As much as every nation wants a criminal free society, one cannot overemphasize the need for justice been done to the accused, and the society. Lord Eldon once stated in the landmark case of R v Sussex Ex parte McCarthy[1] that justice must not merely be done but must be seen to have been manifestly and evidently done. If justice is said to be the crux of the Nigerian criminal litigation system, then it becomes of essence to review the prison system of Nigeria.

Prisons are generally a rehabilitation and correctional facility which are meant to re-integrate the lives of those who have violated the rules of a society. If these are the purpose for its establishment, it therefore becomes imperative that this institution be reviewed to ensure that the purpose of its establishment is not defeated.

This article therefore seeks to analytically and succinctly look into the Nigerian prison system in order to proffer the best possible solution to the errors inherent in the system. Efforts shall also be made to look into the American prison system, and how it can be modified for adoption in order to ensure that justice is ensured in the system.


The Nigerian prison system was established in accordance with three forms of penal legislation which operate alongside each other in the country; the Penal Code and the accompanying Criminal Procedure Code Cap 81 Laws of the Federation 1990 (CPC); the Criminal Code and the accompanying Criminal Procedure Act Cap 80 Laws of the Federation 1990 (CPA) and the Sharia penal legislation in 12 northern states (which applies to only Muslim members of these states). By its establishment philosophy, the Nigerian prison service is an institution meant to administer penal treatment to adult offenders. Its importance is in the bid to reduce crime in the society.[2]

On the basis of imprisonment policy, prisons were established for the following reasons:

  • To punish convicted offenders in accordance with the law
  • To provide reformative and correctional facilities to prisoners
  • To keep convicted offenders (prisoners) for safe custody,
  • To provide custody facilities for prisoners who are awaiting trials until they are required to be produced in the court of law
  • To rehabilitate and re-integrate prisoners who have completed the sentences in the prison

From the above it will be safe to infer that the essence of imprisonment is to provide correctional and rehabilitation facility for offenders. As clear as this functions are, it is doubtful to say that the Nigerian prison system is working in line with the above to achieve the above stated objects. The deplorable state of the Nigerian prison is in itself alarming to such extent that it becomes questionable as to whether it is indeed a prison or a death trap.

In relation to social infrastructure, there are no good recreational facilities and other amenities in most prisons in Nigeria, as reported by Soyinka,[3] Kangiwa[4] and Obioha[5] in Sokoto and Ibadan prison yards respectively.  The Nigerian prison environment with regard to amenities have been characterized as “un-cheerful” (Awolowo), “dehumanising” (Soyinka), and “a hell” by Abubakar Rimi after his life experience as a political prisoner in Nigeria at the termination of the second republic.  This lack of social amenities accounts for the culture of fragility in respect to high tendencies of riots, rebellion and civil disturbances.  Physical infrastructure and housing facility could better be described as uncivilized. The rooms and cells are not good for human habitation, while the beddings are in most cases absent as many prison inmates in Nigeria sleep on bare floor.

Although efforts have been made by the government to decongest the prisons these is yet not enough. Policies which have overtime been put into place are:

  • Grant amnesty to deserving prisoners.
  • Pay frequent visits to the prisons to see to their living conditions.
  • Review occasionally the cases of those convicted and suspects who have stayed awaiting trial and release them as appropriate.

The reason for this is not far-fetched. Reports from the National Working Group on Prison Reform and Decongestion shows that the total number of prisoners as at 2005 was between 40,000 and 45,000. By 2016, the total number of in-mates as reported by the National Bureau of Statistics has increased to 68,686. It must also be noted that the report shows that the capacity of the prisons could only contain 50,803 inmates. This therefore leaves us with questions as to where the remaining 17, 883 are kept. President Mohammed Buhari in fact aired his concern about the deplorable state of these prisons noting that it is a national scandal as many prisons are overcrowded by 90%.[6]

Table 1.1

  2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
PRISON CAPACITY           47,286           47,286           47,646           49,825           49,965           50,803
PRISON POPULATION           49,481            52,136             55,173           56,059            65,033          68,686
PRISONS OVERCROWDING (Population-capacity)              2,195              4,850               7,527              6,234            15,068           17,883




PRISON CAPACITY  %                        –                  0.76                 4.57                  0.28                 1.68
PRISON POPULATION %                   5.37                  5.83                 1.61               16.01                 5.62

The National Bureau of statistic report 2016

From the above table it becomes imperative to examine new approach that can be suitably adopted in order to solve the outrageous prison overpopulation in Nigeria.  In doing this two major aspects need to be considered; these are;

  • Cases relating to accused persons awaiting trial
  • Cases relating to already convicted offenders

However, for the purpose of this article, the latter question shall form the crux of this work. It is therefore suggested that the American Parole Model should be adopted with few modifications. This model shall therefore be discussed.


Parole is a period of conditional supervised release in the community following a term in state or federal prison. Parolees include individuals released through discretionary or mandatory supervised release from prison, released through other types of post-custody conditional supervision, or sentenced to a term of supervised release from prison.

The history of the parole system can be traced to the 20th century. During this period indeterminate sentencing dominated the American jurisprudence and the parole board was embedded with 3 main functions.

  1. Parole boards determine the actual length of a prison sentence. The rationale for this is because with indeterminate sentencing in place, judges only sentence offenders specifying the maximum and minimum sentence to be given effect on the offender.
  2. Parole agencies supervise recently released individuals in the community for the remainder of their sentence.
  3. Parole officers and parole boards are authorized to revoke a parolee’s conditional liberty and return him or her to prison. This is mainly done when the parole board believes that the parolee have not fulfilled a condition essential to his term of “temporary release”.

This system of having the prisoners getting released through the parole board soon became unpopular as mandatory release date were used in determining when prisoners will be released on parole.

At the national level, the decline in the role of parole boards in making release decisions can be understood on three levels.  First, the shift from discretionary to mandatory release mechanisms reflects the parallel shift in sentencing philosophy. As more states moved from indeterminate to determinate sentencing schemes, the role of parole boards was diminished.[7]

Second, this change in practice can be viewed as a realignment of relationships among the three branches of government.  Under the indeterminate sentencing philosophy, the judicial and executive branches of government exercise substantial discretion over the length of a prison sentence.[8]

Finally, this shift has operational implications as well.  The role of parole boards in deciding whether to grant parole has significant consequences for prisoners.  They must prepare applications for release, line up a job and housing in the community, and present a record of program involvement and good behaviour to justify a release decision.[9]


What basically happens upon the release of a prisoner is dependent on whether the release is conditional or unconditional. A release will be unconditional when the prisoner has served out his terms of sentence. In such situation the prisoner is not required to be supervised by any parole officer.

A release is however conditional when former prisoners are placed on supervision in the community for a pre-determined period of time and must adhere to certain conditions of release.  Typical release conditions include regular reporting to a parole officer, drug testing, maintaining employment, and no possession of weapons.  Failure to observe such conditions may result in a return to prison.[10]


A common method of assessing parole systems is to ask what percentage of people placed on parole supervision complete their parole term successfully. Any assessment of success requires a definition of “success.”  One definition of successful parolees may include those who do not return to prison.  A second may include those who are not rearrested while under community supervision. Another may include those who do not commit any technical violations – as some technical violations may not result in a return to prison.  And finally, a broader definition of success may look outside the scope of criminal justice involvement at such issues as stable employment, adequate housing, and healthy familial and personal relationships.[11]

Notwithstanding the lack of a national standard, existing data can still shed light on the extent to which parolees succeed.  For our purposes here, we use the Bureau of Justice Statistics definition of “success.”  A parolee is successful if he or she completes a term of community supervision (which varies by state) without returning to prison, returning to jail, or absconding from supervision.[12]

From the Annual Parole Survey and National Corrections Reporting Program, Bureau of Justice Statistics it was observed that the rate of success in the 1990’s ranges between 40 and 42 per cent.

A Washington State (1976) 10-year follow-up of parolees found that the first year of parole was critical, with more than one-half of those paroled returning to prison during this time period. In this study, there were more failures in the second six months after release than in the first. It was also found that those convicted of murder and manslaughter were less likely to recidivate and that property offenders especially those convicted of burglary, auto theft, and forgery had the highest failure rate. As expected, younger parolees did significantly worse than those 40 years of age or older. Blacks did slightly worse than whites after the first six months, and Native Americans did significantly worse than all other groups.[13]

It is important to note that many of the failures on parole supervision are a result of technical violations; that is, failure to abide by the conditions imposed by the parole board. Technical violations can range from a positive drug test to failure to report as directed. Some states have implemented new policies to help reduce returns to prison for technical violations. For example, California’s new realignment law requires nonviolent parolees to be supervised by local probation departments and requires violators to be placed in jail rather than sent back to prison.[14]

Studies of parole success by type of offense indicate repeatedly that those who commit murder are among the best parole risks (Neithercutt, 1972). Reasons for this conclusion vary; the explanation offered most frequently is that most murderers tend to be first offenders who have committed crimes of passion. Another reason cited is age; because most convicted murderers spend a great amount of time incarcerated, they tend to be older (and more mature) when released, usually after the high-crime-risk years of 18-29.[15]

Routledge Taylor & Francis in their book on Prisons, Probation and Parole in America: How Punishment Changes Behaviour selected data from a national study of parole recidivism (Beck, 1987). These data confirmed two important points with regard to parole effectiveness:

(1) Recidivism rates vary depending on the definition of recidivism, and

(2) The type of offense and age are important factors in determining parole success. Other findings included the following:

  • Approximately 10 per cent of the persons paroled accounted for 40 per cent of the subsequent arrest offenses.
  • About one-fifth of the subsequent arrests occurred in states other than the original paroling state.
  • An estimated 37 per cent of the parolees were rearrested while still on parole.
  • Recidivism rates were highest in the first two years after an offender’s release from prison.
  • Within one year, 32 per cent of those paroled had been arrested; within two years, 47 per cent had been rearrested.
  • Recidivism was higher among men, blacks, and persons who had not completed high school than among women, whites, and high school graduates.
  • Almost three-quarters of those paroled for property offenses were rearrested for a serious crime compared to about two-thirds of those paroled for violent offenses.
  • Approximately one-third of both property offenders and violent offenders were rearrested for a violent crime upon release from prison.
  • The longer the parolee’s prior arrest record, the higher the rate of recidivism-more than 90 per cent of parolees with six or more previous adult arrests were rearrested compared to 59 per cent of first-time offenders.
  • The earlier the parolee’s first adult arrest, the more likely the chances for re-arrest. 79 per cent of those arrested and charged as an adult before the age of 17 were rearrested compared to 51 per-cent of those first arrested at the age of 20 or older.
  • Time served in prison had no consistent impact on recidivism rates. Those who had served six months or less in prison were about as likely to be arrested as those who had served more than two years.


The benefits that could be derived from the Parole System ranges from prison decongestion to developing the communities through the prisoner’s manpower. Its advantages also extend to re-building prisoners in such a way as to reshape their behavioural and social pattern through direct monitoring by designated officials and persons.

However, whether Nigeria should adopt the system is dependent on so many factors. Some of which are:

  1. Do we have what it takes to accommodate and supervise prisoners in our community?
  2. How best can we modify and amend the system to prevent the American failures in the Nigerian system.

The success of this system is therefore dependent on how best we are able to set a framework to ensure that Parole Officers are diligent in supervising, monitoring and inculcating the right moral, behavioural and social pattern in prisoners on parole.

Moreover, research has it that the mere fact that a prisoner serves out his jail term is not a yardstick for determining whether or not he would commit another offence at a later date. If this is so, why can’t we through the parole system reintegrate, monitor and inculcate the right moral, behavioural and social pattern in prisoners on parole.


The following principles shall be recommended to ensure the effectiveness of Parole in the Nigerian System.

  1. Parole system should be limited to non-capital offences
  2. The Minimum Imprisonment Terms Policy should regulate when prisoners can be listed for consideration for Parole[16]
  3. The Maximum Imprisonment Term Policy[17] should regulate the maximum number of years a prison must serve in the event he does not qualify for parole.
  4. A Prison Parole Board[18] should be put in place at the Prison level to recommend prisoners who upon serving the Minimum Imprisonment Term are qualified for parole.[19]
  5. A Parole Board should be established at the Federal level to approve or disapprove the recommendation of prisoners for parole by the Prison Parole Board.
  6. Prisoners that are up for parole should present at least 2 relatives who will undertake to see to their upkeep while on parole. They shall also undertake to ensure that the prisoner on parole engage in his assigned community development service on a day to day basis.
  7. Prisoners on parole should be designated a community development service under the supervision of a Parole Officer in their locality.
  8. A Working Counselling Department should be set up to help reintegrate the mind-set of prisoners through counselling.
  9. A prisoner on parole should be made to report to a Working Counselling Department at least once a week to undergo the relevant reintegration process.
  10. Where a prisoner on parole persistently fails to do the assigned work, the Parole Officer should recommend that he is returned to prison to serve his Maximum Imprisonment Term.[20]


It is high time Nigeria explored other means in de-congesting its prisons, as justice is best served when the purpose of imprisonment is achieved. Letting a prisoner perish is not a sure means of reforming him, but rather putting in place measures of re-integrating him is the surest way of achieving the desired results in prisoners.

Article written by:

Mayowa Ogunsan Esq.

Associate, Wiseview Legal consultancy

[email protected]

[1] [1924] KB 256 [1923] EWHC KB 1

[2] Emeka E. Obioha; Challenges and Reforms in the Nigerian Prisons System, pg. 2

[3] Soyinka W. The Man Died: Prison Notes. London: Penguin Books 1972 (extracted from Emeka E. Obioha; Challenges and Reforms in the Nigerian Prisons System @ pg. 5

[4] Kangiwa G A. The Political Economy of Crime in Sokoto Town. B.Sc Project, Unpublished. Sokoto: University of Sokoto 1986 (extracted from Emeka E. Obioha; Challenges and Reforms in the Nigerian Prisons System @ pg. 5

[5] Obioha E.E, Prison Culture in Nigeria; A Study of Life Within Agodi Prison Community, Ibadan. M.Sc Dissertation, Unpublished. Ibadan: Department of Sociology, University of Ibadan 1995 (extracted from Emeka E. Obioha; Challenges and Reforms in the Nigerian Prisons System @ pg. 5


[6] Published by Vanguard newspaper;

[7] Jeremy Travis & Sarah Lawrence; Beyond the Prison Gates: The State of Parole in America, RESEARCH REPORT            November 2002 @ pg. 7

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Routledge Taylor & Francis Group; Prisons, Probation and Parole in America: How Punishment Changes Behaviour, pg. 45

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] The Minimum Imprisonment Term Policy means the minimum period of years which a prisoner must serve before been qualified to be considered for parole.

[17] The Maximum Imprisonment Term means the maximum period of years which a prisoner must serve in the event he does not qualify for parole.

[18] Unlike what is obtainable in the United State wherein prisoners are released on Parole after a specified number of years in prison, prisoners in Nigeria should also be so released but must be subject to recommendations by the Prison Parole Board.

[19] The governing principle that should regulate recommendations of prisoners should include: 1. The behavioural pattern of the prisoner while serving his term; 2.  The likelihood of the prisoner committing the crime again or other crimes; 3. The relationship between the prisoner with other inmates; 4. The remorse of prisoners while serving his term in prison

[20] Such term should continue as if he had not initially been placed on Parole

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