Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nigeria's prison chaos

About 60 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons await trial, often for years, in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, human rights groups and UN officials say.

Of Nigeria’s 40,000 or so prisoners, 25,000 have never been convicted of a crime, and remain in prison up to 14 years without going to court.

“In some prisons, the conditions of inmates awaiting trial are worse than the inmates on death row,” said Aster van Kregten, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International and part of a delegation who visited 10 prisons in the states of Enugu, Kano and Lagos, and in the Federal Capital Territory at the end of July. “We were quite shocked.”

Amnesty International found cells of 200 inmates with only two toilets, often overflowing by the end of each day; boys as young as 11 held in cells with adult men; and rampant disease, including tuberculosis, malaria and rabies.

“In almost every cell people were sleeping on the floor,” van Kregten told IRIN. “Many inmates do have a bed, but don’t have a mattress.” She added that in many cases those awaiting trial were allowed outside for fresh air only once a week.

“The list [of problems in Nigerian prisons] is endless,” said Uju Agomoh, executive director of the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), Nigeria’s largest prisoners’ rights organisation.

He said while there had been “marginal” improvement since the return to civil rule in 1999, mentally ill people, who have never committed a crime, are still mixed with criminal inmates, and female inmates do not even receive sanitary towels.

Lost case files

According to a 2006 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, three quarters of those awaiting trial in Nigeria are charged with armed robbery, most get no legal assistance from the Legal Aid Council, and a “shocking” 3.7 per cent remain in prison because of lost case files. The rapporteur, Philip Alston, called their conditions “seriously health-threatening”.

A second report in March 2007 by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture found that prisons often housed populations twice or triple their capacity, with many inmates being held without charge, with insufficient food, water, and medical care, “let alone any opportunities for educational, leisure, or vocational training”. The rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, also found 700 prisoners who spent up to 20 years on death row, usually in overcrowded cells.

Prisoner releases

The Nigerian government is well aware of the problem. According to Amnesty International, prolonged pre-trial detention is “so commonplace” that amnesties are routinely given to those who have spent more time in prison awaiting trial than the maximum sentence they would serve if convicted.

In May, the Nigerian government announced that before the new president took office on 29 May, it would free all prisoners over 70 and all those over 60 who have been on death row for more than a decade.

However, “they have not yet been released,” van Kregten said. “We are still waiting for that to happen.”

At the beginning of August, state authorities released 26 inmates in Lagos and 30 in Kaduna, including inmates who were mentally ill and HIV positive and young offenders who were incarcerated because they could not afford the fines associated with their crimes. PRAWA’s Agomoh said the chief justice of Enugu State also released 130 inmates unconditionally in April.

Action needed

However, human rights groups say sporadic releases are not enough to fix the problem.

“It’s not a solution to the whole problem,” Amnesty’s van Kregten said. “The problem is at all levels - the judicial system, the prisons, the police.” Amnesty is urging the Nigerian government to invest more funds in the prison system and speed up trial times for inmates. It will release a full report on the state of Nigerian prisons later this year.

Agomoh said prisoner release mechanisms need to be made more systematic, so that prisoners who have spent too much time in prison are regularly reviewed and released. He said the state must simultaneously work to reduce arbitrary arrests and decongest the court system - an area in which he says work has already begun.

Lack of prison staff is another problem, according to Shamakigad Peter, of the Jos-based League for Human Rights. He said in the seven prisons in Plateau State, the staff to inmate ratio is 1:50 instead of the UN-standard of 1:10, “which is grossly inadequate”. Thus, staff are not always available to take inmates to court appearances, which slows the process even more.

Peter said former president Olusegun Obasanjo set up various committees to study prison reform before he left office, but he said those committees have been ineffective.

“They keep coming up with ideas, but most of the ideas just end up on paper.”

Published with the permission of IRIN
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright

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