The Unheard Stories From Nigeria’s Custodial Centres
Edifon (not real name), 16 and Unwam (not real name too) 18, both girls were among those allegedly arrested indiscriminately by the Police sometime in October 2020 after a property was set ablaze by angry protesters during the #EndSars protest in Uyo. They were charged to court on account of vandalism and remanded in the Uyo Custodial Centre since November 2020. During an interaction with members of the Akwa Ibom State Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy, ACPM, Edifon and Unwam said that they earn a living from picking and selling of used plastic bottles and that they were returning from the day’s business that evening when they both arrested by the Police. These teenagers are currently on the long list of awaiting trial inmates in Uyo Custodial Centre.
Nkese (not real name) was allegedly arrested at a midwife’s home 3 days after she gave birth. Nkese, who is in her early 20s, said she was still bleeding from the delivery when some Policemen stormed the midwife’s home, took her with her 3 day old baby to her house where she lived with her aunty. She further disclosed that on getting to the house, her and the aunty were interrogated separately by the Police officers, and they later took the baby from her before arresting both of them. They were charged for child trafficking. While interacting with ACPM members, Nkese’s aunty said she took Nkese to the midwife because she could not afford to pay for the delivery in the hospital, saying that they never intended to sell the baby. When asked about the whereabout of the 3 day old baby, both Nkese and her aunty said that they had not seen the baby again since she was taken from them by the Police on the day of their arrest. They have been in the Custodial Centre for more than 3 months. About the midwife, they said that though she was arrested alongside with them, she was later freed at the Police station.
Simon (not real name) 21, allegedly refused selling a piece of land to a Police officer in his community and that infuriated the said Policeman who swore to deal with him (Simon). Simon further narrated that some weeks later, an indigene of their community hosted an event which he attended. While at the event, he had a heated argument with another young man who was the son to the Policeman. According to Simon, the boy’s father who was also at the event, arrested him and ‘secretly’ took him the Police station where he was detained for days before he was taken to court and charged for assault. We all laughed when Simon said he was taken to the Police station secretly. However, when the Warder checked the records, he discovered that no IPO was assigned to Simon’s case; also after his first appearance in court and subsequently ordered to be remanded in the Custodial Centre, no new date was fixed for another court appearance. The Warder admitted that indeed, there was something shady about Simon’s case. So, without a lawyer, an IPO and a new date for court appearance, Simon can spend the rest of his life in the Custodial Centre as an awaiting trial inmate.
In Ikot Abasi Custodial Centre, Emmanuel (not real name), whom I suspect is in his 40s, has partial paralysis with half of his body completely dead. Emmanuel cannot even limp so he is carried like a baby whenever he needs to move. When he was brought into the room where members of ACPM met with inmates, Emmanuel could not speak coherently. Surprisingly, Emmanuel is charged for threat to life. When the Warder saw the shock on everybody’s face after he read the charge against Emmanuel, he stood up and made very stunning revelations. First, he said that Emmanuel was in the Custodial Centre for the second time, adding that he was in that same condition the first time he was brought in before he regained freedom. Secondly, he said that the case involving Emmanuel is a family matter. The general suspicion is that there is someone in Emmanuel’s family who wants him out of the way and is doing that with the aide of a supposed officer of the law.
These are just very few of the many disturbing stories we heard during the tour of Custodial Centres by the Akwa Ibom State Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy, few weeks ago. The Council started the tour with a visit to Port Harcourt Custodial Centre where it discovered that there are about 420 awaiting trial inmates who are indigenes of Akwa Ibom. The other Centres visited were Ikot Ekpene, Eket, Ikot Abasi and Uyo Custodial Centres. Behind the walls of the Custodial Centres are many inmates with heartbreaking stories. There are some who are in the Custodial Centres because they were forced by Police officers to sign false and indicting statements written by the Police on their behalf. There are others who came in various degrees of injuries sustained from torture by Police officers. In fact, there is a particular Policeman in one of the Divisional Police Stations in Uyo, who name repeatedly came up as the IPO in charge of some of shady cases. Separate claims from different inmates indicated that the said officer is the Torturer-in-Chief whose specialty is making innocent and helpless people admit to crimes they did not commit.
The challenge from indiscriminately dumping people in the Custodial Centres is multidimensional. First, it is the single most important reason why all efforts by the government and other agencies to decongest the Centres seem to be failing woefully. Secondly, the situation has forced the Custodial Centres to carry the number of inmates far higher than what they were originally designed to carry and this is overstretching both facilities and human resources in the Custodial Centres. For instance, Ikot Ekpene Custodial Centre which was originally designed to contain less than 1000 inmates is currently carrying almost 2000 and the number is growing speedily. During the visit to Uyo Custodial Centre, the Deputy Controller of Corrections, Okoro Godwin lamented that the Centre is seriously struggling with shortage of facilities like vehicles and other basic amenities. According to Godwin, the Centre has only one functional vehicle which is used in conveying inmates to courts, adding that because the vehicle is overused, it breaks down regularly sometimes on the road with inmates inside.
“I have only one vehicle that I use to convey inmates to court and both male and female inmates are usually put in the same vehicle, which should not be. I cover 52 courts and sometimes, the court hearings clash and if we don’t produce an inmate in the court it will be contempt of court”, he said. “The other time, I was on official duty somewhere when I received a call that our vehicle that took inmates to the court spoilt on the road. I had to release my official car immediately”.
It seems, as with most other laws in the country, the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019, which was enacted as part of the reforms of the old Nigerian Prison Service, is hardly effective. For instance, when a Custodial Centre has exceeded its capacity, Section 12 subsection (4) of the Act mandates the State Controller of Correctional Service to notify (within a period not exceeding one week) the Chief Judge of the State; the Attorney-General of the State; Prerogative of Mercy Committee; State Criminal Justice Committee, and any other relevant body, and the aforementioned are expected to take steps and expedite actions to enable the decongestion of the Centre. Good enough, the state Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy has been making yearly visits to the Custodial Centres, but sadly, the Council is restricted to playing an advisory role so it can only make recommendations which can either be implemented or rejected by the relevant authorities. How much those with the real powers to decongest the Centres are doing is yet to be seen.
Again, Section 13 subsection (3) mandates the Superintendent of Custodial Centre to refuse admitting any person brought in: with a severe bodily injury; who is mentally unstable, or in an unconscious state of mind, or underage. To further strengthen the above conditions, Section 4 states;
“The Superintendent for the purpose of subsection (3):
(a) shall ensure due documentation of the name, date, and other particulars relating to the person that was refused admission and the officer and agency that presented the
person for admission into custody;
(b) shall render immediate returns on documentation made under paragraph (a) to the State Controller of Correctional Service; and (c) may rely on relevant professionals in the determination of the state of mind, age or physical bodily conditions as presented.”
With the provisions, the question therefore is, what is Edifon, 16 and Unwam, 18, doing in Uyo Maximum Security Custodial Centre? What is Emmanuel, who is physically incapacitated, doing in Ikot Abasi Custodial Centre? In my layman’s thinking, I’d like to believe that even the judiciary in some way is also suffering the consequences of this reckless law enforcement. For instance, Barr. Sunday Uko of Law Partners and Associates, a law firm partnering with ACPM to provide pro bono legal representation for some of the indigent inmates on awaiting trial, said that the firm will be taking up many of the cases by ensuring that affected inmates get fair trials to determine whether they are to be convicted or acquitted. This means that the coming days, weeks or months, many of the inmates who were almost forgotten will likely be appearing in courts again. While this rekindles hope on one hand, it is dragging the judiciary back and forth on the other hand.
“Well, on one hand, I feel sad about the stories we have heard from the inmates how they got into detention, which many of them are not lying. Though some are lies. For me, I feel we need to improve our policing system. We need to change the way our Police officers operate. What we are doing is sending more people into detention thereby getting more people to become hardened criminals, instead of reforming them. We also heard cases of people who were beaten and forced to admit statements they didn’t make. Our policing system really need so much reforms. That is one major thing I have noticed during this tour.
“Also, I have noticed that there is a bit of gap. The courts just act like a rubber stamp for the Police so the Police just use it to dump anyone they feel cannot afford bail. That is too bad. There are many cases where the Magistrate Courts could have sorted out but people get jailed or are detained for a very long time without trial. That is why we are out here to see how much we can help and clearly, there is a lot of work to do because we have a very long list of inmates on awaiting trial”, Barr. Uko concluded.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do and efforts will be both individual and collective. The society (families, churches, associations, NGOs, corporate organizations, etc) must not relent in preaching against crime as well as encourage people to explore alternative sources of dispute resolution in minor cases. On their part, law enforcement agencies must endeavour to be more thorough, sincere, transparent and conscientious in the discharge of their responsibilities. They must understand how severely a person’s life can be altered once they are walked into the gates of the Custodial Centres. The Controllers of Correctional Service must ensure they leverage the relevant provisions of the Service Act for effective running of Custodial Centres. Government institutions and personalities involved in the process of decongestion of the Custodial Centres must be more alive to their responsibilities. NGOs, legal bodies, corporate organizations, media organizations, etc have strategic roles to play also.