They are pilled on top of each other like dried fish at a market. A cell meant to hold about 50 inmates, holds 150, and sometimes even more. Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos holds around 2,600 inmates, but the prison was built to house only 950 people, a 250% overcapacity. It is simply inhumane. There are 46,000 people in all the prisons that are overcrowded inhumane and churning out even more hardened criminals.
A while ago, I read the story of a young 19-year-old Nigerian girl. She was found with a phone that was stolen from a hotel and was arrested. After four years of living in the overcrowded Kirikiri prison, she finally was allowed to see a judge. She essentially spent 4 years for a crime that carried the maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment or a N200 fine. She was punished 800% more severely than the law allows. Nigeria stole more from her than she ever stole from anyone. While other young 19-year olds were busy learning a trade, or going to university, Blessing was in prison waiting for the slowest justice system ever to finally find it’s way to her; and Blessing Effiong is one of the lucky ones.
Of the 46,000 prisoners in Nigeria, over 65% have never actually being convicted of any crime. 30,000 people spend time in prisons and they have technically done nothing wrong. Some of them have been waiting for their day in court for 10 years, files have been lost, victims long gone, and they wait decades after decades for a justice system that never had their time. Lives deferred.
While stories like that of Blessing chill the heart, even more horrifying are the stories of those prisoners who no one ever claimed did anything wrong. Quite a number of prisoners are people suffering from mental illness whose family could not or refused to care for them. Bassey is, a 35-year-old Nigerian woman, spent three years in prison and her only crime was mental illness. Bassey never stole, killed or maimed, she simply got sick and was dumped on the floor of a prison cell with eleven other women for three years. She was released thanks to pressure from non-governmental organization but many others like her remain in prison sometimes for the rest of their lives. It is heartbreaking.
A criminal justice system is tasked with two goals; to humanely punish those who commit crimes and to deliver justice to all. An efficient justice system must balance these two competing tasks so delicately that it cannot shift too much from equilibrium. Our justice system tried to punish criminality without bothering with justice and now it is the criminal, stealing young lives and executing the innocent.
Nigeria has been trying to clean up the system for so long with the usual useless tool of creating toothless committees and forcing powerless NGOs to pick up where it slacks off. Each successive government generally inaugurates a new community with nothing to show for it; meanwhile lives keep getting deferred in Kirikiri and everywhere else. A group of governors wanting to show their crime fighting skills decided that the best way to deliver justice is to kill everyone on death row, most of who were committed under the worst justice system ever. It is deplorable. The public justice system has about 100 lawyers making true justice impossible. If you are poor and are accused of a crime, you might as well say goodbye to your future and settle into prison life because you will be there for a while.
If we as a society believe in justice then it is time we put more of our public resources in doing what is right and humane to deliver true justice to these people. We must get back to reforming our prisons and our bail granting system. Each human life is precious and deserves the utmost dignity and a society that cannot deliver justice is one still stuck in the dark ages.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.