Nigeria has taken a dramatic step to ease overcrowding in its prison system, releasing more than 10,000 inmates who are awaiting trial.
Human rights advocates say many of Nigeria's 40,000 inmates have never been convicted of a crime, but have languished in overcrowded and filthy jails on account of administrative and judicial lapses.
Advocates accuse law enforcement agents of dumping people in jail without proof of wrongdoing. Missing police files, absent witnesses and prison mismanagement have contributed to the large number of inmates awaiting trial.
Some underage inmates who are accused of minor crimes have allegedly spent more time in jail awaiting trial that they would serve if convicted.
Femi Falana, is a Lagos lawyer and human rights activist.
"The prison has become a dumping ground for criminal suspects whose cases are not going to come up in court for hearing, for years," she noted. "Criminal suspects who have no business in court and also criminal suspects who have found themselves in prison as a result of corrupt practices on the part of the police [are in jail]. And I am talking about a situation whereby somebody is arrested, you take him to court. The court is not ready to go on with the case, either because investigations have not been completed or witnesses have not been found and so they keep on adjourning and quite a number of these guys spend more years in prison than they would have earned if they had been tried and convicted."
The government has proposed new legislation that would ban indefinite detention without trial. The cases of the remaining 15,000 prisoners awaiting trial are to be reviewed after release of 10,000 inmates by the end of this year.
The newly launched prison reform also entails the refurbishment of six jails, training of prison staff, improvement in data management and the introduction of a rehabilitation program for prisoners.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is collaborating with the government and Nigerian nongovernmental groups to raise more than $50 million for the project.