BEHIND the bolted doors of Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison an old chalkboard hangs high above the wardens’ offices, keeping count of the inmates inside. It shows that just over 1,000 men live in the jail meant for Lagos’ nastier convicts. Of those, 639 are not convicts at all; they are awaiting trial.
Among them is Kayode Yukubu, Kirikiri’s longest serving pre-trial inmate. He was arrested in a raid in 2003 and charged with robbery. Yet after 12 years in the clink, no court date has been set. It is possible his case file has been lost. “I can do nothing,” he says, sitting in the jail’s suprisingly spruce chapel.
This is not a uniquely Nigerian problem: roughly 3m people around the world are locked away awaiting trial. Yet the overuse of pre-trial detention has reached crushing proportions in Africa’s most-populous country. Fewer than 18,000 of Nigeria’s 56,785 inmates have actually been sentenced, the prison service reported last year. Many detainees will exceed the maximum prison period for their crime before they even see the inside of a courtroom.
This is mostly because policemen are fond of rounding up men like Mr Yubuku in raids—often for petty crimes like playing football outside during monthly “environmental sanitation” days, when free movement is prohibited. Ariyo Popoola, a pastor who looks after the inmates, sees dozens of men dumped in jail each Monday after being swept up over the weekend. Because the rich can afford bribes, bail and lawyers, those detained are almost exclusively poor.
Once inside, detainees face long waits at the hands of overburdened courts. Adjournments are common because police fail to provide evidence, mislay case files, or simply fail to bring prisoners to court at the right time. As trials are delayed, evidence degrades and witnesses disappear; jails become increasingly congested. In Kirikiri, pre-trial prisoners are crammed into rooms of 50. They sleep on the floor.
There are solutions. Police should be held accountable for illegal arrests. Improved legal aid would help poor defendants make the case for pre-trial release. A new criminal-justice law requires magistrates to visit prisons and police stations to check for illegal detention, though Nigeria’s problem is not its laws, but their enforcement. For those stuck in the grindingly slow system, things look bleak. “So many lawyers come and go but don’t do anything,” Mr Yukubu says. “You give up hope.”