“I am still awaiting trial after five years behind bars for a crime I did not commit,” says Toke Okeowo*, a 25-year-old inmate at the female section of the Kirikiri Prison in Apapa, Lagos State, Nigeria. Her case typifies the injustice suffered by hundreds of poor women in Nigeria.

Kirikiri Prison is one of two female correctional facilities in the country. At the entrance of the prison, there is a notice stating the prison was carrying 2,000 people over its 1,700 capacity, an issue that has led to the spread of diseases and countless deaths. What is more alarming, a majority of the detainees, similar to Okeowo, have not been convicted by any court of law.

“My neighbor came over to my place and told me to hold her mobile phone while she went next door to pick up her child. Thirty minutes later, a group of men came knocking at my door looking for the neighbor who had apparently fled. They found the phone which had been stolen from the men along with a laptop and accused me of being an accomplice,” says Okeowo.

She was immediately detained and sent to the medium security wing of the prison where she has been waiting for a verdict for the past five years. Nigeria has the highest number of detainees awaiting trial in Africa.

The Grime That Comes With Crime

Okwendi Solomon, an expert in Criminology and Penology, estimates that over 70% of prison inmates are on the awaiting-trial list in the country. The legality of these detainees is still an ongoing debate. Section 19 of the Prison Act of Nigeria defines a woman prisoner as “any person lawfully committed to custody”.

However, Dr Uju Agomoh, an expert in justice and prison reform and founder of Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), believes the ambiguity in the law needs to be addressed.

“For a woman to be recognized as a prisoner in Nigeria, her confinement to prison must be lawful. This raises serious concerns as to the legal status of awaiting-trial women who are often charged by magistrates who have no jurisdiction to do so and are then remanded in prison custody by such magistrates pending their proper trial before a competent court,” says Agomoh.

Dr Uju Agomoh (Photo supplied by PRAWA)

Furthermore, she believes that because women do not account for a majority within the criminal justice system of many African countries, most prisons have a proclivity to cater to the larger male prison population without sufficiently taking into account a gender-sensitive approach and therefore unable to adequately take care of the special needs of female prisoners.

Princess Ndema* experienced this insensitivity the hard way.

“I was arrested for trafficking drugs. At the time, I was six months pregnant so I ended up giving birth to my child in this prison. It was very bad conditions because the prison did not have adequate treatment or care. I fell ill immediately after that due to an infection I contracted during childbirth. If you do not have someone bringing you feminine hygiene products from the outside, you basically have to try and somehow survive,” says Ndema.

Most of the toiletries used by inmates at the Kirikiri Prison are provided by non-governmental and religious organizations – a problem for the female prisoners who might be nursing mothers or pregnant.

“We do not get any welfare from the government. If it was not for the local church who bring sanitary pads, soaps and sometimes food to us, the situation will be a lot worse than it is,” says Ndema.

She and her son have been at Kirikiri for seven years now. She claims although she was 16 at the time, the arresting officer said she was 21 so she could be tried as an adult. That trial never came.

“The number of female prisoners are few in comparison to the male population, however, due to the recent alarming growth as well as the unique nature of female prisoners, I think it is imperative for the criminal justice system in Nigeria to focus on the conditions and issues that can have a negative impact on their health,” says Dr Olayinka Lawal, Executive Director of PRAWA.

How Criminals Free Their Mind Behind Bars

The organization was established about 22 years ago as a non-profit due to the inhumane conditions in the prison system. For Lawal, improving conditions in the prison also means speeding up the legal process for awaiting-trial persons.

“The way this system should work is, somebody is arrested for a criminal offence, goes through trial, and is presumed innocent constitutionally until found guilty of the offence. But this does not happen because the criminal justice system is slow with the average detainee waiting between five to 17 years. Three years ago, we helped to release one of the longest detainees in the state who had spent over 17 years awaiting trial,” says Lawal.

The only light through the prison’s concrete labyrinth for those still awaiting trial is the presence of organizations like PRAWA. The organization puts prison reform at the top of their agenda through capacity research and institutional building as well as advocacy.

“The administration of Criminal Justice Act ACJA 2015 has outlined the framework to tackle the issue and we need to find prudent and efficient ways of implementing this. As I have always stated, there are other forms of sentencing like communal service instead of prison term so education is also key,” says Lawal.

The mandate to reform the prisons in Nigeria rests with the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS) but due to the peculiar challenges in prisons in the country, the process of rehabilitating prisoners and sending them back into society has been significantly hindered.

“Those awaiting trial under the eyes of the law are usually presumed to be innocent and there is no provision for them in the prison system because they are just passing by. As a result, the reformative program in the prison is intended for the convict,” says Lawal.

According to Dr Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, founder of Women At Risk International Foundation (WARIF), “When juxtaposed with other members of the society, prisoners suffer numerous health issues in prison including substance abuse, mental health and communicable diseases.”

Equally worrisome for mothers like Ndema, the responsibility of raising her son rests squarely on her shoulders until she is separated from him during incarceration. For her and many females facing an uncertain future, the challenges continue. The only way out is through government and other stakeholders coming together to provide and improve the prison system as well as healthcare and most importantly, ensuring the criminal justice system achieves its intended purpose by legally punishing or acquitting individuals in an expeditious manner.

*names changed to protect identity