Imprisoning the mentally-ill and the poor state of the Nigerian prison system, By Emmanuel Onwubiko

Emmanuel Onwubiko

The mentally-ill makes up a significant number of inmates in Nigerian prisons.

Uju Agomoh, the executive Director of one of Nigeria’s best known credible civil society organizations – Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, PRAWA, has done a lot of advocacy activities around the issues of the illegality of prolonged detention of mentally challenged persons in the heavily dilapidated, derelict and decrepit archaic infrastructure we today call Nigerian Prisons.

In several speaking events around Nigeria, Mrs. Agomoh who has travelled vastly globally, has canvassed an end to the unconstitutional practice of detaining persons who are mentally challenged in the antiquated prison facilities in Nigeria that are lacking in medical and/or psychiatric facilities. Sadly, the political administrators heading the highly incompetent Ministry of Interior don’t give a damn about what to do to change this evil status quo.

Many years after Mrs. Agomoh kick-started her campaign to end the impunity of detention without medicare of persons afflicted with mental retardation, she may have finally got the institutional support of the Federal Government because a recently released 2012 prison audit report by the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria which was publicly validated by the National Assembly of Nigeria and other leading human rights stakeholders, disclosed that there are many persons that are mentally challenged who are detained in prisons across the country who ought not to be there in the first place.

With the 2012 Prison Audit report publicly presented on Thursday, May 16 in Abuja, it is believed within certain key circles, that the President Goodluck Jonathan-led administration will activate effective mechanism to release these persons with mental illness in Nigerian prisons to be treated in psychiatric hospitals spread across Nigeria.

Conversely, it is also expected that since most of the mentally-ill in Nigerian prisons were sent to those facilities by the justice ministries and prosecutorial institutions working for the various state governments, these state governments must take immediate action to release and medically rehabilitate these category of hapless inmates.

The National and State Houses of Assembly must also introduce an effective legal frame work to make it almost impossible for mentally-ill persons to ever be sent to a prison in lieu of a psychiatric/ medical facility for attention. As it is, the current crop of politicians at the state levels are not in the right frame of mind to effectively carry out this revolutionary project of ensuring that the mentally-ill are taken to the appropriate psychiatric facilities for proper treatment and rehabilitation and not locked up in the prisons to die.

According to the 2012 Prison Audit Report, in the North East Zone, 4 out of 37 prisons had 20 mentally ill inmates in prison; North West – 50; South South – 79; South West- 121 and South East – 289 with Enugu having 136.

There are other sad tales from the Prison Audit Report just issued which importantly stated that sanitation of those prison facilities have become so bad and deteriorated thereby exposing many of the inmates to unfathomable health predicaments.

On the state of sanitation of Nigerian prisons, the report stated, “Though there is every effort by the inmates to keep the cells clean and tidy, the age of the infrastructure (some of these prisons were built in 1925) and overcrowding in some cells frustrated the effort. In most of the prisons, the water cistern toilets were broken and there was no water to flush after use in some instances.

“In some (prisons), they used the bucket system and that created a lot of stench in the cells. Some of the prisons where the bucket system of toilet is still in use are Gassol and Serti prisons in Taraba State, and Misua prison in Bauchi State; Otukpo in Benue State, Pankshin in Plateau State and Ilorin in Kwara State. In some other instance were there exist sewage systems, the systems were either broken or filled up. The prisons also lacked basic toiletries like soap or disinfectants.”

The report which rightly criticized the bad state of sanitation of these prisons, reminded the Nigerian authority thus, “The UN Standard Minimum Rules on the treatment of prisoners and other international, regional or national laws have set a benchmark for the treatment of prisoners. In each of these human rights instruments, it is stated that prisoners are to be accorded with dignity as human beings shall not be treated in a dehumanizing manner, even when his/her freedom to liberty has be taken away by the instrument of law.”

Writing specifically with reference to what they observed, the report is of the opinion that; “The standard of facilities in the Nigerian prisons are appalling, to say the least. Most of the prisons audited lacked facilities that would aid the wellbeing of the inmates as well as the reintegration of inmates back in the society after their release from prison”.

The report also observed that most prison facilities in Nigeria are deficient in vocational, recreational, health, educational and transport facilities.

Substantially, the findings of the investigators who visited the 173 prison facilities all across Nigeria, show that Nigeria has failed to respect international humanitarian and human rights laws in the administration of these facilities.

The report passed a vote of no confidence on Nigerian prisons.

Nigerians are also aware that of late, a lot of prison wardens have lost their lives to the violence viciously launched by armed terrorists who have successfully organized jailbreaks to free their detained members and the Federal Government has made no concrete effort to build better protected prisons. This criminal neglect on the part of the government is a grave crime against humanity. The plan by the National Assembly’s Constitution Review Committee to transfer prison from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent is not the best way out as most state governments are too poor to run good prisons.

With the above background in mind, it is therefore inexplicable that the Federal Government rushed into lobbying the National Assembly to amend the Prison Act without introducing bold, positive and revolutionary ideas that will change the face of the prisons and improve the security and welfare of the inmates and officials. This government has succeeded in signing an agreement with Britain that will allow for the prisoners’ exchange partnership with the government of United Kingdom to make it easier for Britain to transfer Nigerian-born but United Kingdom-based persons convicted for sundry crime in the United Kingdom back to Nigeria to serve out their prison terms.

The question to be asked is why the rush to accept heavy indirect financial bribe from the government of Britain just so that Nigeria can accede to the prisoners exchange programme aimed at decongesting the British prisons that are built with modern and functional infrastructural facilities when Nigerian prisons are in very bad shape and overstretched?

Even going by the recent audit report, Nigerian prisons are over-populated even as majority of the inmates are awaiting trial persons.

“Across the prisons the number of ‘awaiting trial’ inmates was far above that of convicts. In the 173 prisons audited, out of 50,645 lockups, the number of convicts was 13,901 compared to awaiting trial inmates of 35,889. Besides the awaiting trial inmates, Ikom prison in Cross River State had 5 lodgers, Ahoada Prison in Rivers State and Benin prison in Edo State, had 2 and 1 lodgers respectively; (lodgers are persons kept in prison without an order of court detaining them. There are no records of such inmates in the prison records).”

I therefore ask, are these derelict prison facilities in Nigeria the places whereby these repatriated British based prisoners be transferred into?

It would be recalled that when this sinister move by government to sign the controversial prisoners exchange treaty with the United Kingdom was exposed, most critical stakeholders opposed it and raised suspicions that the then federal government headed by late Umaru Musa Yar’adua only wanted to rush the agreement so as to find a way to bring back the incarcerated former Delta State governor James Ibori (Yar’adua’s political friend) who was jailed in Britain for sundry offences bordering on theft of Delta State fund.

With these sad tales emanating from the Nigerian prisons, it is therefore inconceivable that any British based Nigerian prisoner could voluntarily accept to be repatriated to serve term in prisons facilities in Nigeria that are absolutely sub-human and filthy.

* Emmanuel Onwubiko is the Head of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria;blogs@www.huriwa.blogspot.com; www.huriwa.org.


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