The Nigeria Prisons Service [NPS] said recently that as of March this year, there are 68,250 inmates held in prison facilities all over the country. Controller General of Nigeria Prison Service Ja’afaru Ahmed was quoted as having disclosed this figure to Economic Confidential. He said, “As at March 6, 2017 total inmates population stands at 68,259. Out of this number, 46,351 are awaiting trial while the remaining 21,903 are convicted. In terms of percentage, the convicted is 32 percent while awaiting trial persons are 68 percent. However, the figures are not static as they go up and down.”
At first sight this figure might look large but, according to one expert, it is actually very small in relation to our population. Retired Comptroller of Prisons for Planning, Research and Statistics Ifediorah Orakwe said Nigeria’s prison population is “very low, and it is as a result of the criminal justice system that is not performing. And that is why you have criminals everywhere because if the criminal justice system becomes dynamic and functional, we will have close to 300,000 prison inmates, to match our population.” Experts have long shown that countries such as the US have nearly three times as many prisoners as a proportion of their population than we have, which means Nigerians are seriously under-imprisoned.
Mr Orakwe said, “When you see a population of more than 180 million in this modern world with a prison population of 68,000 it means that this place is without crime. I leave you to judge whether we are without crime or not.” Using this logic, there should probably be ten times as many prisoners in Nigeria as there are presently because by all accounts we are a nation of many law breakers, from traffic laws to theft to fraud to corruption to capital offences.
If Nigerians go to prison in much smaller numbers than either our population or our national character justifies, why is it that all our prisons suffer from chronic congestion? Every prison facility in Nigeria holds much more than its capacity of prisoners; some have almost thrice the number of prisoners they are meant to hold. This means that the rate at which we built prison facilities is far below target and if only our justice system were to buckle up and apprehend everyone who commits any type of crime in Nigeria, then our prisons will be so congested that there may be only enough room to stand up.
As Comptroller General Ahmed explained, NPS has no control over the number of prisoners that come to it and it cannot reject them on grounds of lack of space, such as a hotel, a school or a hospital can. He described prison as the last bus stop of the criminal justice system and said, “So long as anybody knocks on the door with a valid warrant and appropriate papers, we have no option but to receive such persons.” That means courts can keep sending people to prison without regard to their carrying capacity.
A related problem is the very high proportion of awaiting trial persons as opposed to convicted prisoners. Orakwe said, “If you come into a prison, if the population is 2,000, 1800 or thereabout should be convicted prisoners” but in Nigeria, 68% of all the inmates today are awaiting trial. This is the best proof yet of the dysfunctional, not to say broken down nature of the criminal justice system wherein the prosecutors and the courts are unable to speedily and efficiently bring cases to a conclusion. Instead, some people continue to stand trial for many years and the prison service is left holding the hat. It is time to do something very serious about this system.