James Ladi Williams is a research analyst for the center on international development and governance at the Urban Institute. Views expressed are those of the author.
“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones,” said Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty-seven years in prison. If you were to look at Nigeria’s prisons, then, according to Mandela, you would necessarily judge the country poorly.
Nigeria’s criminal justice system is in urgent need of reform. Prisons are overcrowded, holding 73,314 people despite capacity for only 50,153. Of those held, an estimated 70 percent are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime; reports find that some people have been awaiting trial for as long as thirteen years. The chronic underfunding of the justice system exacerbates overcrowding and pre-trial detention. Moreover, these data points likely understate the reality, limiting our ability to grasp the true scale of the problem. Prison conditions are appalling, with inmates deprived of basic amenities such as food, water, sanitation, and health care, including facilities to care for pregnant women. Physical abuse and torture [PDF] are the norm for those, particularly the poor, who have contact with the justice system.
But eleven years of advocacy by Nigerian civil society seem to be paying off. In August, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, which seeks to orient the criminal justice system toward the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. The bill renames the Nigerian Prison Service to the Nigerian Corrections Service and replaces prison time with measures like community service for certain minor offenses. State prison authorities also gain powers to reject additional prisoners when their prisons are at capacity.
The correctional services bill is considered by advocates and experts an important step, but two areas left unaddressed by the bill will constitute a significant barrier to success: implementation and culture. The bill would benefit from a concerted effort to provide funding and capacity building for agencies responsible for its implementation. Courts need to be adequately resourced to enforce the right to fair and public trial without delay. Strengthening case flow management systems and addressing human resource constraints in the court system would be instrumental to increase on-time case processing, with implications for duration of pretrial detention.
Equally important, government and civil society should begin the long process of addressing practices of the country’s security services that drive the undue growth of the prison population, especially arbitrary arrests and detention. Those responsible for enforcing justice policy, especially police officers and prison wardens, must also buy in to the vision of the new law, which purports to center criminal justice on respect for human dignity. Retraining and reeducation programs are crucial, as is recruiting new officers who can then be subject to a reformed curriculum, guided by principles of restorative justice. In addition to reeducation, policymakers can strengthen incentives for culture change by putting accountability and monitoring measures in place to detect and punish cases of unfair treatment of inmates by prison wardens, for example.
As experiences of other African countries have shown, the road to criminal justice reform is long. In Nigeria, reformers will have to contend with perennial capacity limitations and entrenched political interests, so the pace of progress will be slower than desired. However, persistence on the part of civil society advocates and reform champions within government will go a long way in the effort to realize the core ambition of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act: a justice system that treats people with dignity.