The origin of modern prisons service in Nigeria started in 1861. That was the year when conceptually, western-type prison was established in Nigeria. The declaration of Lagos as a colony in 1861 marked the beginning of the institution of formal machinery of governance.
At this stage the preoccupation of the colonial government was to protect legitimate trade, guarantee the profit of British merchants as well as guarantee the activities of the missionaries.
To this end, by 1861, the acting governor of the Lagos colony and who was then a prominent British merchant in Lagos, formed a police force of about 25 constables. This was followed in 1863 by the establishment in Lagos of four courts: a police court to resolve petty disputes, a criminal court to try the more serious cases, a slave court to try cases arising from the efforts to abolish the trade in slaves and a commercial court to resolve disputes among merchants and traders.
The functioning of these courts and the police in that colonial setting necessarily means that prison was needed to complete the system. And it was not long in coming for in 1872, the broad street prison was established with an initial inmate capacity of 300.
In the Niger Delta, the relationship between the local people and the British merchants had before then been moderated by special courts of merchants backed by the British navy especially with the appointment of John Beecroft as a consul in 1849.
The need for a merchant court was underscored by the fact that most conflicts between the merchants and the local people were in the main commercial. Although there was evidence of prison in bonny at this time, not much is known about its size and content.
But those who were later to oppose British rule were usually deported as happened in the case of Jaja of Opobo and king Dappa of bonny.
However, the progressive incursion of the British into the hinterland and the establishment of British protectorate towards the end of the 19th century necessitated the establishment of the prisons as the last link in the criminal justice system. Thus by 1910, there already were prisons in Degema, Calabar, Onitsha, Benin, Ibadan, Sapele, Jebba and Lokoja.
The declaration of protectorates over the east, west and north by 1906 effectively brought the entire Nigeria area under British rule. However, that did not mark the beginning of a unified Nigerian prisons.
Had that been so, it would have negated official colonial policy for that would have required funds which the colonial power was not prepared to expend.