The mandate of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS) is to reform and rehabilitate offenders to become better citizens but some inmates return to crime after serving their terms.
Sitting on the bare floor, his hands resting on his knees, he pushed his back against the wall of the Ikeja police headquarters in Lagos.
It was a rainy day in September 2023.
A silvery bracelet secured his wrists in proximity to each other. His legs were bound. He had been arrested, again. This time for alleged murder. If found guilty, this would make his fourth entry into the prison.
Fred Okunu, 43, wanted quick wealth, so he took a shortcut in 2010. He was only 30 when he was caught at an airport in Thailand with illicit drugs valued at N60 million.
His dream of becoming a millionaire was cut short by the Thailand law enforcement authorities. If he had succeeded in the illegal operation, he would have pocketed N5 million at the time, he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Okunu trafficked ‘stone,’ a street slang for cocaine, into Thailand from Nigeria.
Drug users often use various slang words such as tornado, rock, scrabble and others to mention illicit drugs discreetly. ‘Stone’ is a form of cocaine.
In Thailand, Mr Okunu was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 2010. But he was deported to Nigeria the same year. According to him, he and other prisoners were brought back to the country to serve their jail term in 2010.
“Myself and many others were deported back to Nigeria in 2010 to serve my sentence during Obasanjo’s tenure,” he said.
“I was taken to Alagbon, I was detained in Ikoyi Prison, so from there I was taken to court for the review of the case, then they reviewed my sentence, it was still high. Then I was taken from Ikoyi Prison to Maximum prison.”
According to him, his jail term was reviewed downward.
He eventually spent six years in the maximum prison from 2010 to 2015, for drug trafficking, the police in Lagos confirmed.
Could NCoS be breeding recidivists?
Recidivism is when a person relapses into criminal behaviour, often after the person has received sanction or undergone interventions for a previous crime.
Recidivism encompasses re-arrest, resistance to rehabilitation, re-conviction, re-offending, re-admission, reincarceration, and repetitious criminal tendency, among others.
Until August 2019, the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS) was named the Nigeria Prison Service. It was rechristened to underscore its mandate to reform and rehabilitate offenders to become better citizens.
The NCoS is an arm of the criminal justice system domiciled in the Ministry of Interior.
The then President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the bill to amend the 1999 constitution to move correctional centres from the exclusive to the concurrent legislative list. This means that the states can now run prisons.
Aside from being mandated statutorily to take into custody, legally interned persons, NCoS is expected to “identify the causes of their anti-social disposition, set in motion mechanisms for their training and reform, to return them to the society as law-abiding citizens…”
In prison, Mr Okunu met Segun Adedigba and Fred Idudu. After these inmates were released separately, they reconnected and formed a gang involved in car theft, the trio confirmed to this newspaper.
Mr Okunu said they had exchanged contact and home addresses while in prison with the hope that they would reconnect after they regained freedom. The duo of Mr Idudu and Mr Adedigba also corroborated this claim.
Their last operation, the police said, led to the killing of one Adeniyi Sanni, an aide to Solomon Adeola, the senator representing Ogun West.
The deceased was fatally shot on his way home and his corpse was later dumped close to a military barrack around Toyota bus stop in Oshodi, Lagos in the early hours of 5 August 2022.
In the course of this interview, the suspects were not allowed to discuss the alleged murder because, according to a police officer, the matter was still being investigated.
NCoS, according to its website, said it is part of its responsibility to implement reformation and rehabilitation programmes to enhance the reintegration of inmates into society.
NCoS reiterated this in one of its newsletters seen by this reporter, Vol /No:6 titled “NCoS equips 36 ex-offenders with trade tools.”
The then controller general of the service, Ja’afaru Ahmed, at an event on 8 July 2020 donated trade tools to some ex-offenders while he explained the meaning of the ‘After-care’ initiative by the service.
“These materials are expected to assist you in starting up trades and by so doing, ensuring gainful employment as well as crime-free life, ” he said.
Mr Ahmed said the ‘After-care’ initiative is aimed at reintegrating ex-offenders into society as enshrined in the NCoS Act of 2019, thereby reducing the rate of recidivism in society.
However, suspects interviewed by this newspaper who had been incarcerated at least once said that after their release, they were left alone and no official reached out to them to help navigate their lives after regaining freedom.
For instance, Mr Adedigba has been to prison three times, while Mr Idudu was there once for fraud. In the same year that NCoS donated trade tools to 36 ex-offenders, the Nigerian government released 7,813 inmates in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them are yet to be re-integrated into the society.
The police commissioner of Lagos, Idowu Owohunwa, said Nigerian prisons had become a training ground for hardened criminals and the reproduction of criminal gangs threatening the society’s peace.
Mr Owohunwa made the statement while parading the three murder suspects in September.
A spokesperson for NCoS in Lagos, Rotimi Oladokun, immediately described the statement as “unfortunate, misleading and unprofessional coming from a senior law enforcement officer.”
Mr Oladokun explained that services being provided to inmates were “exceptional services in terms of safe and humane custody, access to justice and giving inmates regimes of treatment towards reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.”
He said all these were being achieved by the service despite many challenges including congestion and overcrowding of the centres.
“Keeping 9,400 inmates out of circulation in a given facility with a total capacity for only 4,167 is next to a miracle and requires support from all and sundry, not a blanket condemnation,” he said.
Mr Oladokun also argues that the lives of inmates and ex-inmates are being “transformed” through the initiation of certain programmes.
But Joshua Dariye, a former governor of Plateau State and ex-convict, has a different story to tell.
Giving a first-hand experience after he was granted presidential pardon in 2022, Mr Dariye described the Nigerian prison as uninhabitable, adding that there is a need for a quick reform of the centres.
“When they talk about prison reforms, there is a need to look at the conditions, the sanitary places, the environment and the congestion. If you take people to a correctional centre, they are supposed to come out reformed, not hardened,” Mr Dariye said.
“Most of the young men out there come out worse than they went in and I don’t think that’s the essence of taking people to prison.”
Petty Offender Adedigba graduates to ‘higher level’
Mr Adedigba, now 26, began stealing in his early 20s in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, he said.
In 2017 and 2018, he was caught stealing smartphones and spent six and three months respectively at the Agodi prison in Ibadan.
Despite being caught twice, the ‘motor boy’ who said he went into crime due to hard times said he was not deterred from committing the second crime because the jail term was just for a few months.
“I stole an android phone through the window and was caught two weeks after in March 2017,” he narrated.
“I spent six months in prison. The phone was tracked to me after I sold it for N35,000 and I was arrested. I was a motor boy for a truck driver. I had no food to eat and that was what pushed me to it. I needed money and had no work.”
The primary school leaver said he was released in September 2017 when the complainant, after getting his phone, withdrew from the case.
Mr Adedigba continued his work where he earned N1,500 per trip following his release but in 2018 the truck driver died and the deceased family sold the truck, he said.
“I was home, starving, I went to steal an android phone and was caught instantly and beaten and taken to Akinyele police division. I went to court and was sentenced to three months,” he said.
“That was where I knew Fred (Okunu). When I was released, we reconnected in Lagos and ‘worked together’ to steal vehicles and sell them.
Festus Ogun, a human rights lawyer, said Mr Adedigba was a petty offender until he started car theft.
Okunnu’s second prison trip
Mr Okunu regained freedom in 2015 but was rearrested some months later in the Iyana-Ipaja area of Lagos.
Mr Okunu told this newspaper he was innocent of the crime he was charged with; a police document shows that he was charged with robbery and conspiracy. He would spend five years at the Agodi prison where he met Mr Adedigba.
He was released after the “complainant failed to show up,” the report shows.
Delving into his second prison journey, he recounted how he was driving his aunt’s car, who is a police officer, and picked up some passengers on the road as usual.
This is a common practice in Lagos. Private car owners especially during rush hours in the morning and evening pick up passengers plying their route at a fare.
“I never knew that they (passengers) had committed a crime and the police had been on their matter. I picked them from around the Agbado area, they were three in number,” Mr Okunnu recounted.
“They said that they wanted to stop at Iyana-Ipaja and I said let me pull over at the taxi park. On getting there I never knew that the police were there waiting for them.
“The colour of my vehicle had been described to them because one of them was talking to a family friend who, unknown to them, had been arrested by the police. The guy had described the car and where they would be stopping.
“When the police came, one of them said that I should be going, that I’m a cab man but the police asked me who owns the beret in the car and belt. I told them that my aunty owns it and she works at the police headquarters.
“So, they took us to Ibadan, and at the end of the day, the case was charged to court. We were taken to the prison, then the person that they robbed came and said he did not know the suspects, he said ‘these are not the people that robbed him.’
“From 2015, I spent four years for an incident I don’t know. We were charged with unlawful possession of arms.”
Is Okunnu a career criminal?
After being processed through the penal system, Mr Okunu was caught in the criminal web for the third time.
Perhaps, Mr Okunnu did not learn anything during his 10 years at the Kirikiri and Agodi prison. After he returned in 2019, he wandered off into the underworld.
Just before he wandered off, he went into a legitimate car dealership business but it did not turn out to be as profitable as he would expect. According to him, within a year, he barely sold two cars.
By 2020, he and Mr Adedigba reconnected and started dealing in stolen vehicles which he found profitable.
“Business was not moving, before someone had to bring it from abroad, then sell it to that person and get my profit. It takes between six months to a year,” he explained.
“Within a year, I sold at most two cars. The profit from it, I used it to buy my car before I started getting stolen vehicles in my name.”
Mr Okunu seemed to be doing well, as he decided to take a wife. His two-year-old union produced a child.
By 2021, the duo of Mr Okunu and Adedigba were arrested and charged with robbery in Lagos.
They were remanded in Medium Security Prison, Kirikiri. They were both released in 2023 when the “complainant failed to show up,” a police report shows.
Corroborating the police report, Mr Okunu said that “nobody came to claim the (stolen) car, no complainant came to court. Each time we went to court, there was no complainant, the IPO used to come to court, and then the judge said he could not be keeping us here while the complainant was absent, that’s how we were released.”
Explaining how their operations went, Mr Adedigba said when they started, they stole a white Toyota Corolla car.
“We had a gun. There were three of us that stole the car. Fred sold the car for N500,000 and gave me N100,000,” he said.
“In 2021, myself and one Amos and a bike man stole another car and gave it to Fred to sell.
“We were about to sell it when myself and Fred were caught. We were charged with armed robbery and released in March 2023.
Before their release in March 2023, the two suspects met Lucky Idudu. Mr Idudu, who had been imprisoned for two years before the two suspects, was charged with OBT (obtaining money by false pretence).
He was released in 2022 but had exchanged contacts with Mr Okunu and Adedigba before that.
The 34-year-old commercial driver’s trip to Medium prison in Lagos occurred due to his association with fraudsters, he said.
“I was a commercial driver (Badagry to Mile 2), all those ‘419’ people normally use me for their job. So, I normally carry them,” Mr Idudu recounted.
“Along the line, we ran out of luck and that was when I was arrested. I made about five appearances at the Ikeja magistrate court. There were two of us. I was released after spending two years following the intervention of a church NGO in 2021.”
Following his release, Mr Idudu went to his home state — Delta, then came back to Lagos to search for a job after his efforts in his home state were unsuccessful.
Despite describing his experience at the prison as living in “hellfire,” he said his inability to get a job when he arrived in Lagos caused him to fall back to crime again.
“The way the country is pushed me to crime. It is very difficult,” the former commercial driver said.
“When I came out, things were not balanced for me. For me to even eat in a day, I find it difficult. When I came back to Lagos to look for a job, I couldn’t find one, and that was the reason why (I went back to crime). It was somebody that directed me to him (Fred),” Mr Idudu said.
“I had no sense of freedom, I couldn’t go to where I wanted and I couldn’t eat or do what I desired,” Mr Okunu said of his prison journey.
“There is no breathing space for me, it was horrible. In the cell, we were at least 90, sometimes, 100, 120. The cell was about six feet long and wide with a toilet.”
Mr Okunnu said one has to get a pass from a prison official to use the toilet within the cell.
“In the morning, we eat beans and it is full of water, stones, cockroaches and sometimes nails. We ate three times. The afternoon meal is a cup of Garri, and in the evening is a cup of Garri,” he further narrated.
Speaking on the difference between the prisons in Lagos and Oyo, the father of one said that lunch and dinner are usually served together at the Agodi prison.
“The rice is on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at the Lagos prison. It is twice in a week at the Agodi prison.”
Nigeria prisons offer vocational classes which is an avenue for inmates to learn new or upgrade their skills. However, Mr Okunnu said he was not mentally fit to attend such classes.
“When you don’t eat, you don’t have the strength to go and learn, the same thing with the school over there. I wanted to go to school when I was imprisoned in Lagos but sometimes I have not eaten and can’t settle down to think or say I want to focus on my study,” he said.
Why do ex-inmates reoffend?
Despite going to prison three times, Mr Okunu said “economic hardship” kept making him fall back to crime. Likewise Mr Adedigba and Idudu.
“Nobody seems to help me,” Mr Okunu said.
He said the prison stigma stuck with him and many people refused to help him. He noted that he knew he was going to be caught someday.
“There are also issues around the socio-economic and other enabling factors that led to the initial offending behaviour being still in existence at the point of moving back into the society,” Uju Agomoh, the founder and executive director of the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation And Welfare Action (PRAWA) said on why ex-inmates re-offend.
“Without the requisite support, the tendency is that an ex-inmate faced with such challenges will be re-offending especially where these enabling factors are existential issues.”
PRAWA is a Nigerian civil society organisation which promotes human rights for people in prison and helps those who have survived prison to reintegrate into the community.
Mrs Agomoh said prisons could also contribute to recidivism if they are ineffective in terms of providing the appropriate reformation and rehabilitation programmes suitable for addressing the offending behaviour of a particular inmate while in custody.
“Lack of or in-efficient reintegration programming is another problem,” she said.
“Where an ex-offender does not have access to a good reintegration plan, the tendency of reoffending in the face of the challenges of rejection by family and friends, stigmatisation and no means of livelihood and lack of shelter, there is every tendency for re-offending.”
On the part of the offender, “it could be as a result of the inability of an inmate to willingly key into the reformation and rehabilitation programmes provided for in custody and missing out on the opportunities of behavioural change.”
Mr Adedigba said after his apprenticeship, there was no one to help, so he delved into crime.
Ms Agomoh said that the NCoS can do better by having strong individualised programmes for the reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.
There is no harmonised data from the various law enforcement agencies to give a clear picture of the recidivism rate in Nigeria.
Muyiwa Adejobi, spokesperson for the Nigerian Police Force (NPF), told this newspaper via a WhatsApp message that getting such data from the police is a “serious work,” but didn’t answer subsequent calls or texts.
However, a top police officer told this reporter that the law enforcement agency has no such data.
Checks on the website of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) show convictions secured yearly by the agency but no record came up for those that have been arrested more than once by the agency.
When contacted to find out more, calls to the telephone number of Wilson Uwujaren, spokesperson for the Economic and Financial Crime (EFCC), were unreachable. A text message seeking the data was not responded to.
Curbing recidivism rate
Mrs Agomoh said law enforcement agencies and not only the NCoS have a role to play in curbing recidivism.
The expert said that the police, like other law enforcement agencies, are the first point of contact when an offence is committed and the way the police exercise their discretionary powers of arrest and detention or even charging a case to court can help manage a first offender.
“Detention should be a measure of last resort for especially low-risk offenders who cannot compromise the safety and security of the society,” she said.
“By ensuring that low-risk offenders do not go into custody at all, such offenders are saved from the experience of possible contamination by serious offenders who can initiate them into a habitual life of crime.”
She suggested that the police and other law enforcement agencies can divert and make referrals for offenders like that for such processes as restorative justice, rehabilitation centres in case of children or take any other action that can help in addressing their criminogenic needs and risks.
Abubakar Umar, spokesperson for the NCoS, told this newspaper that compared to some years back, the recidivism rate has dropped “based on the warrants we receive. For any inmate that comes to our custodial centre, we go through their warrants.”
The prison spokesperson said “For every person that comes to our custodial centre, we make sure that we engage them in one activity or the other, especially vocational training.
“I may not be able to give you accurate data now but going with statistics, the inmate population within our custodial centres across the country… the number of people who are re-offending has reduced compared to new offenders,” he reiterated.
Mr Umar further said that minor offenders and hardened criminals are never kept in the same cell.
“Non-custodial sentencing has come to help those who have committed minor offences, those who have committed for the first time. It has helped in decongesting our custodial centres,” he said.
Alternative to imprisonment
Aside from imprisonment, there are now alternatives to addressing the rehabilitation of offenders. The Nigerian Legal System now provides for non-custodial measures. This means that the sentence can be served anywhere else but the prison.
According to the NCoS Act of 2019, non-custodial sanctions include parole, community, restorative justice, fines, suspended sentences and any other measure granted by the court.
For instance, when Nigeria actress Funke Akindele and her husband breached the COVID-19 lockdown regulations, the court administered non-custodial sentencing in 2020. The couple was fined and ordered to do 14 days of community service. The move by the magistrate is a shift from the emphasis on the incarceration of offenders.
Mrs Agomoh said that there are several advantages to using non-custodial measures, and “at PRAWA, we advocate the proper funding and support of the non-custodial directorate of the NCoS,” which would make the measure successful.
According to an article by PRAWA in March 2020 titled; ‘Lessons From Other Jurisdictions Examining the Operation and Practice of Non-Custodial Sentencing – A Case Study of the United Kingdom,’ fines are employed by the UK as the “commonest punitive measure for simple offences or misdemeanours like a breach of traffic laws, loitering, theft, etc.
“The sum to be paid by the accused person is set by the court taking into consideration the seriousness of the offence and the financial capacity of the offender. The latter is important to discourage the frequent occurrence of defaults in payment subsequently leading to the incarceration of offenders,” Mrs Agomoh said.