For Navigating Nigeria this week, Citizen spoke to Itunuoluwa Awolu, a lawyer and the fundraising director at the Headfort Foundation, an NGO focused on providing free and easy access to justice to indigent and wrongly incarcerated inmates, victims of police brutality, and minor offenders. She shared her thoughts on the Nigerian correctional system and how it can be reformed.

Editorial Note: Navigating Nigeria is a platform for Nigerians to passionately discuss the Nigerian experience with little interference from individual opinions. While our editorial standards emphasise the truth and endeavour to fact-check claims and allegations, we are not responsible for allegations made about other people based on half-truths.

Icebreaker. Have you ever heard of Citizen and the work we do?

Yeah, of course I have. And I’ve gone through some of your stories and interviews. You guys like interviewing people about relatable occurrences or things affecting their communities. And that’s one thing I love about Zikoko Citizen, bringing the media to the people.

Thank you. Recently, the Ministry of Interior announced a budget of ₦‎22.4 billion to feed inmates. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that’s crazy. It’s crazy in the sense that if you look at the work that we do at Headfort Foundation and the inmates for whom we’ve secured their freedom, the stories that are shared as regards their experience in prison make it unbelievable to think that amount of money is put into the correctional system.

How do we have that kind of budget and see people with different health issues when they come out of correctional facilities? You hear them complain about starvation. The food they receive is so poor that you wouldn’t even give it to animals.

The Minister of Interior must explain precisely how that money is spent. To think that that amount of money is put into feeding almost sounds too good to be true, but I’m not going to categorically say that it’s a lie because I’m not in the system. But from the reviews and reports we’ve gotten from inmates who have interacted with our foundation, it’s unbelievable.

Interesting. Do you want to tell us more about what Headfort does and how it started? 

Yes, Headfort Foundation started in March 2019. We provide easy access to justice through different means, such as providing free legal services to poor people who can’t afford to engage the services of a lawyer.

We also integrate the rehabilitation process for inmates after securing their freedom. Also, we sensitise the Nigerian public about their rights. We raise awareness about the effects of police brutality, how to engage with police officers, police-community relations, and the consequences of crime. We adopt different practical approaches.

Since we started in 2019, we’ve secured the freedom of 445 persons for free. We also have a mobile app called Lawyers NowNow that connects citizens with lawyers. So if you’re in Lagos, for example, and require a pro bono lawyer, you can use the app to contact us. If you have a case at the police station or are due in court and need legal advice, you can contact us.

How does Heardfort Foundation help people who are unjustly arrested or facing incarceration? Please share the process. I’d like to know how you advocate for their rights and provide them with legal representation.

Every month, we go for prison visitations to take on cases of people who meet our set criteria because it’s not everyone we can take on—legal services must be paid for. But we try to optimise for people languishing in custody because they are poor, illiterate, or unjustly arrested. We ensure that we take up their cases and secure their freedom, which is our way of providing justice for them. Then we also have mobile offices in some courts in Lagos and Ogun states.

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Let’s talk about an alarming statistic indicating that about 80% of Nigerian inmates are awaiting trial. Is it like that in other countries?  

Unfortunately, yes. And it’s not just peculiar to Nigeria. It shouldn’t be so, but when you look at Nigeria, some other African countries, and even across the world, the issue of over-congestion is a big deal. This is why we have different enactments regarding fundamental human rights. Fundamental human rights should be respected, such as the right to dignity. Inhumane and degrading treatments shouldn’t occur in correctional centres because they’re congested. 

When you look at the percentage of inmates in correctional facilities creating this congestion, you’ll see that many of them are awaiting trial, or pretrial detainees, as they’re referred to in other climes.

Now bringing it back to Nigeria. This has been the reality for decades, and although the government has tried, the issue persists. A correctional facility was built to take 4,000 inmates but is housing 9,000. And if you check the category of these inmates, not all are convicts. Many of them are pretrial detainees. This means their trials haven’t even commenced in court; they’re just there languishing in custody, and no one’s sure they’d be found guilty.

From our work at Hertford Foundation, we’ve seen cases where people spent eight years, 11 years in prison. I think 11 years has been our highest number. Eleven years in custody without trial.


Someone goes to the police station to report a case, or the police pick up people, and then, due to the high level of corruption, you see that people are taken to court over frivolous charges, and there’s no evidence to back it up. There’s no way to prove that this person has committed the crime for which they’re being charged. Then they remain in custody because there’s no way they’ll start the trial without evidence against them. 

You find out that the justice system is a prolonged one in Nigeria. The judges are trying, but they’re also limited. You go to some courts and see judges with 40, 50 cases to adjudicate daily. When the judge gives an adjournment, it can last months.

So in a year, someone in custody may only appear three or four times before a judge. Before you know it, a person would’ve spent five or ten years awaiting trial.

My goodness

When the trial eventually commences, closing the case can take another five or 10 years. And this affects the entire justice system because the courts and wardens are overwhelmed while inmates suffer.

Imagine someone is charged with an offence punishable by one month of imprisonment, and then this person has spent three or four years. How’s that justice?

You’ve raised issues worth pondering. What would you recommend?

Importantly, correctional centres are made for rehabilitation and reformation purposes. As such, in Nigeria, we’ve been trying to lean towards that model to ensure that people aren’t kept just for the sake of custody. They should be reformed and reintegrated into the society. We’re still lagging here. 

I recommend that now that we have the correctional service under the concurrent list, states can, hopefully, have the financial capacity to build and run their correctional service centres. This way, we’d solve this overcrowding problem, eliminating all these challenges of health issues among inmates. It would also address fears of hardened criminals influencing one-time offenders or innocent ones.

I also recommend the use of restorative justice and non-custodial sentences. Not every offender needs to go to a correctional centre. The system can then adequately cater to those who need rehabilitation and reformation.

Let’s talk about the issue of jailbreaks. We’ve had a spike in those recently, with escaped inmates unaccounted for. What are your thoughts? 

With technological advancement happening in the financial system and other sectors, you’d find out that we’re still lagging in technology regarding the justice system and even our security agencies. This, in turn, affects the correctional service centres—there’s no data.

When you want to calculate the estimated number of part-time inmates in custody, the general public doesn’t have that data. Unless the Minister of Interior or their spokespersons say, we have 75k people and must work with whatever they say. So when you have a jailbreak, like in Edo State or Lagos State during the COVID-19 pandemic, where some facilities got burned, and data in files not backed up are lost, these questions come up. Many inmates in custody have their files missing.


These are the challenges. For example, the burned facilities have been renovated in Lagos, but can they regenerate the lost data? So when there’s a jailbreak and inmates escape, the lack of adequate data means it’ll be difficult to recover them. Those apprehended probably had issues finding a place to go or no money to transport themselves out of the state. It’s also easy for the authorities to pick up people wandering about. They’ll return them and say they were part of the escaped inmates. This happens because there’s no data to guarantee that these people picked up were the same as those who escaped.

We must inculcate technology into our data collection and stop making it secretive. This applies to law enforcement agents at correctional service centres who can be secretive. There’s secrecy around the available data they have, which even extends to when you go for prison visitation.

As much as we want to protect data, we should also be able to ascertain that whenever we need data for the inmates or for whatever legal purpose, we’ll access it.

The Nigerian Prison Service has changed its name to the Nigerian Correctional Service, suggesting a reformatory model. Yet Nigeria still practises capital punishment. Over 3,000 Nigerian inmates are on death row. What are your thoughts on this?

Beyond changing the name from the Nigerian Prison Service to the Nigerian Correctional Service, the Nigerian Correctional Service Act was also passed into law [in 2019].

One of the recommendations was to make a provision for inmates on death row to have their sentencing commuted to life imprisonment. This is for situations where a person has spent over 10 years in custody.

So if, after 10 years of sentencing someone to death, that person remains in custody, appeals have been made to either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, and this person is awaiting execution, the Chief Judge of that state has the duty of commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment. That’s what that Act has done.


I understand that since we now have a correctional centre, people on death row should be forgiven and the death penalty removed. However, I think the death penalty remains necessary to instill fear in other people who are yet to be caught and to make them understand that the punishment for this grave crime is death.

I think that’s why the death penalty still exists. Most times, you rarely even see governors assent to the death penalty being carried out. So you see many people awaiting the execution of their sentences, but the governors are not ready to implement them. The essence of it is to deter. Although it’s also true that we’re still holding on to archaic and pre-colonial beliefs that instituted the death penalty, we still don’t believe that for grievous offences, the death penalty should be removed because it’s going to pass the message that the worst that can happen is remaining in custody for many years.

I think that if, after 10 years, the death penalty can be commuted to life imprisonment, why not just remove the death penalty? And let’s have life imprisonment as the maximum sentence. But I also understand the perspective of people who are victims of grievous crimes. When you see someone who’s killed, say, 30 or 40 people, it’s hard to argue to the victims’ families that such people are entitled to remain in custody, breathing and enjoying the right to life.

Robust response there. Tell us about female inmates. Do they suffer similar indignities as male inmates in Nigerian correctional facilities?

I’ll say no, they don’t. I mean, they don’t face the level of pain or degrading, inhumane treatment their male counterparts face. First of all, female prisons are rarely congested. In Nigeria, we have over 75,000 inmates in custody, and over 73,000 are male. And then we have like 1,600 or so who are female. So it means the female correctional facilities are not congested; they’ve been managed well. Because they’re a limited number, the staff can take care of them. Even if significant rehabilitation or reformation is not being done, they’re at least able to enjoy some rights better than their male counterparts.

They face fewer health challenges and get relatively better medical care than male inmates. 

How does the Headfort Foundation raise funds, and how can we help? 

Fundraising is still a significant challenge for us, especially considering the scale of our work at the foundation. We provide free legal services for many people with our limited resources. This means there’s also a limit to the number of people we can help.

Every quarter, we organise fundraising online, whereby we have donation links that we share on all of our social media platforms. We seek support from people to donate to us so we can continue to do our work. The operation is vital. 

We also look for organisations and individuals to partner with us and help sponsor our projects. Headfort Foundation holds sensitisation programs, mentorship and rehabilitation programs, and vocational training as a means for our beneficiaries to gain employment. We connect them with employers and even provide scholarships for them. And for those with business ideas, we give them financial support to start up or continue from where they stopped before incarceration. We also provide accommodation facilities for some of them who have accommodation challenges.

As I mentioned, we go on prison visitations to support inmates and provide essential items like toiletries, food, and books. But none of these can happen without support from partners and everyday Nigerians like you. A little donation can go a long way.

[You can learn more about what the Headfort Foundation does here. If you’d like to support the Headfort Foundation financially, use the Flutterwave donation link here.]



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