The man died just before lunch. A plate of bean pottage kept at the foot of his hospital bed was covered with flies. His sore mouth and sunken eyes were barely closed. The rusty leg-iron that fettered him to the bed had left his right ankle badly bruised and swollen. From a distance, one could count the number of his ribs. His collarbones stuck out, giving him the ugly look of a drought victim. The doctor’s report simply said Muazu Mohammed, Prisoner No. 1519/86 of Kano Central Prison, died of “acute malnutrition.” Life in Nigerian prison is hard, inhuman, and cruel.
Mohammed was not sentenced to death. He was just one of the 46 prison inmates in Kano State who died last year as a result of the horrifying condition of prisoners in the State. Rabiu Bello, Mohammed’s prison mate, died of pneumonia. Abdullahi Dahiru, also of Kano Central Prison, died of sclerosis of the liver; Sumaila Bala, a detainee in the same prison, was killed by tuberculosis. Haruna Juli, of Gumel prison, lost his life to gastroenteritis; Mesa Tsoho died of meningitis; Abdulmumuni Salisu, of Goro Dutse prison, died of dehydration; while Audu Abubakar of Birnin Kudu prison and Umaru Ali of Kazaure prison died of heart failure and what doctors called “hypodermic shock” respectively.
Karimu Lawal, a 32-years-old detainee in Ilorin, Kwara State had thought he could survive the brutal and horrible conditions of the prison. He did not. Four hours before his death, a judge on a tour of the prison had taken pity on the sorry state of his health and ordered that his case be taken to court the next day. But Lawal, who had survived three years in detention without trial, could not survive another day to prove his innocence. When an Ilorin magistrate court called his case the next morning, Jimoh Ishola, a warder, stood up instead. “My Lord,” he said, “Lawal died last night and his body has been taken to the mortuary.”
Paul Ogba, 30, died on his way home, a few hours after his release from Umuahia prison. He was one of those “lucky prisoners” released on amnesty by the Imo State government to mark a recent independence anniversary. Before the good news came, Ogba had been receiving treatment for “severe malnutrition” at the Queen Elizabeth Specialist Hospital, Umuahia. Then a warder came to the hospital and said, according to hospital’s records, that Ogba had been given amnesty and “should be allowed to go immediately,” despite the condition of his health. Dizzy and tottering on his steps, the home-bound ex-detainee took a taxi heading for his village. One hour later, he arrived home, a corpse.
From Aba to Zaria and from Shagamu to Sokoto, Newswatch investigations show that Nigerian prisons have become a national disgrace, something akin to a hell hole. Like the Hobbesian State, life there is brutish, nasty, and short. Convicts who survive the ordeal of the prison come out usually worse, mentally and physically wrecked. The death toll is heavy. In the first three months of this year, 42 inmates died in Ikoyi prison, Lagos. The same prison recorded more than 300 deaths between January and November 1988. Worse affected were those awaiting trial. They made up more than 200 of the dead, while regular prisoners accounted for 97 deaths. At the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos, the number of dead prisoners for this year could not be ascertained but Newswatch found that in June and July 1988, some 37 detainees awaiting trial died. None of them had been charged to court.
The federal prison at Ilesa, Oyo State, probably has one of the worst records of deaths in Nigeria. In April alone, five prisoners died there following an outbreak of yellow fever. In just three months (June, July, and August) last year, 67 died, 37 of them in two weeks. In September, October, and November, another 70 died. Sources at the Wesley Guild Hospital, Ilesa, where most of the prisoners died, told Newswatch that the chief killers of the prisoners in Ilesa were none other than kwashiorkor, tuberculosis, and scabies. According to officials of the Ilesa local government council, who allocated land for the burial of the prisoners, 15 of those who died from kwashiorkor last year were “given mass burial in a shallow grave, most of them naked.” Sad. Heartbreaking.
Embarrassed by the constant outbreak of diseases in the prison, prominent indigenes of the area have protested to the federal government to quickly remove the “death chamber” from their town. Oluwadamulare Awe, chairman of the LGA, making a strong case for the relocation of the prison, told Adedeji Oresanya, a colonel and governor of the State, that the multi-purpose maximum prison had “become a graveyard for inmates.” Adekunle Aromolaran, author and Oba of Ilesa, added a weighty voice to Awe’s protest. As the only federal institution in the area, Aromolaran said the prison “has not served any useful purpose.” He, therefore, suggested that the “graveyard” should be done away with so that the community could use the land occupied by the prison “for farming and other beneficial projects” relevant to the economic survival of the town.
The Auchi prison in Bendel State has a similar tale of woe. In the first three months of this year, 22 prisoners were killed by scabies and other infectious diseases. The figure portends an ill omen for the small prison which recorded a total of “only 30 deaths” throughout last year. In Benin City, an up-to-date figure obtained by Newswatch shows that 15 prisoners have so far died this year. The breakdown shows further that six died in January and three each in February, March, and April. In Enugu, there is an unconfirmed report that the death toll averages two in a day. Even in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, a small prison meant for minor offenders serving short-term sentences, the mortality rate is high. The situation was so bad in November and December last year that there were at least three deaths every week.
At the root of the problem are poor medical services, deplorable sanitation, acute overcrowding, starvation, and severe hardships which inmates undergo in the prison and police cells. Nkadi Okocha-Ejeko, medical director of Ejeks Clinic, Benin, recently initiated a free-medical-service-for-prisoners project in Benin in response to the poor state of medical services in Nigerian prisons, which he said is “non-existent.” He is right. There is only one doctor and a nurse attached to Ikoyi and Kirikiri (medium and maximum) prisons (two of the biggest prisons in Nigeria) during working hours between 7.30 am and 3.00 pm. official records in Kano show that up till last February not a single kobo of the year’s financial allocation to the prison service had been released for the purchase of drugs.
Fola Kuteyi, a chief magistrate in Akure, halted proceedings in her court recently to donate money for the purchase of food and drugs for Adam Frank, an accused. She said that she took the decision as a fellow human being and “because of lack of proper care in prison custody.” Frank, a Ghanaian, was standing trial for “assaulting” his former master, a policeman. He appeared in court yawning, emaciated, pale and ravaged by skin diseases. He was scratching his body from head to toe. Kuteyi could not bear the sight for long. “The nature of my job is to serve humanity,” Kuteyi said. “I don’t like the ghost of a person I am seeing here.”
Convicts who survived death in Nigerian prisons are but walking skeletons, a ghost of their former selves. Food is a major problem. Tunde Thompson, a journalist jailed during Buhari/Idiagbon regime, said in his book, The Fractured Jail Sentence, that the quality of food served, especially to those awaiting trial, is so nauseating that to talk about quality would be to do extreme violence to language. “You couldn’t call it food really,” Chris Nderibe, a philosophy graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said. Nderibe was arrested following a student’s demonstration and detained for several months. He narrated a graphic story of the flood situation in the prison. “You wouldn’t give that food to your dog. That’s the truth. At one stage, we (detained students) went on a hunger strike. What they did was mix a little paste of what passed for gari and give you some bitter liquid which is supposed to be soup.”
Nderibe, at an interview with New Africa magazine last September, recollected a particular incident that illustrated how truly horrible the food situation in the prisons is. “This particular day, rice was served. Not that it looked like anything you expect a human being to eat. We were still on hunger strike, so we rejected our share. It was then I witnessed the most pitiable experience of my life. The non-student inmates jumped at the rejected food. A fierce struggle ensued and in the process, the plates fell down, over-turning their content on the filthy, smelly floor. Then the famished inmates scooped the food ferociously straight from the floor into their mouths in the manner of wild dogs.”
As more journalists, students, and Second Republic politicians returned from prisons to tell stories of malnutrition, kwashiorkor, and death, the government last January raised the daily feeding allowance per prisoner from N2.50 to N4.50. But the price of food went up too, some by more than 500 percent, wiping out whatever improvement the increase could have made to the prison diet. Prisoners remain famished and malnourished. To make matters worse, prison officials are known to pilfer the food meant for prisoners.
Moje Bare, a jurist, headed a panel that probed the prison riot last year in Benin City. Goodwill Osunde, a controller of prisons at Abuja and former head of Benin prison, told the panel that the riot, which claimed 24 lives, was partly caused by the theft of food by warders. “I am aware that the diversion of prisoners’ food by some prison workers was one of the reasons for the crisis,” Osunde told the probe panel. As a result of the findings of the panel, the ministry of internal affairs directed prison controllers throughout the country to ensure strict monitoring of warders handling prisoners’ food. The problem, however, appears to defy solution for now. When Newswatch visited the Benin prison, prisoners were head shouting “cargo don go-o.” “Cargo” is the prisoners’ slang for food. Prisoners usually raise such an outcry when they see their keepers stealing their food.
Nigerian prisons have been variously described as horror chambers, medieval dungeons, and torture camps. Perhaps, the worst problem is overcrowding. Festus Iyayi, a former university lecturer, was held in a Benin police cell for one night in July 1988. Here is his story: “In that seven metres of the corridor, there were 51 of us. In each of the cages meant for inmates, there were at least 12 inmates. There is no water in the cell. There was no toilet. The urinary and the toilet are the three basins on each of the cages and one of the bare floor, three feet away from me, on the corridor.”
John Shagaya, a colonel and minister of internal affairs, said that about 58,000 prisoners in the country were being housed in prisons meant for 28,000 inmates. This represents 30,000 or 51.7 percent more than the available space. Take Ikoyi prison. It was built in 1961 to accommodate 800 inmates. It is currently housing 2,500 convicts and suspects. The Benin prison, built-in 1906 for 220 inmates, is now stuffed with 797 inmates. Newswatch found that the place is so choked-up that both prisoners and those awaiting trial sleep-in shifts on the bare floor. Some stand for so many hours before it is their turn to sleep for just one hour. It sounds stranger than fiction but there is just one water tap for 797 inmates in Benin prison.
In Maiduguri, the congestion in both the new and the old prisons has reached a stage where inmates squat all night to sleep. Mohammed Ibrahim, a student of the Ramat Polytechnic, Maiduguri, was locked up in the prison for five days after a motor accident in which he knocked down a kid. “It is terrible in there,” he told Newswatch, “both the sick, the living, and the dead are dumped together in one room. There is virtually no ventilation. The weather now is very hot. The room is stuffy. There is just no space to stretch your legs. A cell meant for 30 people is swelling with 120 prisoners and detainees. People squat all night to sleep.” The old Maiduguri prison, built to accommodate about 300 prisoners, now has 856 inmates, while the new prison, with a capacity for 400, actually houses 1,211.
The situation in Kano is even worse. A small cell meant for 20 inmates now accommodates 200, while 3,000 convicts and suspects are packed into a place built for just 1,500 people. Sule Adamu, 31, who said he spent two years in the state central prison, had a chilling story to tell. “For more than a year, I had nothing to wear. My uniform had torn into rags. I converted my jumper into something like a pair of shorts by putting my legs through the hands and finding some way to wrap it around my waist, just to cover my genitals,” Adamu said.
According to the ex-convict, “a man in the Nigerian prison must demean himself by doing what he should do in private in the full glare of more than a hundred other people. We were all sick. We spent all day scratching our bodies, writhing in pains and coughing. Every day, someone next to you died and you knew it could be your turn the next moment. You are allowed outside the cell one hour a day or, if you are waiting trial, one hour a week. One day, we went to fetch water and I saw a reflection of myself on a glass door. I was something like a bag of bones. I was so unnerved; I didn’t know when I started weeping. Only a few people can recover from the trauma of where I found myself. I do not know when I can completely put it behind me.”
Josiah Oki was acting chief judge of Bendel State when he visited Auchi prison. What he saw was so repulsive that he told prison officials a piece of his mind. He said the prison was unfit even for cattle. “Even the cattle will refuse to be kept in this kind of cell,” Oki said.
Nnamdi Aduba, a criminologist and lecturer at the University of Maiduguri, has conducted extensive studies and research into the condition of Nigerian prisons. He told Newswatch in Maiduguri that one of the most unfortunate things about Nigerian prisons is that 60 percent of those in jail are suspects. As a result of the trauma, those awaiting trial have mental problems. Said a prison welfare official: “The investigations of their cases are endless and they do not have any idea when they will leave the prison. Their relatives desert them. Psychological torture sets in and the inmate simply goes mad. He can’t even remember his name or where he comes from. Now, how do you obtain a piece of relevant information from a mad man or associate with him? At the end of the day, you find out that we are running a psychiatric home.”
Perhaps, the most unfortunate and ironic dimension to this national malaise is that majority of those who undergo this devastating physical and mental torture are either young persons, poor individuals, first or minor offenders who can be legally sanctioned in many other ways outside the jail house. Statistics nationwide show that more than 55 percent of the prisoners are first offenders. About 80 percent are serving short-term imprisonment (under two years). More than 60 percent are awaiting trial, while 33 percent of the convicts are serving terms for stealing without violence.
Ibrahim Antar, attorney-general and commissioner for justice, Borno State, early in the year decided to go round and take a look at some of the prisons in the State. At Potiskum prison, about 140 kilometers east of Maiduguri, he found a sick, pitiable woman who was suffering from mental depression. She was serving a five-year jail term. The attorney-general inquired about what brought her to the overcrowded prison. The assistant superintendent of the prison, Abubakar Adams, told him: “The woman was jailed five years for stealing one naira.” Antar was shocked. To be sure, theft is a criminal offense; but not a few thought, like Antar, that her jail term was a bizarre travesty of justice.
The majority of the 2,000 people awaiting trial at the Ikoyi prison have spent, believe it, nine years in custody for minor offenses which, on conviction, would have carried not more than two years jail term. Rough estimates available to Newswatch show that more than 50 percent of Ikoyi prison inmates are there for such offenses as wandering, affray, conduct likely to cause a breach of peace, all of which are bailable offenses under Nigerian law.
Worse still, these minor offenders, young and old, are dumped together in the same cells with hardened criminals and mentally deranged convicts. Eniola Fadayomi, Lagos State attorney-general and commissioner for justice, visited the Ikoyi prison with some reporters some weeks ago. The reporters were not quite allowed to have a close look at the prison and its inmates. “All pressmen should go out. You are not wanted here,” S.T. Dakwat, the assistant director of prisons ordered. The reporters resorted to waiting outside for Fadayomi to brief them later. When she came out, she just shook her head and volunteered: “I can tell you the situation is deplorable.” “Is it true that under-aged people are being kept with hardened criminals?” one reporter asked. “I cannot disclose that. It is too sensitive to allow the public to know,” the attorney-general said.
The public has been told by the Civil Liberty Organization, CLO, a human rights group, that under-aged and minor offenders are locked-up together in the same cells. Said the 1988 annual report of the group: “Different categories of prisoners are kept in the same cells without taking into account their ages, offenses and criminal record. The mentally insane are kept in the same cells as the sane.”
An international expert in police and prison matters came to Nigeria early last year to investigate the conditions of police cells and jails which he intended to publish in the authoritative Criminal justice International Journal. Peter Nwankwo, himself a Nigerian but based in the US, was given some access to most of the country’s prisons. In March last year, he granted an interview to the London-based New Africa magazine. “I didn’t witness anyone being tortured, but do you know something? They clamp suspects still awaiting trial and hardened criminals together. This is both legally, socially, and morally indefensible,” he said.
Mohammed Lawan Gwadabe, a lieutenant colonel and governor of Niger State, said of the conditions of prisons in the State: “A situation whereby hard and condemned criminals or sick prisoners are made to share cells with those awaiting trials, including in some cases juveniles, cannot be said to be normal or acceptable.” Godwin Abbe, his Akwa Ibom counterpart, used the word “shocking” to describe what he saw in Eket prison. “These kids should definitely not be here,” Abbe said, visibly annoyed. The governor saw cases which the Pioneer, a government-owned newspaper, described as “hardly comprehensible with children below the age of 15 (rotting away) in overflowing cells lacking even in the slightest suggestion of comfort.”
The prison authorities do not accept the blame for overcrowding. They say that they have no option but to incarcerate whoever is sent to them. They pass the buck to the police and the courts. The police, on their part, pass the buck to the courts, arguing that they are compelled to detain suspects whose cases are not promptly disposed of in courts. Judges say that the judiciary is understaffed and the courts overcrowded. Yahaya Mahmud, a chief magistrate in Kaduna, gave a vivid picture of the situation in the Kaduna judiciary. “We have six judges in the State, three of them on part-time (because they are heads of some special military tribunals), but there are over 2,500 pending cases in the courts,” he said in a seminar paper titled “Administration of justice in an Ideal Society.”
Oki, chief judge of Bendel State, but the problem in perspective in an interview with Newswatch: “There are many factors responsible for the overcrowded prisons. The police may still be carrying out investigations on the matter. Sometimes, the police may have finished investigations and sent the file to the ministry of justice and because the director of public prosecution’s office is flooded with many cases, they are unable to attend to all the cases on time. The accused person’s lawyer may not show up in the court and the case has to be adjourned. The police have no vehicle to bring accused persons from prison to court. I had an experience in Ughelli. Lawyers were seated. I was there but the police didn’t bring the accused persons, so the court couldn’t sit.”
So where does the blame lie? The prison service, without doubt, is beset with a myriad of problems, including the acute shortage of facilities to do their work. Duty vehicles, ambulances, telephones, and other communication equipment are hard to come by in virtually every prison in Nigeria. Newswatch investigations show that the entire Kano prison service has no “single-vehicle it could call it’s own.” It is common in Kano City to see a prisoner carrying a fellow prisoner on his back to the hospital, escorted by a warder.
Olawuwo Oyesola is a warder with the Nigeria prison in Ibadan. Last December, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Sketch, the Ibadan-based government-owned tabloid. He sought to explain to the editor why the situation in Ibadan prison was so horrible and why the press should not nail warders for the problem. He wrote: “The Oyo State Command of the prisons service has not got a single-vehicle. Warders assigned to take prisoners to the hospital have to pay for public transport from their own pockets. There are occasions when warders are detailed to take prisoners to other towns to attend court. The warders also must make the transport arrangement. They are asked to make claims at the end of the month which are never honored. The prisons department has formed the habit of going to the customs office in Ibadan to beg for vehicles. Are we not under the same ministry of internal affairs?”
The question of discrimination in the treatment of prison officials by the internal affairs ministry was at the root of a threat last March by warders in Lagos to go on strike. They complained of delays in payment of salaries, leave allowances, as well as shifting allowances approved by the government since 1988. They are also demoralized because of poor conditions of service and “discriminatory treatment.” They say their salaries are inferior compared to those of immigration and customs officials, all of whom belong to the same ministry. Such discrimination, one superintendent told the Daily Champion last February, “does not give the warder a sense of commitment or job satisfaction.” Another point of grievance is the slow pace of promotion in the service. Said one warder: “If you go on training, you will be promised promotion but, ten years after that training, you will remain stagnant.” He asked: “How can the government be doing that to us in spite of the very sensitive job we are doing?”
Most Nigerian prisons were established during the colonial period by the 1916 Ordinance. But experts and commentators on prison affairs are not amused that 75 years later and 29 years after independence, when the British who introduced the prison system to Nigeria are carrying out massive reforms, the state of the Nigerian prison remains pathetically inhuman. The sheer mental and physical torture, as well as the alarming mortality rate in the prisons, have combined to provoke the conscience of many Nigerians. Are our prisons geared to correct and rehabilitate inmates and make them better citizens or are they slaughterhouses or concentration camps or, still, a breeding ground for better-trained criminals?
On paper, the role of the Nigerian prisons service is tripartite. First, they are responsible for “safe custody of persons legally interned.” Second, they “treat” them, and third, they are supposed to rehabilitate them. Ideally, the Nigerian prisons service also believes that the treatment and the rehabilitation of offenders could be achieved through carefully designed and well-articulated administrative, reformative, and rehabilitative programs aimed at inculcating discipline, respect for the law, and order, and the dignity of honest labor in convicts. In reality, however, it is a different ballgame altogether. Rehabilitation and correction are made impossible because of the acute shortage of facilities such as vocational workshops and libraries in the prisons. For instance, the Calabar prison has only a carpentry workshop. The workshop trains only three prisoners because of an acute shortage of tools. Libraries, where inmates can study and prepare for examinations and advance their careers while in prison, are virtually non-existent. In Maiduguri, for instance, Newswatch found only two books in the prison library: a Bible and a Koran. In the absence of these facilities, Nigerian prisons are in the words of Edem Koofreh, chief judge of Cross River State, “colleges for criminals.”
A prison, as one official told Newswatch, is not a holiday resort. But the conditions in our prisons could certainly be better. Penal systems in Europe today thrive on how best prisoners could be utilized for their own and the benefit of society. In most parts of Europe, prisoners even engage in wage labor. Minor offenders serve their sentences in factories chosen by correction departments. This ensures that the convict is not radically distanced from his family and society. Interested convicts even undergo training and earn diplomas and degrees, which they use for employment upon discharge from prison.
To come nearer home, the Zimbabwe prisons services strives to impart productive skills on its inmates to aid their reintegration on release into society. There is a strong involvement of prisoners in agriculture and many prisons aim at self-sufficiency in food production. This involvement, according to reports, saves the government an estimated 350,000 Zimbabwean dollars annually. The government also benefits from the prisoners through the supply of meat, milk, and vegetables from the prison farms. There is also what is called the prisoners building brigade, PBB. They are involved in building houses. Since 1980, the PBB is said to have constructed more than 300 houses for prison staff at prison locations in Harare, Chipige, Nkayi and Gokwe among other places. Prisoners at Chikumbi, the formidable maximum prison outside Harare, have also built a modern milking parlor, a pig breeding unit, and an abattoir.
In Nigeria, the situation appears to be the reverse. Prisoners are wasted away at a great loss to themselves, their families, and society. Lack of rehabilitation programs has made it possible that the only thing an ex-convict can ever hope to look forward to in Nigeria is a successful crime career. Plans over the years to carry out long-overdue reforms remain what they have always been: plans. The government, as The Observer newspaper said in an editorial recently, remains “rather tall on promises and very short in concrete actions.” The result is that prisoners’ conditions throughout the country continue to degenerate from bad to worse.
The plight of Nigerian prisoners and the penal system have, in the past few months, occupied the attention of human rights groups, philanthropic organizations, churches and individuals. The Prison Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, a voluntary organization concerned with prisoners’ welfare, last month dispatched an SOS to the government, pleading that the “brutality, dehumanization, wickedness and the degrading congestion of dunghills we call prisons” be urgently looked into and checked. “The way we are managing criminal behaviour in this country is a sad commentary on our humanity,” Odunaike, president of the organization, said. Ghana-born Apianda Arthur, regional director of Prison Fellowship International, PFI, who was in Nigeria last month, urged top government officials to strive and upgrade prison standards even in their own interest, because every Nigerian is a “potential prisoner or could find himself in the prison any-day.”
Arthur, a former top government official in the deposed Hilla Liman administration in Ghana, was jailed by Jerry Rawlings. Speaking to the FPN in Lagos last April, he said it was his habit, as interior secretary, to divert fund meant for prisons to other departments but “when I landed eventually in Ghana prisons, I was faced with a squalid situation that heightened my belief for a total overhaul of prison conditions throughout Africa.” Jim Sharkey, a Catholic priest who has been at the vanguard of improving the conditions of prisons at Eket, says some of the ways to overhaul prison conditions in Nigeria are to introduce “paroles or suspended sentences for minor, as well as counseling to stem anti-social behaviors.” Sharkey, an Irish who has spent 30 years in Nigeria and works in conjunction with the local prisoners’ welfare committee to donate food to prisoners at Eket, say the conditions of inmates, especially those awaiting trial, are deplorable.
The Nigeria Association of Prisoners’ Welfare, NAPW, says the first step to improving the condition of prisoners is to set up a special tribunal to decongest the prisons while more prisons should be built to take care of the increasing number of suspects and convicts. But Emmanuel Olowu, a criminologist, says building more prisons or what he calls “custodial expansions” is “irrelevant, inefficacious, inappropriate and violates contemporary criminological and penological wisdom.” According to him, the building of more prisons usually leads to a tendency by law officers to throw more people into jail, in the vain belief that there is adequate space to keep them. Besides, the building of more prisons, he said, results in an increase in operational costs such as feeding, clothing, beddings, transportation of inmates, and provision of medical, educational, and other facilities. On top of that, he said, the present prison staff of 18,000 would have to be increased with the building of more prisons and that would add to the strain on the prison’s budget, probably beyond the financial capabilities of the government. He suggests a “wholistic and multidirectional” approach. As he put it: “It must aim at reducing the country’s high rate of unemployment, reducing the crime level by formulating and implementing relevant socio-economic policies, as well as improving our unscientific criminal justice system. That, put together, will reduce to a manageable size the population of prison-bound criminals.”