourt (804); Gboko (810); Gusau (832); Yobe MSP Potiskum (832); Lagos Kirikiri Maximum (1056); Jos (1150), (New) Benin (1216); Maiduguri (1600); and Lagos Kirikiri Medium Security (1700).

Of some kind of honourable mention in this category (over 500) are: Aba (500); Bauchi (500); Yola (500); Abeokuta (502); Okigwe (540); Kaduna (548); Owerri (548); Sokoto (576); Goron Dutse, Kano (600); Uyo (614); and Kano Central (690).

Of the exclusively female prisons, there is a 211-person facility in Lagos, and an 80-person facility in Ondo. There are 1156 female prisoners nationwide, 29 of them on death row; while nine women are serving life sentences.

There are three borstal or juvenile prisons, with total capacity of 447: Ogun (39); Kaduna (208) and Kwara (200).

It is of great interest that of the over 57,000 jam-packed into our 50,000 slots, nearly 70% (39,577) are un-convicted. In other words, only one-third of the prison population of Nigeria (17,544) actually comprises persons who have been convicted by a court of law, competent or even incompetent.

It is with those 17,544 persons that the other innocent-until-proven-guilty 39,577 must compete for air. Food. Bed. Space. Bed bugs. Mosquitoes.

A few decades ago, I met a man who had spent a few weeks in Kirikiri Medium. His skin looked as if it had undergone systematic and sustained abuse. Actually, it had: by mosquitoes, he told me. After he ran afoul of a powerful client, he was simply seized off the street and tossed into a special section in Kirikiri, which “belonged” to specially-raised mosquitoes, he told me.

There are many reasons to fear Nigerian prisons, but the most petrified of them is the Nigerian political elite. In general, they think so poorly of prisoners they believe anyone in prison deserves the dehumanising conditions there, including overcrowding.

Some Nigerians would recall a story told in 2014 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo about the then Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio. Reacting to the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Akpabio, who is now a Senator, confessed to the putrid performance of governments of the PDP as they faced an uncertain journey to the polls:

“We have messed up,” he pleaded with Obasanjo, whose help he sought, “Please (don’t abandon us). For me, I don’t want to go to jail and my children are too young…”

Akpabio returned to the same theme during the launching of the re- election bid of President Jonathan at the Tafawa Belewa Square in Lagos: “We cannot afford to hand-over power to those who will send us to prison…”

But nobody captured the palpable reality of imprisonment during the period more eloquently than First Lady Patience Jonathan, whose campaign theme was, “my husband must stay eight years in office.” Campaigning in Ekiti State in March, just a few weeks to the presidential election, she urged her listeners not to vote for the All Progressives Congress (APC), as doing so could land them in prison.

Probably clairvoyant, Mrs. Jonathan begged voters: “I’m not ready to carry food to my husband inside prison oh!”

You know that things are really bad when an irresponsible oligarchy begins to express fear in public about being sent to prison on the basis of its own atrocious record. What would make the fear of Nigerian prisons more frightening in the near future is the possibility of prisoner-exchange between Nigeria and some foreign countries, notably the United Kingdom.

Nigerians might recall that at the National Conference in 2014, it was disclosed that there are over 16,300 Nigerians in jail abroad just for drug-related offences; that number included 3,719 Nigerian women in Canada alone.

It would be eye-opening to learn our worldwide statistics, but what a glorious day it would be if we could have all of them repatriated over the next one year to serve their sentences at home, where their relatives could take food to them.

Think about it: with a little luck, we could double the population of these overcrowded prisons during a time that Nigerians are beginning to see how the commonwealth was eaten alive by thieving politicians. Over the next year, we will know if people who had no conscience sharing repatriated loot and funds meant for military equipment had any problem swallowing funds voted for infrastructure or for educating our children.

Which means that should there ever be real traction in the anti-corruption offensive, by this time next year, it would be wonderful to see who is taking food to whom in Nigerian prisons.



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