REPORT: Nigerian inmates live in danger amid Coronavirus pandemic
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“AS we walk through the prison yard, a voice keeps coming from a corner I later was told is meant for prisoners on death row,” says Toun (not real name), who recently visited a relative, an inmate of the maximum prison, Maiduguri, Borno State.
When she visited, there was somebody in the death row section who was shouting, “Please help me. They want to kill me. They have not given me my drugs for two months. Please help me,” she recalls.
A prison official told her that that was Charles Okah, the younger brother of Henry Okah. The warden said he is always shouting like that when he sees people around.
Okah was convicted of masterminding the 2010 Independence Day anniversary in Abuja.
He reportedly claims he is dying slowly in prison due to lack of access to medical treatment.
He says he has been living with a single kidney in the last 37 years, and his condition is deteriorating in prison.
Okah wants the Comptroller-General of Nigerian Correctional Service, Ja’afaru Ahmed, to either transfer him to Abuja or Lagos for better care.
Inmates’ lives in danger
Except the Federal Government takes a drastic decision to decongest correctional centres and police cells across the country, lives of tens of thousands of inmates are at risk as the Covid-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the country, The ICIR can report.
Toun expresses fear that a single case of Covid-19 in any correctional facility across the country puts the life of the inmate in danger.
“The situation in the prison is very bad and I can just imagine if just one single person contracts the Coronavirus disease, it would be devastating,” she says.
There are currently more than 74, 123 inmates in correctional centres, in the country, over 70 percent of them are awaiting trial, according to World Prison Brief.
The alarming figures highlight key flaws in Nigeria’s criminal justice system with proceedings often going on for years without conclusion, wrote Yomi Kazeem, in an article titled “Up to Three-quarters of Nigeria’s Prison Population is Serving Time Without Being Sentenced.”
While lawyers often cite a large number of cases being tried as a reason for long drawn-out trials, the charged inmates on the other side of the divide often spend years waiting to get convicted or win back their freedom, he added.
As of 2014, Nigeria had 240 prisons. Of these, 155 are prisons for convicts and 83 are satellite facilities.
Speaking on what she saw at the Maiduguri Maximum Correctional Centre, Toun paints a sorry picture of the facility and the horrible condition of living of the inmates.
“There were some prisoners outside the cell but Okah was inside the building and was shouting and making a lot of noise,” Toun narrates, with worries on her face.
Prison officials informed her that there are over 3,000 prisoners in the general wing of the prison. Then, there are nearly 20 women in the women’s wing, and over 50 in the section for death row prisoners.
Nigeria recorded its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus on February 25 when an Italian came into the country from Milan, for a brief business visit.
Since then, the country has recorded 214 confirmed cases with 25 patients discharged and four deaths recorded so far.
Calls for prisons’ decongestion amid Covid-19
There have been mounting calls for the Federal Government to give approval to decongest the correctional facilities that are already overpopulated and in bad state.
Nigerians, including civil society organisations, have asked President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately direct the Ministry of Interior to decongest the prisons.
Okey Nwangbuna, Coordinator of Rule of Law, Advocacy and Accountability Centre, RULAAC, cited the recent riot in Kaduna Correctional Centre, in which some inmates were allegedly killed and others injured, as a wake up call for the government to act fast.
“The recent riot in Kaduna Correctional Centre calls for concern which underscores the urgency for the government to act fast,” Nwangbuna told The ICIR in an interview.
“Preliminary investigation indicates that prisoners rioted because of the congestion in the prison and the fears that they may be exposed to the covid-19 and we understand that that riot was quelled with brutal force leading to injuries and deaths of some inmates. We think this highlights the need for the government to take this seriously.”
According to him, the inmates should not be exposed to the virus especially when the government is enforcing social distancing and is not taking measures to enforce the same in police cells and prisons.
Nwangbuna said social distancing should be observed in police cells and prisons where there is already overcrowding which makes inmates vulnerable to contracting the virus. .
While singling out the police as the major supplier of inmates into the facilities, he commended the Inspector General of Police, Muhammad Adamu, for his directive to Zonal Commands of Police against frivolous arrests in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“That for us, is a welcome development and means to ensure that social distancing is observed in police cells and correctional centres,” he said.
“When police officers go out to arrest people at random, demand bribe and those who cannot pay bribe are charged on frivolous offences and they end up in prisons. They are either remanded in prison or granted bail and they are not able to fulfil bail conditions and they remain in prison.”
He insisted that there must be a proper monitoring of the IGP’s directive, as according to him, “ arrests are still being carried out.”
“Our concern is that there is a need to monitor this to ensure that police officers are complying because reports we are getting is that people are still cramped in police cells which means arrests are still being carried out.”
To give weight to this advocacy, the Rule of Law, Advocacy and Accountability Centre, along with 50 CSOs spread across Nigeria, also issued a statement, addressing this particular subject matter —the decongest of police cells and correctional centres.
The CSOs warned that the Kaduna near prison-break could have a boomerang effect on other correctional centres if not properly handled.
While they called for a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the incident, the group also demanded the immediate release of all persons unlawfully or unnecessarily held in custody, in particular those held on minor offences.
“We call for the immediate provision for all detainees and prisoners, information on the spread of the virus, urgent disinfection and distribution of sanitary materials to all holding facilities, and provision and access to running water at each facility,” they said in the statement.
“We call on Chief Magistrates in states, in fulfilment of their obligations under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, and in compliance with the 2019 Practice Direction of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on visits to police custody facilities to embark on inspection visits to police stations within their jurisdictions with a view to ensuring the immediate release of detainees based on established criteria, to decongest the cells and prevent likely infection and spread of Covid-19.”
It also called on the Attorney- General and Minister of Justice and State Attorneys General to also initiate steps for audit of police cells and correctional centres, including juvenile correctional facilities to decongest them.
Nigeria has judicial congestion, not congestion of inmates—Retired Prisons CP
For Inuwa Mohammed Abdullahi, a retired Controller of Prisons, Nigeria has no prison congestion proportionate to its overall population.
“We don’t have congestion of inmates but rather we have what is called judicial congestion,” Abdullahi said in an interview with The ICIR.
“In a country where we have a population of about even if the population is 100 million and you have about a half million inmates, you can say we have congestion. But a situation where we have almost 200 million population and we have inmates population of about 60,000 and you are talking of congestion. What kind of congestion. The only congestion is the judicial congestion.”
Explaining further, he said those who are supposed to be in the prisons are those who are on death row and those serving for capital offence such as robbery.
“What I mean by judicial congestion is that over 60 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial which means less than 40 percent are the ones who are supposed to be in the prison in the first place,” he said.
“About 65 percent are not supposed to be in prison; they are waiting trial. If you take 221, that is punishable by death or Decree 5 armed robbery and the rest, they are the only ones that are supposed to be kept in the prison. Otherwise, the rest are supposed to be at home.
“In the Western world, when a crime is committed, they do all their investigations immediately and by the time they take the person to court, within a very short time, the person is convicted. But in our own case, they will go and lump the person up in a prison and keep adjourning in the name of ‘we still need time to investigate’ and someone will spend seven years in the prison while they investigate.”
He lamented that if at the end of the investigation, the case cannot be established, such an inmate would be asked to go home without any apology or compensation.
Inmates by classification
A recent report by Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) indicates that there are three types of persons in custodial centre, namely : the innocent, the petty/minor offenders, and the serious offenders.
According to the group, the first two groups should be quickly determined and released, particularly as the country battles the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report also identifies those who are terminally ill, the elderly, those who are awaiting trial but have spent more time than what the sentence of the offences they are charged for, the long term inmates with less than six months to go and those who are of good behaviour (including lifers).
Others listed by PRAWA in the report prepared in making the case for decongestion of correctional facilities also include the under aged and the mentally ill, especially those whose cases are classified as ‘civil lunatics’, including those framed as ‘criminal lunatics’.
Among other recommendations, the CSO called for an effective utilisation of non custodial measures / community corrections including restorative measures in line with Part 2 of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act 2019, ACJA and other relevant legislations.
It said adequate rehabilitation, reintegration and community support mechanism should be put in place utilising the provision of the non custodial measures as provided under Part 2 of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act 2019 as well as the relevant provisions of the ACJA / ACJL.
The PRAWA said proper documentation and links with families, and communities of the released inmates should be put in place.
“Finally, we should also look at those who are detained in the police cells and other detention centres across the country by several security and law enforcement agencies,” it said.
“There are over 17 institutions in the country that have detention facilities. Unfortunately, we have no centralised database of all those in Detention in the country at any given time. This gap should be urgently addressed for both planning and monitoring/tracking purposes.”
Nigerian Government responding to calls
Rauf Aregbesola, Minister of Interior on Saturday held a meeting on the implementation of President Buhari’s approval for the decongestion of Nigerian Custodial Centres.
The meeting had in attendance, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, Justice I.U Bello, Barr. Georgina Ehuriah and other top government officials.
Details of the meeting were not immediately made available as at the time of filing this report.
On March 28, the President approved the decongestion of Correctional Service formations due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Buhari had constituted a Presidential Committee for the Decongestion of the Correctional Centres, which will be coordinated by the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The committee has Malami as chairman while members are Chief Justice of the FCT and the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Correctional Service.
The committee recommended that courts, Federal Ministry of Justice, the Correctional Services formations, governors, attorneys general of states, intensify actions to reduce inmates amid the health challenges associated with Covid-19.
“The committee requested that Mr. President may wish to consider his powers of Prerogative of Mercy in speeding of decongestion, while governors of states and their CJ be encouraged to visit correctional service formations for the purpose of decongestion,” said a statement issued by Umar Jibrilu, Malami’s spokesman.
“The committee is of the view that the Federal Executive Council, FEC, and the state governments be encouraged to consider payment of fines in respect of minor offences for those categories of inmates that could not afford paying the same in respect of offences that attract fines arising from the convictions.”
Part of the resolutions were also that the Correctional Service should consider the possibility of moving inmates from congested facilities to centres that are less congested and have space for accommodation of inmates, among others.
It also recommended the amendment of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to legalise moving the Correctional Service formations from Exclusive to Concurrent Legislative List.
The statement suggested that categories of inmates that will be considered are those that stayed in Correctional Service Centres for a period above ten years and those that stayed as inmates for a longer period without any documentation relating to their detention.
“Others are those that have the option of fine, those that have been in the Centers on holding charges in respect of offences that the Magistrate that sent them to Correctional Service Formations do not have the jurisdiction to try the cases, among others.”
However, those excluded are inmates serving jail terms for capital offences such as murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and treason among others.
Already, spirited individuals, groups and organisations are making provisions to ensure that inmates are well protected against Coronavirus.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Nigeria (ICRC), for instance, said it was increasing its support to inmates through provision of hygiene items to detention facilities, to help prevent disease outbreaks.
“Coronavirus affects everyone, but detainees are particularly vulnerable. We are increasing our support to them through provision of hygiene items to detention facilities, to help prevent disease outbreaks. Here, we prepare materials for detention facilities in Maiduguri,” ICRC said in a tweet.
Also, a group of women who had tasked themselves had taken hand sanitisers, soap and disinfectants to the prisoners to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus.