SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Nigeria’s prisons where thousands languish for years without trial

Nightfall came with a feeling a hopelessness for Chris Chom and 61 other prison inmates who only had the option of practically sleeping on each other's bodies for lack of sleeping space
Nightfall came with a feeling a hopelessness for Chris Chom and 61 other prison inmates who only had the option of practically sleeping on each other's bodies for lack of sleeping space

For nearly two years, Chris Chom and 61 other inmates shared a filthy cell in the Kaduna State Central Prisons.

According to the 34-year-old, the cell had only three beds, so the inmates slept in a pile on the bare floor at night and yearned for the day they would see the priceless light of freedom.

Mr Chom spoke with undercover reporters from PREMIUM TIMES who visited the prison last December. He said what was worse for him than his prison experience was the fact that the authorities could not explain why they were keeping him.

His journey to the prison started on July 14, 2017. A chef, he had just returned from Abuja to visit his family in Kaduna. He was about to take a nap that afternoon when he heard a shrill cry from a nearby building occupied by his maternal uncle, Ayuba James.

Abel, Mr James’ 10-year-old son, had always been a bit difficult. He was born with sickle cell anaemia, a condition that earned him sympathy from many.

So when he heard Abel’s cry that afternoon, he rushed over and found the boy being flayed by his father. Mr Chom’s intervention would change his life in a manner he never anticipated.

Mr Chom found young Abel already badly beaten.

“It all happened so fast that I could not even ask what the boy had done to warrant such a treatment,” he recalled.

“Seeing the state that the boy was in, I knew he had to be rushed to the hospital. But on our way to the hospital, the child died,” Mr Chom said.

The child was confirmed dead at the Kachia General Hospital, according to Mr Chom.

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Days later, the police arrested Mr Chom. After three weeks with the state CID in Kaduna State, they transferred him to the Central Prisons along Independent Way, where the reporters found him last December.

Until his release from prison in February, Mr Chom said he still did not know the reason for his arrest and detention.

Mr James was also arrested.

PREMIUM TIMES spoke with Mr James, who was regarded by prison inmates as Mr Chom’s “casemate.” He corroborated Mr Chom’s account of the incident regarding Abel, whom he said he was only trying to “discipline.”

“Yes, all that he (Mr Chom) has said is true. He had nothing to do with it. He had come that day to take my son after I hit him in anger. But I never meant to kill my son,” said Mr James.

Mr Chom spoke on his life in prison.

“I have not spent two weeks in this place without falling sick. We feed on two meals per day — watery beans in the morning and cornmeal with watery draw-soup in the evening.

“I don’t remember what it feels like to have normal sleep. We practically sleep on top of each other because this place is too small for our population. There are 62 of us with three beds in the cell,” he said.

According to Mr Chom, the inmates and prison officials relate well. He, however, decried the state of facilities and food at the prisons.

“The food is such that even a slave should not be made to eat it,” added another inmate who refused to give his name.

Illegal Detention

Mr Chom regained freedom on February 27 after 21 months in prison for an “offence” he said he did not commit.

The police filed a case of murder against him, but he said: “Even the prison officials regard me as a victim of circumstance.”

An Abuja-based lawyer, Monday Ejeh, described as shocking the decision of the court to remand him.

“I have not seen any offence in what you have explained. How is it possible that he has been there for over a year? Why would any judge or magistrate order such a person detained?” Mr Ejeh queried.

Although Mr Chom has been released his case is still on-going.

“They just granted me bail. I am still expected to return to court. I cannot even return to Abuja, where I was working in a hotel before all of these,” he said in a telephone interview with this newspaper in March.

Mr James faced a similar charge but he said their lawyer was working towards his release on bail.

Mr Chom was one of many Nigerians remanded in prisons across the country over strange “crimes.”

Global Statistics

According to figures provided by a global prison data organisation, World Prison Brief, awaiting trial inmates in Nigerian prisons has risen from 62 per cent in 2000 to nearly 70 per cent.

The total prison population in 2000 stood at 44, 450 but had risen to 73, 248 by May 2019.

The institute adds that the population of women prisoners within the period rose from 709, representing 1.9 per cent, in 2000 to 1, 520 or 2.1 per cent in 2019.

Forgotten in Jail

Some of those detained for what should pass as petty crimes have been forgotten in prison.

The case of Abdullahi Mohammed, a 49-year-old man arrested in May 2013 “for stealing a handset”, stands out. The offence regarded as theft under Nigerian laws, and it attracts a prison term not exceeding five years, according to section 287 of the penal code.

The penal code is the legal instrument for the adjudication of criminal matters in northern Nigeria. The section states thus: “Whoever commits theft shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with a fine or both.”

Forgotten by his family and country, Mr Mohammed’s case was drawn to our reporter’s attention by an official during our visit to the prison.

“Whenever I remember this man’s case, I lose complete faith in Nigeria’s judicial system,” said the official who declined to give his name.

Mr Mohammed explained how he ended up in prison.

“I stole a handset valued at N15, 000 in 2013. The high court judge said I should go to jail or pay a fine of N50, 000. I had no one to pay for me, so I have been here since,” he said. Mr Mohammed has been battling with various illnesses in prison.

Mr Ejeh said the detention of an accused who failed to pay their bail bond does not mean detention without trial.

“His case is different. When a person is given a condition for bail and he fails to meet the condition, that person cannot claim to have been detained without trial. Section 35 (1) of the Constitution has provided that where a person is detained longer than three years without trial, that person is entitled to be released, with or without a condition for bail.

“However, if there is a bail condition, then that case is different. But in this case, all he needs is a lawyer who can apply on his behalf. A man whose offence attracts a term of five years will surely be allowed to go if he approaches the court under this circumstance,” Mr Ejeh said.

Estranged by Detention

PREMIUM TIMES reviewed the cases of 150 detainees at the Kaduna State Central Prison, Warri Prison in Delta State, Kirikiri Prison in Lagos and Kuje Prison in Abuja. One feature common to most detainees was their inability to keep in touch with their families for prolonged period of time.

Haruna Shuaibu, a 24-year-old man, was arrested for alleged robbery in January 2015. He is yet to contact his family, more than four years after his arrest.

Mr Shuaibu claimed he knew nothing about the crime for which he was arrested.

“I have not been able to contact my family since I came here. I have no phone. I have made repeated attempts to send emissaries through released inmates to my family. But apparently, none of them has been able to reach my family because I still have not heard from them,” Mr Shuabu said during our visit to the prison in December.

Mr Shuaibu said he was arrested at a market called Kasuwan Bauchi in Kaduna State where he had gone to sell his cattle.

The 24-year-old who said his family resides in a village in Bauchi State said he had been unable to reach them. He is not sure they think he is alive.

Mr Shuaibu could not remember the number of times he had been taken to court but said he did not understand the terms of his bail.

A Complicated Case

While Mr Shuaibu’s inability to reach his family may have contributed to his prolonged detention, some inmates have no way of helping themselves, even when in contact with their families.

After six years in prison for allegedly raping a 19-year-old, Wale Akinnusi is still on trial.

“I am in close contact with my wife and children. But we have no money to get a lawyer,” the 51-year-old told PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Akinnusi was arrested and detained at the KiriKiri Prison in Lagos, after the girl he was guarding accused him of sexual abuse in 2013.

Mr Akinnusi’s wife, Oluwakemi, told PREMIUM TIMES her husband was arrested after the girl accused him of making her have an abortion. She said they were not living together at the time of the incident.

Mrs Akinnusi said she missed her husband back at home.

“I really would like to have him back. It’s been hell training these children alone, and I am sick. I have been down with arthritis. Our eldest daughter, who just graduated, was leaving secondary school when this incident occurred. I had to cater for her education all by myself,” said Mrs Akinnusi.

A lawyer, Ogugua Ikpeze, said Mr Akinnusi could have been granted speedy trial.

“If his case is on trial, the court cannot grant him bail. The only thing they can do is to order accelerated hearing into the matter,” Ms Ikpeazu, a professor, said.

More Legal Opinion

As explained by Mr Ejeh, prosecuting agencies have contributed to escalating the menace of prolonged detention before or during the trial.

“A good example of how this problem is created by lawyers is the issue of holding charge. This refers to a situation where the prosecuting agency takes a person to a lower court for an offence that the court ordinarily should not have entertained, for lack of jurisdiction.

“The lower court, though without jurisdiction, will order the remand of that person pending his trial. This is common in South-South and South-West states; for example, Rivers and Lagos states. While the person is remanded in prison, his file may be sent to the Ministry of Justice or even remain with the police.

“Section 376 of ACJA talks about holding charge for the purpose of getting legal advice from the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) domiciled in the AGF’s office of the Ministry of Justice. In that situation, ACJA requires that the advice be ready in 14 days,” Mr Ejeh said.

He, however, noted that bureaucratic bottlenecks also affect the efforts of lawyers to meet up with the time frame for getting such legal advice.

Mr Ejeh, who acknowledged other factors that give rise to the detention of pre-trial inmates, said lawyers have a fundamental role to play in checking the menace.

This investigation was supported by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).

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