The way out is to reform the system as well as spend more on social welfare programmes
Our prisons are congested. A facility meant to accommodate less than 600 inmates currently houses over 2,400 inmates. The inmates are mostly those in the ‘awaiting trial’ category.” This alarming picture of the state of prisons across the country, and the state of Owerri Prison in particular, is a cause for concern. Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Owerri Branch, Imo State, Lawrence Nwakaeti, who made the observation, said the prisons were in a deplorable state. It is a reason to call for reforms. Nwakaeti focused on “Judicial reforms and sustainable development in a democracy,” in an address at an event to mark the 2017/2018 legal year in the state.
Corroborating the depiction of the lamentable condition of the country’s prisons, a 2017 study by a not-for-profit organisation, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), showed that 50, 427 or 67 per cent of the 74,508 prisoners in Nigeria, are awaiting trial. This figure makes Nigeria “the fifth country with the highest awaiting trial population in Africa, trailing Libya, DRC, Central African Republic and Benin Republic,” according to CURE-Nigeria Executive Director, Sylvester Uhaa. Concerning Owerri Prison, CURE-Nigeria statistics indicate: capacity: 548; inmates: 2,307; convicted: 193; awaiting trial: 2,114.
It is noteworthy that the organisation found that excessive use of pre-trial detention and low investment in welfare spending are major causes of prison overpopulation. Uhaa observed that when defendants are admitted to bail by a court, but are unable to satisfy the bail conditions, they are remanded in prison custody, thus swelling the population of those awaiting trial. The solution, according to him, is for the federal and state governments to “ensure the release of people who are illegally and innocently held in prison and detention centres throughout the country, and to take steps to ensure that prisons are used only as a last resort.”
Challenges faced by prosecution agencies and the judiciary are also to blame for prison congestion and a situation where some of the inmates end up spending more time in prison custody than they would have spent if convicted. A top prison official was quoted as saying: “The congestion has sadly overstretched the facilities and personnel, thus leading some inmates to leave the prison more hardened than they were before incarceration.”
Obviously, the country’s legal system is in need of reforms to address issues, including overburdened courts and prolonged trials. The prison system also needs reforms to ensure that there are adequate prisons and adequate prison personnel. In July, the Comptroller-General (CG) of Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS), Ja’afaru Ahmed, announced that “a 3,000 capacity ultra-modern prison with all the requirements for successful reformation of inmates will soon come on stream.” He also said “modern cells are being constructed in different locations to replace old and dilapidated cells in order to improve living conditions of inmates.”
However, the country must avoid a situation where “the new prisons will soon be filled up with awaiting trial inmates and then we will need to build bigger ones, and then bigger ones,” Uhaa argued. Interestingly, he noted: “Research indicates that there is a direct relationship between welfare spending and imprisonment. Countries that spend more of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on welfare have lower prison rates than those who spend less of their GDP on welfare.
For example, Denmark, Sweden and Finland spend the highest proportion of their GDP on welfare and have the lowest imprisonment rate in the world. This is why we have continued to advocate more investment in education, health and other social and economic welfare programmes, as these will help reduce crime and other social vices in Nigeria.”
In the final analysis, tackling prison overpopulation requires a multipronged approach to reform the legal system, improve the prison system and advance socio-economic conditions.
Culled: the nation