Nigeria’s prison system fails its people

Woman prisoner under sentence of death, Nigeria

Woman prisoner under sentence of death, Nigeria

© Amnesty International

26 February 2008

In Nigeria, sixty five percent of prison inmates have never been convicted of any crime, with some awaiting trial for up to ten years.

A new Amnesty International report has condemned Nigeria’s criminal justice system, saying that the country’s prisons are filled with people whose human rights are being systematically violated. Torture by police is said to be widespread, with “confessions” extracted by torture often used as evidence in trials.

The report also reveals how people with mental illness, not suspected of committing any crime, are imprisoned alongside convicted criminals because their families are unable or unwilling to take care of them.

Amnesty International also highlighted the plight of prison staff, who work long and stressful hours for low wages that are often paid late. Staff shortages create security risks for both staff and inmates.

“The problems in Nigerian’s criminal justice system are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has had no choice but to recognize them – and has pledged many times that it will reform the system,” said Aster van Kregten, speaking at a press conference in Abuja.

“However, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those without money stand even less chance. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars in appalling conditions without ever having been convicted of a crime – sometimes simply due to their case files having been lost by the police.

“Many inmates awaiting trial are effectively presumed guilty – despite the fact that there is little evidence of their involvement in the crime of which they are accused.”

The Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the criminal justice system, acknowledging its role in creating a situation of prolonged detention and overcrowding.

Despite many presidential commissions and committees recommending reform, the recommendations have not been implemented. Instead, the government has set up new committees and commissions to study, review and harmonize the previous recommendations.

Most people in Nigerian prisons are too poor to afford a lawyer and the Legal Aid Council only has 91 lawyers in the whole country to provide legal representation. The result is that only one in seven awaiting trial inmates has access to legal representation.

Appalling prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, are also seriously damaging the mental and physical health of thousands.

In one case, Bassy, a 35-year-old woman with mental illness, was brought to prison by her brother, who said the family could no longer cope with her. Prison authorities classified Bassy as a “civil lunatic.” Accused of no crime and never brought before a judge, Bassy spent almost three years in prison, sleeping on the floor in a cell with 11 women.

After the intervention of PRAWA, a Nigerian non-governmental organization dealing with the incarceration of mentally ill prisoners, Bassy was finally transferred to a hospital, where she is now receiving treatment.

“The Nigerian government is simply not complying with its national and international obligations when it comes to the criminal justice system in Nigeria and must begin to do so seriously and urgently,” said van Kregten. “The conditions we saw and the stories we heard from inmates are a national scandal.”

Nigeria: Prisoners' rights systematically flouted

Index Number: AFR 44/001/2008
Date Published: 26 February 2008
Categories: Nigeria

This report, based on testimonies of inmates and interviews with stakeholders, considers that prisoners in Nigeria are systematically denied a range of human rights. Stakeholders throughout the Nigerian criminal justice system are culpable of maintaining this situation. The judiciary fails to ensure that all inmates are tried within reasonable time. Prisons cannot ensure that facilities are adequate for the health of prisoners. Severe overcrowding and a lack of funds have created a deplorable situation. The Nigerian government must now face up to its responsibilities for those in its prisons.

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