A visit to any Nigerian prison is a heart-wrenching experience. What strikes one immediately is the age of the prisons, the congestion and more importantly the large number of persons who are yet to be tried and convicted.
They are referred to as awaiting trial. They stand out because they do not wear prison uniform and make do with any form of clothing that has come their way.
Statistics (as at end May 2019) from the Nigerian Prison Services website indicate that the total number of those under the roofs of all the prisons in Nigeria is 73,248 out of whom only 23,373 (32 per cent) have been tried and convicted and 49,875 (68 per cent) are awaiting trial.
The prisoners awaiting trial have not been tried, may not know when they will be tried and the deeply worrying aspect of their detention is the fact that many are held for crimes for which if they had been promptly tried and perhaps convicted, they would have served their terms, reformed, rehabilitated and departed to the free world.
These prisoners simply do not know when they will depart from the confines of prisons.
Several reasons have led to the situation the prison services are unable to render service according to its mission statement. It is to "promote public protection by providing assistance for offenders in their reformation and rehabilitation under safe, secure and humane conditions in accordance with universally accepted standard and to facilitate their social reintegration into society".
Because the Prison Service does not have the mandate to commence the reformation of those awaiting trial, it means that rehabilitation which is a very important part of the mission of prison service is not applicable to these poor souls awaiting trial.
The process of handling accused persons has a number of fault lines. The first is the fact that many are held for petty crimes for which a non-custodian sentence would suffice and at very limited cost to the state. Secondly, the criminal process takes a leisurely time with too many adjournments for all kinds of reasons. Thirdly, bail terms can be so tough that many cannot afford them and, therefore, remain behind bars. Fourthly, the logistical capabilities of the prisons are often inadequate and this hampers the capabilities to bring prisoners to court when cases are due.
The total capacity of Nigerian prisons is just under 48,000 and as stated earlier those under detention is 73,248. Therefore, the high level of congestion makes it simply impossible to treat prisoners humanely. The revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules) to which Nigeria is signatory clearly specifies how prisoners should be held under detention and this is currently not being achieved.
The bail conditions should be relaxed for minor offences where any identifiable citizen can take on bail. What is important is to guarantee the attendance of the accused/defendant in court. It is noteworthy that to reduce the number of persons in prisons, many state chief judges regularly visit prisons and do set a few prisoners free and are to be commended for this. However, such visits are infrequent and the numbers set free are too few and will not result in a meaningful decongestion process.
The tragedy is that whilst a few are released, hundreds are clamped in regularly. We would recommend that each judge in the state is charged with the release of at least 10 prisoners every month until the number awaiting trial is reduced significantly. The total number to be freed should be set and monitored regularly by the chief judges.
Another recommendation for reduction of prisoners is the introduction of non-custodial sentences in line with the very commendable announcement made by the then Lagos Chief Judge, Justice Opeyemi Oke (rtd). The judge was quoted in a newspaper report to have said: "Today in Nigeria, we have seen countless cases where defendants are arrested for minor offences such as burglary and wandering; they are locked up in our prisons for the flimsiest reasons to join the teeming population awaiting trial inmates. They are in our prisons with hardened criminals and by the time they come out they have been initiated into a life of crime and are ready to spread terror, death, and destruction in their post-prison escapades."
The CJ said petty offenders will be diverted to the Practice Directions centres where non-custodial sentences, including fines, restitution orders, and community service orders would be used as long as they are willing to take responsibility for their actions. Justice Oke also said petty offenders will no longer get prison sentences effective from June 3.
Lagos State is to be commended for taking this very bold step which will go a long way in reducing those awaiting trial. We hope that those who are already caught in the web will be freed as well, particularly if they fall into the category of those who committed minor offences.
Udenze is an Advocate and Knight of St Mulumba, Lagos Metropolitan Council, while Njeteneh is President, Association of Catholic Lawyers, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos.