Lagos — The Controller-General of Nigeria Prison Services (NPS), Mr. Olusola Ogundipe, has recently raised a fresh alarm that 34, 328 Awaiting-Trial-Inmates (ATM) are being illegally detained in different prisons across the country. No fewer than 17,164 of the affected ATM, according to the NPS boss, had spent between 5 to 17 years in various prisons in the country without trial. The NPS boss, who spoke during the round table conference on Prison Reforms in Abuja, attributed the problem of prison congestion in Nigeria to slow judicial process and inefficiency of the police, worsened by poor infrastructure in the prions.
It is embarrassing that in the last fifteen years in this country the government has consistently been promising that it would tackle the appalling condition of the nation's 227 prisons and the plight of ATM, yet it has done nothing concrete to seriously tackle these problems. What hasn't been said or written on prison reforms, prison decongestions, prison revolution and the plight of the ATM in Nigeria? This newspaper has written several editorials on prison reforms in Nigeria.
The media is inundated every day with numerous lamentations about the appalling condition of the Nigerian prisons.
Successive Attorneys-General in Nigeria including the present Federal one have been making recommendations to the government on how to reform our prisons. Impelled by the deplorable condition of the Nigerian prisons, the Obasanjo government set up a National Working Group on Prison Reform and Congestion to audit the state of the country's prisons and to make recommendations to the government. When 150 inmates of Enugu Prisons escaped from the prison last year in protest against appalling prison conditions, it was the same NPS boss who quickly came up to attribute the cause of the jail break to prolonged prison detention and prison over-congestion. Every year the list of ATMs in different prisons in Nigeria who ought to be released are compiled and forwarded to the Federal-Attorney General for action, yet prisons have perpetually remained over-congested. With over-congestion comes overstretching of infrastructure followed by odious stench and outbreak of diseases in the prison environment. A couple of months ago, the Senate Interior Committee was given a two-week deadline within which to submit a report on a bill seeking to provide a legal framework for the comprehensive reform of the Nigerian prison system. The outcome of that bill is still a matter of public speculation.
The pertinent questions in the light of the above are: Why are we so unserious in tackling this issue? Why does government keep on making promises without the least intention of fulfilling them? The impression being created is that governments in this country simply lack focus and sincerity in this matter of prison decongestion. Little wonder no tangible result has been achieved in this regard in the last fifteen years despite several government promises.
Therefore, we urge President Goodluck Jonathan to make a difference by taking some concrete urgent initiatives leading to the reform and overhaul of nation's prison system and criminal justice system. But efforts at decongesting our prisons or ameliorating the plight of ATM would come to naught without adequate judicial reform aimed at complete overhaul of the country's criminal justice system. Therefore, we demand that dumping of suspects in prison without trial must stop. Young persons and juveniles should not be dumped in prisons; they should be tried in juvenile courts. Suspects who cannot be charged to court within two or three months be released from detention as stipulated in our Constitution. The Federal-Attorney should routinely visit the prisons across the country to order the release of abandoned suspects. Expansive modern prisons with new technology should be built across the country to replace the colonial prisons.