Lagos — One of the topical issues in Nigeria today is the management of prisons. As a matter of fact, the state of our prisons directly touches on the fundamental human rights of the inmates and constitutes a violation of those rights.
Some people spend more time in prison as awaiting trial inmates (ATI) than they would have spent if found guilty.
According to Nelson Mandela, "no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."
Most inmates come out more miserable than they were when they first got to prison while some come out deformed with no compensation for those who have been wrongly detained. Whereas if you have been wrongly detained for about 10 years in places like the USA, you are paid compensation, in Nigeria you are not even given transport fare.
Such governmental organisations as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACN) that should have risen to ameliorate the situation are starved of funds with which to work. The NHRC for example receives over a million complaints yearly but gets about N1.2 billion annually from the Federal Government out of which over N800 million is used to pay salaries while it cost not less than N50,000 to investigate each complaint.
Rising from its meeting in June 2017, the National Economic Council (NEC) directed state governors to tackle problems of prison congestion in their states by taking measures to ease prisons congestion. The stance of the NEC followed an exhaustive brief on the prisons in Nigeria by the minister of interior. The summary of the resolution of the meeting was that the condition of prisons in Nigeria was no longer tolerable and something has to be done.
Consequently, the NEC directed the governors to take certain measures to ease the congestion of prisons. Such measures include the following: Signing the execution warrants for death row inmates or commuting such sentences to jail terms; engage their chief judges to free as many as may qualify for release under agreed terms; do all within their powers to salvage prisons in their domains including the deployment of the private sector to help. NEC also advised that the Federal Government should consider the public private sector collaboration as option for prisons reform.
Recently, at the stakeholders committee to oversee the implementation of the Federal Executive Council's directives to fast track decongestion of prisons held in Abuja, chaired by Justice Ishaq Bello, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) also stated that to manage the prison system in a fair and humane manner, national legislation, policies and practices must be guided by the international standards developed to protect the human rights of prisoners.
About 70 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial and it is embarrassing and an indictment to the national justice system because it contradicts international standards including those provided in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that provides for the limited use of pre-trial detention when certain conditions are present.
The minister lamented over the alarming state of the prisons, over crowding of inmates and the unconducive environment which actually had defeated the primary purpose of the prisons as reformation centres.
"The current state of our prisons is unfortunately very alarming. There is no gainsaying that the facilities are vastly over crowded with inmates and the environment mostly not conducive, thereby defeating the primary purpose of the prisons as primarily reformation centres," he said.
Dr. Joe Odumakin once said that she was detained for nine months at various detention centres without bathing, adding that state officials should visit prisons without notice, if they are serious about prison reforms.
Every remand warrant in Nigeria carries with it the proviso that the superintendent in charge of a prison shall produce the prisoner named in the remand warrant as at the date and time indicated in the warrant. This function is cardinal to the success of criminal justice delivery in any society.
Taking remand prisoners to court is one of the most important functions in the criminal justice chain because without the prisoners in court, their cases can hardly be expected to go on. This therefore places the onus on the prisons to make sure that all prisoners due for court sessions are produced as such.
According to impeccable sources, at the end of 2016, the fleet capacity of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) stood at just 268 vehicles in various stages of disrepair and dysfunction. These are vehicles that are supposed to cater for the prisoners going to about 5,022 courts scattered all over the 774 local government areas of the country.
These 268 vehicles in the prisons inventory include those burnt in the war against insurgents in the north-eastern part of the country and quite a sizeable number rendered unserviceable by the lack of funding that has characterised prisons administration for a very long time. The paucity of escort duty vehicles in the prisons has surely affected the ability of remand prisoners to attend courts because 268 vehicles cannot service the 1,121 courts operating in the 774 LGAs of the country.
When these matters are presented on a national landscape, they may appear a bit tolerable but when placed within the framework of the operations of a state command, the grim picture appears in full. Take the FCT for instance, the prisons serving the FCT are Kuje, Suleja, Keffi and Dukpa Farm Centre. The Farm Centre seldom holds pre-trial prisoners. So the prisons serving the ATPs in the FCT are Kuje, Keffi and Suleja. Kuje prison with a capacity of 560 now has a population of 800 inmates out of which 560 or 70 percent are awaiting trial. It serves four local government areas of the FCT and attends to the needs of 90 courts in these areas. Sadly it has only three Green Maria mini trucks at its disposal.
Suleja, with a capacity of 250 inmates now has a population of 415 inmates out of which 249 or 60 percent are awaiting trial. It also serves the four LGAs in the FCT in addition to three other LGAs of Niger State. Suleja services 38 courts in these areas but the logistic strength of that prison is three mini vans.
With such flawed consideration of the need for the prisoners in custody to access justice with dispatch means that we presently lack capacity to deliver on such issues which other jurisdictions in Africa have taken for granted.