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NIGERIA: In overcrowded prisons, survival is a daily battle

KADUNA, 11 January 2006 (IRIN) - As visitors approach the death row block at Kaduna’s central prison in northern Nigeria, a sea of hands waving tin cups automatically jerk through the bars of the dark cells.

“Get back!” shouts the prison guard at the 118 detainees crammed inside a dilapidated building originally meant to house 33. Up to three inmates live in less than four square metres of space. An overpowering stench of urine and mould billows out into the courtyard.

In the turmoil of the shouts some of the prisoners draw back to their spots on a tattered mat on the floor that aside from a few plastic bowls is the only object in the cell.

But the guard is jumpy and cuts short the visit, prohibiting any further interaction with the detainees.

Rights organisations working in Nigerian prisons - and even prison officials themselves - say the conditions of death row inmates do not fulfil even minimum international human rights standards.

In Kaduna prison, death row inmates are locked up all day long, said Festus Okoye, executive director of Human Rights Monitor (HRM), a group based in the northern city.

“They are allowed out only rarely, for a few minutes, one by one,” he said. Meanwhile some prisoners collect the buckets used as toilets.

Most of the death row inmates are utterly alone and never receive visitors - their families living too far away and having abandoned them for fear of being associated with their crimes, rights group sources say. Some simply cannot pay the ‘visiting rights’ fee charged by the wardens.

Nigeria this year acknowledged the sorry state of its jails, announcing plans to free some 25,000 inmates still awaiting trial - some for as long as 10 years - in a bid to relieve overcrowding and bad conditions.

Hospital at Kaduna's central prison

The move could ease conditions for those left waiting on death row for years. Since 1999 only one prisoner has been executed in northern Nigeria, with authorities openly reticent to carry through with executions, according to HRM.

Nigeria countrywide has 548 prisoners awaiting capital punishment - 10 of them women - among a total 40,000 detainees, according to Ernest Ogbozor of Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), Nigeria’s largest prisoners’ rights organisation.

Under Nigerian law, crimes punishable by death include armed robbery, murder and treason. Islamic Sharia law, in force in 12 northern Nigerian states, also calls for the death penalty in other crimes such as adultery.

Lack of food

If conditions for death row inmates are harsh, they are hardly any better for other prisoners. For the sick and weak, incarceration can be tantamount to a sentence to death.

“The two main problems in Nigerian prisons are congestion and lack of food,” said Hassan Saidi Labo, assistant to Nigeria’s prison inspector general.

Kaduna is a clear example. In December 2005, 957 detainees were crammed in 10 buildings - constructed nearly a century ago - designed for about 550 people.

Labo says some prisons hold up to four times their capacity.

In such conditions, just surviving is a daily battle, according to 54-year-old Felix Obi who was condemned to 27 years in prison in 1986 for drug trafficking. He spent 13 years and three months behind bars in the economic capital, Lagos, before benefiting from an amnesty in 1999.

“You fight for a scrap of blanket, a piece of soap, a bit of food or medicine if you get sick,” said Obi, who now works with PRAWA.

“Prisoners fight for space on the floor to sleep, they fight not to become depressed, and not to be victims of violence. They fight to survive.”

Monitoring by outside groups has had some impact. Since prisons were opened to religious and humanitarian organisations more than 10 years ago, the prison death rate has fallen from 1,500 per year in the late 1980s to 89 deaths in 2003, according to authorities.

Still the risk of death in prison remains high, particularly because of lack of food, said Harp Damulak, the Kaduna prison hospital doctor.

The daily ration generally consists of a bowl of beans in the morning then cassava in the afternoon and evening. Prisons have a budget of 150 Naira (US $1.15) per prisoner per day.

But this small amount does not necessarily get to all prisoners. Supply is in the hands of subcontractors who sometimes dip into the goods, according to PRAWA, HRM, and prison officials.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says a prison employee earns about 6,000 Naira ($45) per month at the start, earning a maximum of about 40,000 Naira monthly at the end of a career. As a consequence corruption is common.

Conditions favour disease

Lack of food moreover aggravates already poor hygiene conditions. Damulak said that malnutrition makes prisoners highly vulnerable to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or skin diseases caused by lack of hygiene.

The situation is the same for women inmates in Kaduna prison, where 18 women live in two cells, sleeping on iron beds stacked one atop another, some without mattresses. The bathroom has long been without running water.

Women's cell, Kaduna central prison

“We are devoured by mosquitoes, we all suffer malaria but don’t have bed nets and the hospital has no medicine except paracetamol,” said Zainab, 32, who has been incarcerated since April. “There is nothing. Even sanitary napkins - we have to share one between two women every month, or even every two months.”

Prison conditions weigh heavily on the detainees, often causing depression and other psychological problems, according to Damulak. And prison personnel are not trained to handle such issues, he said.

To survive in their environment, some prisoners have taken things into their own hands.

“They have created a veritable government,” HRM’s Okoye said. “One prisoner is president, another police chief, another head of justice.” He added that some prison officials see the initiative as a positive thing because it helps foster order in the institutions.

Former prisoner Obi said, “Some [prison ‘leaders’] invent rules that are impossible to follow.” Punishment generally comes in the form of an order to do chores, such as washing the clothes of 'chiefs,' but often prisoners pay for misdeeds by being beaten or even sexually assaulted.

Despite efforts by inmates to impose some sort of organisation, prison riots are common, PRAWA’s Ogbozor said.

“In the past six months we have seen five riots in prisons across the country - all linked mostly to the lack of food for detainees.”

Under the recently announced plan to release prisoners, those who have spent three to 10 years awaiting trial will have their cases reviewed for immediate release. Also eligible will be the elderly, the terminally ill and those with HIV, as well as people locked up for longer than the prospective sentence for their crime.

Among those who have languished in prisons for years, human rights activists say, are some who were picked up by mistake or for very minor infractions and simply could not pay a fine.


Theme (s): Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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