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Decongesting Nigerian prisons to recongest them afresh


This topic will be better understood when we go down memory lane to establish what obtained in Nigeria as regards the prison system before the advent of colonialism. This will expose one of the fundamental flaws of the so-called modern system of penal management as was introduced by Britain after the ‘evil’ scramble for Africa by European nations. It is important to state the obvious at this point that the scramble for Africa was mainly for economic gains in favour of the European nations involved.

The effects of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century in Europe warranted a search for sources of raw materials for the fast growing industries and creation of new markets for ‘legitimate trade.’ It became necessary therefore to introduce political and socio-cultural dominance by such nations so as to control the economic lives of the natives. The Portuguese, British, French and Spanish were involved in this struggle which left indelible marks on the emerging nation states many years after gaining independence from the colonial masters. Among the many problems which Britain left Nigeria to grapple with is the seemingly intractable and inefficient Criminal Justice Administration (CJA) which has gulped billions of naira in an unending reform project. Prison congestion with its hydra-headed management problems is a direct result of this troublous CJA which was hoisted on the country by the Queen’s Government.

The problem of congestion, especially among pre-trial prisoners, has continued to be wrongly addressed even after decades of independence. Some of the questions we need to honestly answer as Nigerians are: (i) Has the prison decongestion effort of the government yielded the desired results? (ii) What is the recidivism rate after each decongestion exercise? (iii) Has this one-way-traffic decongestion project as pursued vigorously by Government at Federal and State levels brought lasting solution to prison congestion in Nigeria? (iv) Are prisons not simply being temporarily decongested only to re-congest them almost in a short while? (v) How safe is the society with pre-trial inmates who benefit from the decongestion project but were not permitted by law to go through the reformation and rehabilitation programmes of the Nigerian Prisons Service?


The history of prisons in Nigeria is as old as the different communities which make up the country. The reason is simply that each group of people had their own methods of social control and management of social deviants. There was nothing like people breaking the social norms and values of their communities with impunity and still move about as free men and women. In short, traditional Nigerian communities had well organized CJA operational systems which brought crime and other anti-social activities to the barest minimum.

With colonisation came the gradual reorganisation of the traditional CJA just to suit the agenda of the British authorities in the Northern and Southern geo-political divides of today’s Nigeria. Traditional CJA in Nigeria was under the Emirs or other traditional political institutions in the North with the prisons located near the royal palace for the incarceration of convicted offenders. In the South, security issues, security organs and offenders were handled either by secret societies or village vigilante or masquerade groups with no institutionalized prison locations as was found in the North. There was nothing like congestion of pre-trial prisoners as we know it today. Rather, there was optimal use of non-custodial measures which helped to deter individuals from criminal activities some of which carried maximum sentences of either death, banishment, slavery or other severe punishment.

With the amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates by Lord Lugard in 1914, the gradual unification of the prison system became a necessity. This was finally accomplished in 1968 to produce what we know today as Nigerian Prisons Service. The sudden increase in the population of prisoners in the country and the alarming high death rate recorded in prison yards in the 1970s led to the setting up of the Sir Taslim Elias Prison Reform Committee. Rather than fully implement all the major recommendations of the committee which included the establishment of an independent Prison Service Commission, the Government came up with the Prison Act of 1972 with the Service still under the Ministry of Interior (Internal Affairs).

To further maintain a status quo that has made efficient penal management almost impossible, the Government came up again with the Customs, Immigration and Prisons Services Board (CIPB) in 1986 and later, the Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services Board (CDFIPB).

The Nigerian Prisons Service has very peculiar human-related professional constitutional mandate thus making it different from virtually all the other agencies at CDFIPB. There seems not to be adequate appreciation of the uniqueness of the functions of the Service which have serious security and socio-economic implications for the society. This is an unfortunate development and the many Prison Reform projects of the Government seem to only provide temporary relief. While the Government is busy commending itself for freeing hundreds of pre-trial prisoners, numbers more than those who benefitted from the decongestion exercise return to their home in another prison yard since prison life is all they have known over the years. It is a home to the prisoners because they are assured of regular food, manageable accommodation, medical care and acceptability among others like him all for free.    

One begins to wonder whether the danger of having a high number of the productive age-bracket as pre-trial prisoners without adequate facilities and necessary recovery programmes is ever given a thought by those in authority. The truth is that the decongestion project of the Government has continued to recycle prison inmates who go out temporarily, raise more persons like them to further populate the prison yards and return again to where they prefer to live since life outside the prison is still ‘harsh and unfriendly’. For how long are we going to continue is this national error and lack of will to deal with the basic problems of the masses which include poverty, unemployment, underemployment, idleness, laziness, dearth of social amenities, among others?

We have been informed times without number that pre-trial prisoners’ population keeps increasing in Nigeria. Information from Nigerian Prisons Service authorities has it that as at 31 March, 2018, the pre-trial prisoners’ population stood at over 50,000 compared to that of convicts who were 17,000. Any discerning individual who loves this country and is truly concerned about security issues will know that 50,000 un-reformed social deviants are a ready army who could have been gainfully employed outside the prison yard. To know that among this alarming number are energetic youth who have chosen to be armed robbers, kidnappers, militants, insurgents or terrorists, rapists, cultists or murderers should get all right-thinking men to be alive to their social responsibilities. There is no sign that the political and economic climate as the race for 2019 gets hotter will not produce a much higher prisoners’ population than what we have above, especially among those on remand. Similarly, the fact that the criminal has no regard for the social status of his victims or potential victims call for an honest and serious effort by Government at all levels and other stakeholders, including private individuals, on how to effectively solve the problem of pre-trial prisoners’ congestion in Nigeria.

It is on record that concerned stakeholders have joined hands with the Nigerian Prisons Service since the return to democratic governance in 1999 to seek for an improved prison administration. The effort has only yielded a few positive results. The Prison Bill was one of the oldest in the National Assembly which did not consider it a security risk to delay the passage of the bill. When the bill was eventual passed just before the end of the 7th National Assembly, it was riddled with several unresolved issues which if not addressed will further worsen the state of prisons in Nigeria. Events show that more work still needs to be done by Government and other stakeholders before the nation can have an internationally accepted prison system.

The Prison Service has continued to make front news in the media either when some influential persons, especially politicians, are sent there on remand-they never stay beyond a few days because of the ‘harshness’ of the place compared to their comfortable homes and offices. Another time there is a serious national discourse on the Service is when there is a security breach, like jail breaks or riots which have been very few, courtesy of the dedicated and loyal work attitude of the majority of Nigerian Prisons Service staff. All these take place even as the Service continues to contend with an overflowing congestion of pre-trial prisoners despite multiple Government decongestion projects.

The Criminal Justice Act which was passed in 2015 is a step in the right direction but much more still needs to be done to make the provisions of the document effective. If the Act is reviewed to address existing gaps and diligently implemented, the poorly advised decongestion project will no longer be necessary. Rather, the time, energy, money and other valuable resources being expended on the project will be channeled to the ever increasing needs of the Prisons Service. The irony is even that only a few states in the country have shown willingness to domesticate the Act, which laudable provisions include the use of non-custodial sentencing administration and the speedy dispensation of pre-trial cases in courts. This is another issue which Government at all levels should take very serious because of the many adverse effects of insecurity, especially where prison inmates break-out due to inhuman environment in the yard caused by overcrowded cells and other human element issues. The management of NPS has continued to lament that Ikoyi, Port Harcourt, Kirikiri, Enugu, Warri, Kaduna, Katsina and some other major prisons in the country are keeping inmates’ population that far surpass their original capacity. This is not funny! Any breakdown in law in any of those prisons, especially under the internal security challenge Nigeria has faced for almost a decade is not in our individual, societal or overall national interest. We should not forget, for instance, that some years ago, the insurgents increased the strength of their fighters by overrunning and destroying some prisons in the North East. The implications of that action have adversely affected our nation in ways we never imagined.

We should also remember and ponder over the fact that the prisons which were overrun by the insurgents were small prisons. The effects of these unfortunate incidents, which caused the deaths of many staff of the Nigerian Prisons Service and the destruction of valuable facilities, have taken the Service many years back in service delivery because the existing locations are overstretched. The attacks and jail breaks at Onitsha and Port Harcourt in 2005 led to the illegal and forceful release of many pre-trial prisoners. There have been many unsuccessful attacks of some other prisons over the years by external armed persons who are aware that the Nigerian Prisons Service does not have the necessary fire power to effectively counter them. Many thanks go to the Nigerian Army and Police which have synergized with the Service to keep attackers at bay in some prison locations.   

Recently, Medium Security Prison, Minna, was attacked and about 200 prisoners illegally released by the attackers. This particular attack is the third one in less than 10 years. Think of what happens if highly congested prisons, God forbid, like Port Harcourt, Ikoyi, Kirikiri Medium, Owerri, Enugu, Agodi, Abeokuta, and others erupt in riots or are attacked because of the large number of pre-trial prisoners whose comrades-in-evil seek to release illegally. Where do we run to and what happens to our national socio-economic life after such unwholesome assaults on prison yards? For some persons to be so daring to attack prisons where hardened offenders are kept calls for a rethink by our security high command.

The fall out of these daring attacks include loss of lives of staff, many have died unsung and their families forgotten, and the obvious destruction of some valuable Government properties. There is always an immediate disruption of security and normalcy in the host communities where the attacked prisons are located, that of other towns in the state and those in neighbouring states which hardly recover from the losses suffered as a result of the attacks. The losses when quantified in financial and material terms are so outrageous that no reasonable individual should continue to pay lip service to this recurring problem of pre-trial prisoners’ congestion. Every sincere Nigerian should rise to partner with Government and the Nigerian Prisons Service to purposefully address the problem of prison congestion which have been caused and sustained by a number of factors.


From the foregoing, it becomes easy to say, in line with the questions raised at the beginning of this write-up that the decongestion project of Government is not addressing and will not be able to effectively address the problem of overcrowding in our prisons, especially among pre-trial prisoners. Here are my reasons:
a) Releasing the pre-trial prisoner without giving him the opportunity to be reformed and rehabilitated puts the life of the victim of the crime and that of other members of the society to which he returns at great risk.
b) The released ‘untreated’ prisoner may face some grievous risks, e.g. attack by his victims as a revenge, rejection by his family, stigmatization, unemployment, hunger, poverty, lure to re-offend, etc.
c) Lack of participation in reformation and rehabilitation programmes by pre-trial prisoners because they are adjudged innocent by law, leaves them with no other option than to return to crime.
d)  The return of pre-trial prisoners from prison makes those of them who have become too old and weak for on-the-spot participation in criminal activities to start indoctrinating unguided youths and juveniles into a life of crime.
e) Because a greater percentage of those freed by Chief Judges of states who visit prisons for jail delivery and those who benefit from the Federal Government occasional decongestion projects have no home or gainful employment to return to, they find their way back to crime and to prison,Which way forward?

1. Passage of an internationally accepted Prison Bill by the NASS,
2. Special funds allocation by Government for total and regular upgrading of the facilities and logistics needed by NPS. The military and Police have continued to enjoy this thus enabling them to apprehend and prosecute offenders who are handed over to NPS, the seriously under-funded custodial arm of the Criminal Justice Administration (CJA),
3. Updating and having it as a Federal Government policy the domestication of the Criminal Justice Act of 2015 by every state in the country,
4. Conviction of majority of pre-trial prisoners to enable them partake in the reformation and rehabilitation programmes of NPS,
5. Sponsorship of convicted prisoners for educational and skill acquisition programmes in the prison yard rather than using public funds to pay fines for them thus undermining the aims and reasons for imprisonment,

6. Well coordinated rehabilitation programmes for ex-prisoners by Government so as to prevent re-offending. This will promote their purposeful reintegration in the society.In conclusion, it is important to say that prisons in Nigeria have been faced with the problem of congestion of pre-trial prisoners for decades. It is also worth noting that Government has made effort to minimize the level of congestion by mobilizing Federal and state judiciaries to boldly tackle the problem. The recent Presidential charge for the judiciary to seriously address the problem of congestion in the courts and prisons is an indication that there is light in the tunnel. However, the position of this paper is that there should be a more dynamic decongestion process which will be beneficial to the prisoner, NPS, the society and the nation. We have only continued to use a decongestion system that is no longer in vogue. This old system has done more harm than good and this should change, especially as we are in the season of all-round change.
Emmanuel, a retired Controller of Prisons and the chief executive officer of Emysab Topclass Concepts, wrote from Abuja.

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Nigerian Prisons
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