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A heavy sentence

Nigerian prisons are notorious for their overcrowded, inhumane conditions, so it is additionally worrying that the British Government is in the process of negotiating a prisoner transfer deal with the Nigerian Government. There are some 1,000 Nigerians in prison in Britain and if the deal goes ahead, some 400 of them will be repatriated. Other countries have either signed (Jamaica)  or have been approached (China and Vietnam). The British deal with Nigeria is an agreement to build ‘special’ prisons to house the repatriated prisoners and thereby try to avoid prisoners refusing to return on human rights grounds.   

In January 2006, Nigeria released 25,000 prisoners (supposedly half its prison population, though I would question these numbers) including those with HIV/AIDS, the elderly, those with lost files and prisoners who have been in detention longer than the sentences they face. Some who were even picked up by mistake! Imagine what it would be like to have been imprisoned for years because your file has been lost (I see a large building full of people sitting around doing nothing, a bare dusty room with a few ancient-looking blue and green files stacked on a wobbly shelf, an old desk with a dissatisfied civil servant also dusty and empty of life sitting on a broken chair) or worse, you have been in prison for 10 years when the maximum sentence for the crime you committed is two years! No one to complain to, no money to bribe with, lost forever in the filth and horror chamber that is a Nigerian prison.

When it comes to death row the situation is even worse. Hundreds of Nigerian prisoners are being held on death row, many of whom have been tortured or whose trials were not conducted properly, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Confessions resulting from torture are supposed to be illegal, yet judges, knowing this, continue to sentence suspects to death based on these very unsafe conditions. This description of the prisons is horrific, particularly when you think there are people there who haven’t even been brought to trial for years, could be innocent but don’t have the money to bribe their way out.

IRIN Africa reported a couple of years ago:

‘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.’

Nigerian prison

It is truly worrying, though not surprising given their reactionary policy on immigration, that the British Government has chosen this way to reduce its prison population. If people are convicted of crimes in Britain, then irrespective of their nationality they should serve their sentences in Britain and this is even more the case when it is known that the prison conditions in their home countries are way below what is humanely acceptable. It is equally disturbing that Nigeria is prepared to accept these prisoners – both on grounds of human rights and because it can hardly cope with its own prison population. That the Nigerian Government can be ‘bribed’ into accepting the deal on the basis of £1 million is insulting to all Nigerians.

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