The case of Blessing Effiong, a 20-year-old inmate awaiting trial at the female section of Kirikiri Prisons, Lagos, perhaps typifies the injustice suffered by the poor in the Nigerian society.
The Akwa-Ibom indigene, who was interviewed by the Attorney-General of the state, Mr. Ade Ipaye, and representatives of the Office of the Public Defender, during a visit to the prisons to evaluate the number of awaiting trial persons there, narrated in detail how she had been incarcerated since the age of 16 because she could not afford the services of a lawyer.
She said, “In 2008, I bought a Starcomms phone for N10,000 in order to start a business centre. A few days later, a man called me and said the phone was stolen from him. I told the man I didn’t know it was stolen. We had an agreement that I should return the phone and he would refund my money.
“I gave the man my address but when he got to my place, he said the phone was stolen from him along with his laptop and some other vital documents. He accused me of being a thief, called the police and had me arrested. I was charged with robbery and have been in Kirikiri since then as my trial has yet to begin.”
Effiong said she was arrested at her guardian’s house in Ebute-Meta but was transferred to the Agboju Police Division from where she was taken to an Ikeja Magistrate’s Court.
She said although she was 16 at the time of her arrest, the Investigating Police Officer claimed she was 21 so that she would be tried as an adult
“I told the IPO that I was only 16 years old and that I knew nothing about the stolen phone but the IPO wrote 21 on my statement and claimed I was lying about my age. I was arraigned as an adult,” she said.
Effiong added that even after four years, her trial had not begun as the court was said to be awaiting advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
During the visit to the three prisons in Kirikiri – the female wing, male medium wing and male maximum wing, overpopulation was the first problem the authorities raised. They said it was owing to the large number of awaiting trial persons.
At the female prison, the total number of inmates as at last Thursday was 191 out of which 154 were awaiting trial.
There were many pregnant women and nursing mothers who according to prison authorities, were brought in that state. For instance, two sisters – Funmilola and Endurance Felix – awaiting trial were brought to the prisons pregnant. While Funmilola recently had a baby and named him Daniel, Endurance is eight months pregnant.
At the male medium prison, the total number of inmates stood at 2,455 while the total number of awaiting trial inmates stood at 2,197. Similarly, the male maximum prison has 554 awaiting trial inmates, while the number of convicted inmates stood at 257.
Why there is congestion
The Controller of Prisons for the state command, Mr. Abayomi Oguntuase, explained that one of the reasons the prisons were congested was because of the inability of the state government to implement non-custodial sentencing.
Oguntuase lamented that sometimes, as many as 100 people were brought to thte prisons for misdemeanours such as environmental offences and traffic violations, which in many parts of the world were punishable by community service or fines.
He said, “One of the major issues we have is the problem of minor offenders being brought to prison, especially environmental offenders. The rate at which they are brought in is not the same as the rate of their discharge.
“On one particular weekend, about 120 people were brought in and of course they all have to be fed. So, the earlier we find an alternative to incarceration, the better because if you are arrested for not using a pedestrian bridge, you ought not to be brought to prison, there should be another punishment for you.
“Once the prisons are congested, there will be inadequate bed spaces, toilets and bathrooms, food etc and this could linger for weeks.”
The Deputy Controller of Prisons in charge of the Kirikiri Male Medium Prison, Mr. Aliyu Anchor, also blamed the slow judicial process as one of the reasons why prisons were congested.
Anchor said cases, which required advice from the Director of the Public Prosecutions, were the ones which usually dragged for long.
Anchor added that the lack of frequent visits by judges to prisons was also one of the reasons why prisons were congested.
He said, “The cases usually brought here are rape, culpable homicide and robbery and these three require DPP’s advice but the process of issuing the advice is too slow.
“Most times, the court could just remand them and not give them the option of bail and when the inmates are here for too long, this could lead to frustration which could make them revolt and attempt jail break.
“In some Northern states, there’s something called Prison Decongestion Committee, comprising the AGs of the states, the commissioners of police and headed by a high court judge. They analyse cases and inmates are released based on the nature of the case but this is not done in Lagos.”
Poverty and prison
The controller noted that due to the level of poverty in the society, some of the inmates preferred to stay in prison as it was the only place they felt they could survive.
He said, “Some inmates should not be here but because they cannot produce N2,000 fines, they are brought to prison and upon arrival, they are relaxed. For example, one of the inmates put his address as Oshodi Park and all efforts to trace his next of kin have proved abortive.
“Such people are not moved when threatened with court action or prison. In fact, one of such people told me that he was happy here in prison as he doesn’t pay for rent, food, electricity like when he was free.”
Anchor, noted that only those who could easily afford the services of a lawyer were able to get a speedy trial or secure bail.