How Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons try to reform inmates

Prison inmates used to illustrate the story
FILE PHOTO: Prison inmates used to illustrate the story

The Controller-General of the Nigeria Prisons, Lagos State Command, Timothy Tinuoye, has said that speedy trials would help decongest the prisons in the country.

Mr. Tinuoye spoke at a three day training and capacity building workshop for members of the Penal Reform Media Network organised by the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, PRAWA, in Lagos.

“Majority of the awaiting trial cases we have are criminal offences,” said Mr. Tinuoye.

“If there are speedy trials, the prisons will be decongested. By our prison standards, we don’t do community service but I’m happy Lagos State is considering it.”

A guided tour

The training featured a guided tour of the Medium Security Prison and Female Prison in Kirikiri, Lagos, by the organisers, journalists, and prison officials.

At the skill acquisition centre for the inmates – which comprises such vocations as barbing, shoe-making, tailoring and others, a senior prison official, E.O Oluwaniyi, said there were no instructors.

“We use some of the inmates who have acquired the skill outside.”

Mr. Oluwaniyi said the prison authorities have a sharing formula with the inmates at the vocational centres which include saving a percentage for them till they are discharged, maintaining the centres, and remitting to the treasury.

An inmate at the barbing section said a haircut costs N50 and they receive about four customers daily; another at the shoe-making section said some of their sandals cost between N2,200 and N3,500; while at the laundry, where a charcoal pressing iron is used, customers are charged between N50 and N100 per cloth but warders are allowed to pay “anything.”

“Almost all of them are awaiting trial,” said Mr. Oluwaniyi.

“They make clothes, even uniforms for the prison (officials), Civil Defence and others.”

At the computer training centre where there are half a dozen laptops, three inmates worked on CorelDraw on one of the three desktops.

At the educational training centre, eight others paid a rapt attention to their colleague who taught them ‘Multiplication of Decimal’ on a white board.

“We are just trying to manage the space with the accommodation we have,” Mr. Oluwaniyi said of the dearth of facilities.

At the Female Prison, where ‘A home away from home’ is inscribed at the entrance, the inmates are thought how to make, wash and set hairs at the salon.

There are 14 inmates studying for their first degrees and two for post graduate diploma at the National Open University of Nigeria.

Their tuition fees are waived by the university authorities.

Unlike in the male prison, experienced female warders are assigned to teach the inmates.

Francis Enobore, spokesperson of the Nigeria Prisons Service, said the aim of the guided tour is to bridge the gap between the prison and the public.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there and when there is little information, it gives room for speculation,” he said.

Congested prisons

At the 1,700 capacity Medium prison, there were 3,051 inmates out of which 2,627 were awaiting trial persons.

The female prison with a capacity of 211 had 273 inmates. 208 inmates are awaiting trial.

There are 4 pregnant inmates and 12 babies

“They bring their pregnancies from outside,” A.O Ariyo, an Assistant Controller of Prisons, quickly added.

“All inmates undergo series of tests including pregnancy tests before they are brought here.

“We take care of the babies, when they get to 18 months, we interview their mothers and ask them to invite their relatives to come take them. Otherwise, they are taken to welfare.”

Yinka Lawal, PRAWA’s Executive Director, said many Nigerian prisons are overstretched.

“We have so many people in prison who ought not to be there,” he said.

“About three years ago, through our intervention, we released one of the longest serving awaiting trial inmates – 17 years – from Enugu Prisons.

“The prison is meant to reform, rehabilitate and then reintegrate the people back into the society.

Mr. Lawal said in a bid to help in decongesting the prison, his organisation would organise legal services for inmates who need them, adding that Lagos, Enugu, and Kano States would serve as the pilot.

“We’ll be meeting with the Legal Aids Council of Nigeria,” Mr. Lawal said.

“We’ll complement their manpower by working with the Nigerian Bar Association to provide the coordinating platform for lawyers who will be willing to work pro bono to signify their interests.”

Mr. Enobore said the practice of paying bail fees for prison inmates who could not afford them does not help both the beneficiaries and the society.

“When people come to the prison to pay the fines for these inmates, they are not really helping them, because the inmate is probably one or two months into learning the a skill in the prison and you come and make him go,” Mr. Enobore said.

“And you are not taking him to your house. So what happens is that within a short while, he commits another crime and returns to the prison.

“If you are so concerned about arresting the prison situation, you can go to a skill acquisition centre in the prison, buy an equipment and engrave the inmate’s name on it. And let him communicate to you if he’s denied access to it.

“As soon as he leaves, he goes away with his equipment and continues his craft.”

Ifediorah Orakwe, a retired Controller of Prisons, said the awaiting trial inmates were not convicts and, as a result, the head of prison lacks the power to move them to facilities, particularly those in the rural areas, where there is no congestion.

“But they are on awaiting trial, meaning that they still have to make court appearances,” said Mr. Orakwe.

“Awaiting trial persons are callibrated as transient people in the prison in the sense that they are adjudged innocent until proven guilty.

“A prison is not a place for awaiting trial. So if what Nigeria has thus far is a prison system holding awaiting trial suspects and recycling them, then it is very very abnormal.”

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