Chukwudi Onyeamachi was remanded at the Augwu police station, Enugu, in November, 2018 for allegedly trying to poison his brother who was in police custody.
“How does one explain that the reason for his detention is an alleged attempt to poison his own brother and benefactor?” the 20-year-old said in a telephone conversation with PREMIUM TIMES after his release.
“I was shocked when I saw the charge,” he continued.
Mr Onyeamachi, however, said his real offence was protesting against a N2,000 bribe demanded by police officers at the station to allow him visit his detained brother in prison.
When he visited his brother, Ezinna, at the police station in Enugu State on August 26, 2018 to deliver food and anti-malaria drugs to the detainee, Mr Onyeamachi had hoped the visit would be his last and that his brother would be allowed to return home.
Mr Ezinna had been detained over a fight in public with another young man.
But at the station, Mr Onyeamachi said a female officer, identified as Uche O. A, who was the sergeant on duty, demanded N2,000 before he could see his detained brother.
“When I saw that they were bent on extorting me, I called Charles Ekene, who is a popular civil rights activist in my area.”
Mr Ekene was the first to inform this newspaper about his subsequent arrest along with Mr Onyeamachi.
He said he had advised Mr Onyeamachi to stand his ground on not give the bribe. He said when he arrived the police station, Mr Onyeamachi had been detained for two days.
To secure Mr Ezinna’s bail, the activist said the divisional police officer, Raymond Oguejiofor, demanded another bribe of N20, 000. Mr Oguejiofor retired from the force in September 2018.
Mr Ekene said he reminded the officers of the general information from the police that bail is free. He began calling the Rapid Response Team of the police to ensure the release of Mr Ezinna.
That action, considered an affront by the police officers, resulted in a fresh allegation against Mr Ekenne and the man he was at the station to rescue.
In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, their lawyer, Fidelis Onuma, said the two were later arraigned “for allegations that they attempted to poison Mr Onyeamachi’s brother.”
The Enugu State Police Command, Amarizu Ebere, did not respond to calls or text messages by this newspaper on the allegations.
Messrs Ekene and Onyeamachi were charged before a magistrate court in Enugu State that August. They were later remanded by an order of the magistrate, Laurence Ukpai, in November, 2018.
They were detained till January, before their release after the prosecution withdrew the charge against them.
On his observations in the prison, Mr Ekene said: “Prison officials detain inmates for years without taking them to court, even when they have cases in court.
“They lock them up and would not go to court with them unless the prisoners pay for their transportation. If you dare to complain, they will beat you blue black.”
Mr Ekene said he was beaten up in prison for the same reason.
He decried the general condition of the prison.
“Whenever the toilet is full, they ask inmates to go and clear the place. I don’t understand that,” he added.
Mr Ekene’s account is similar to those of 150 inmates this newspaper and a group, the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, (CDHR), spoke with in four prisons across Nigeria.
The inmates at the Kaduna Central Prisons, Kirikiri Minimum Prisons in Lagos, Warri Prisons in Delta State, as well as Kuje Prisons in Abuja narrated harrowing experiences in the prisons.
“The food we eat is not fit for dogs,” said an inmate who requested not to be identified,” he said.
“They give us watery beans in the morning, garri in the afternoon and, sometimes, Semo in the evening with a bad draw soup. Many of us try to find other ways of feeding ourselves because the food is just tasteless.
“We have nothing to wash our toilet. All we use is ash to try and reduce the smell. I have not spent two weeks here without having one infection or the other,” he added.
“We do various labour in this prison to make ends meet. But you cannot survive here, unless you have a kind of a godfather. These godfathers are inmates like us who have strong ties with some officers.”
Although efforts by this reporter to reach the female inmates was not successful, some prison officials who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said their situation is not different. According to information provided by the Nigerian Prisons Service, the country’s prison population include seven per cent of women awaiting trial.
Nigerian prisons are overcrowded and are poorly equipped. PREMIUM TIMES’ and interviews with 150 inmates prove those challenges.
For example, the official record of the Kirikiri Prisons in Lagos gave credence to the claims of the inmates that they are forced to sleep on each other for lack of sleeping space. According to the records, the 1,700-capacity facility has 3, 912 inmates.
108 of the 150 inmates this newspaper visited had been unable to contact their families for at least one month.
A 24-year-old inmate, Haruna Shuaibu, who has been held at the Kaduna State Central Prisons since February 2015, had not met his family till December, 2018 when this newspaper spoke with him at the prisons. Another inmate, Bello Mainasara, 40, was also only able to contact his family after two years in prison.
Also, 106 inmates, or 80.3 per cent of the inmates, had problem getting good lawyers. While some of them claimed to have been defrauded by some lawyers, others said they could not afford the fees of good lawyers.
Ninety eight of the inmates, or 65.3 per cent of them, are within the ages of 19 and 35 years. Some were obviously brought in before they were 18.
The charges against most of those in the groups stated above ranged from robbery to drug trafficking, with the former being the reason for most of the arrests.
Many of the people in this group have been held for the failure of their families to provide their bail bonds or reach a reasonable conclusion on the requirements for their bail. One of such persons, John Odumare, who was accused of murder. He told PREMIUM TIMES that his co-accused had since been released on bail. That point was restated by his mother, Victoria Govina, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
The remaining 52 inmates, 34.6 per cent, are within the ages of 36 to 55 years, with many of them held for alleged rape.
Out of the 73, 248 inmates in Nigerian prisons, 23, 373, or 32 per cent, have been convicted, while 49, 875, about 68 per cent, are awaiting trial.
This newspaper and civil rights group, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), observed that a common challenge inmates face is their cases being abandoned midway and their case files misplaced.
One of the lawyers with the CSJ, Gregory Okere, said he abandoned the case of Yusuf Umar, who is at the Kuje Prison awaiting trial, because the man’s case file could not be traced.
“Mr Umar had told me that he was arraigned at the Jabi High Court. I went there with the hope that I would find his file, but after searching all the places I could think of, his file was nowhere to be found,” Mr Okere said.
The lawyer worked to ensure the release of nine other inmates from those visited during this report at the Kuje Prisons, Abuja.
Even in cases where the files are known and offences clearly stated, the causes of protracted detention in Nigerian prisons are endless.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported how 39 year old Inalegwu Ochife was held by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) from January, 2018 till April, 2019 before a case was filed against him at a high court in Abuja.
Not even a court order issued in October 2018 for the release of Mr Ochife was respected by the security operatives.
Mr Ochife and other accused persons were arrested for alleged robbery at the residence of the acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu.
After their arrest, the accused persons were detained for over two months before the police paraded them before the media for alleged robbery.
Over a year after that illegal parade, the suspects were left in SARS custody, without any charge preferred against them till April, when a fierce struggle by Mr Ochife’s family and lawyers for his release resulted in a fresh charge at a high court in Kwali, a suburb of Nigeria’s federal capital.
Reactions to Allegations
Responding to the issues raised by the inmates, the spokesperson of the Nigerian Prisons, Francis Enobore, said although some of the claims were being checked, most of the allegations could not be true.
“The prison population is such that you may have from 15 to 24 in a cell room; that is when it is not congested. A part of the room is carved out for their convenience. The door is usually a short door, not isolated from the toilet, for security reasons. And it’s always water system. It cannot be true that the toilet will smell so bad,” Mr Enobore said.
Mr Enobore was reacting to claims that some of the inmates are locked up in smelly toilets to serve as punishments, among other allegations.
He also refuted the allegations that inmates were made to clear the sewage cans when it is filled up.
“We have sewage trucks, I don’t know whether we will leave sewage trucks and ask them to start packing the toilet. Where will they take the waste to? However, when the sewage trucks are working, a few of them may be asked to join them in either controlling the hose, which any other person does. I have done it in my own house. And when they finish, they are asked to clear the place to keep it neat.
“You know that one of the natural odour killing instruments is charcoal. I do it in my house, so there is no big story that you are asked to use wood ash or charcoal to douse the smell,” Mr Enobore said.
According to the 2018 budget, N1billion was appropriated for the general maintenance of prisons across the country.
On the repeated complaints by the inmates about poor feeding, Mr Enobore explained how food is provided and distributed to the inmates.
“What the federal government approved is N450 per day. N300 for foodstuff and N150 for gas per person daily. The money was increased from N200 per inmate, per day in 2016,” Mr Enobore said. His explanation implies that government spends N100 per meal on an inmate.
Mr Enobore said that the service is currently embarking on a large-scale food production programme to reduce the burden of lack of food.
In the 2018 budget, N15, 335, 541, 250. 00 was allocated for general foodstuff and catering supplies for the service in 2018.
Regarding the allegations that inmates pay for their movement to court, Mr Enobore had this to say:
“We were having acute shortage of logistics. In Kuje, for example, a prison that will need to take at least 400 inmates per day to court will have only two vehicles. You should know without much calculation that that is impossible.
“The officers in charge will discuss with the courts to fix the trials at dates that will make it possible to ensure that the inmates can come to court. However, their families will sometimes insist that they cannot wait till such a time. They were making arrangements for their inmates to be taken to court early.
“When they make such arrangements, we provide security even at the risk of our personnel’s lives. It continued like that until 2016 when the federal government gave us money to buy 217 operational vehicles, then we were able to increase our fleet. Then in 2017 we added another 49 vehicles and in 2018, we added another 115 operational vehicles. So I can tell you boldly that there is no prison where an inmate will be asked to pay for them to be taken to court. If you observe any such thing, call me,” Mr Enobore said.
According to the 2018 budget; N160, 000, 500 was allocated for maintenance of motor vehicles and transport equipment, across the country.
The spokesman added that the service has also made adequate provision for drugs so that inmates are not asked to pay for drugs whenever they come to the health centres within the prisons.
Absence of official data
PREMIUM TIMES wrote the Nigerian Prisons Service in November, 2018 for detail of inmates detained and those released in the last 15 years from the four prisons visited.
After tracing the letter in vain for weeks, Mr Enobore requested a more concise application for the said data.
A further request for a similar data, to cover five or ten years, was not granted by the service.
The subsequent letter was also lost between the statistics and operations units of the service.
The head of the statistics department maintained that he had sent the copy of the letter to the operations unit for further actions. At the operation’s unit, the officer in charge, Abubakar Talba however told PREMIUM TIMES that the letter was not in his office.
Justice Ministry evades comments
In a similar vein, the department of the Federal Ministry of Justice responsible for prison decongestion declined responses to calls text messages and emails by this newspaper regarding its efforts.
At a meeting with the head of the decongestion unit, Leticia Eniola-Daniels, she asked this reporter to send an email containing our inquiries to the official email address of that office as well as her personal mail.
After weeks of calling and texting her, Mrs Eniola-Daniels failed to respond either to the mails or to subsequent messages sent to her phone line.
This investigation was supported by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).