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NCS no longer accepting new inmates, says comptroller general

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• Lawyers Urge Caution Over Prisoners’ Release

The Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS) is no longer accepting new inmates in its custodial facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.The Service also advised state governors to cooperate with it by putting the expected measures in place to decongest the correctional/custodial facilities in their domain.

Following the federal government directive, some Nigerian lawyers have, however, urged caution to ensure that the implementation does not lead to increased insecurity and crime rate in the country.

While some believed the action was unnecessary without proper character reformation, others said it cannot be done without necessary data gathering and tracking system.

Meanwhile, following that directive/advice, many governors, in collaboration with the state judiciaries, have started setting some categories of inmates free.

One of the beneficiaries is Ibrahim Garba Wala, who was among about 50 inmates that were set free in Kebbi State. Speaking on behalf of others, he thanked government for the gesture, promising they would be good citizens.

Fifty-year-old Garba from Gombe State, an activist and member of the Civil Society Organisation (CSO), who was transferred to Argungu Correctional Centre from Suleja in Niger State, said he had a case with a former chairman of the National Hajji Commission.

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A court in Abuja sentenced the father of three to a five-year jail term and he had spent some months in Suleja before his transfer to Argungu prison, a total of about 16 months. “I was only charged on personal defamation of character, unlawful gathering and public disturbances,” “I do not regret serving the term and I learned a lot from my prison mates. I was given a good treatment and the prison service officers were friendly and humble with the inmates. We were given foods, but the major challenges was the structure and other befitting items,” he recalled.

Controller General (CG) of NCS, Ja’faru Ahmed, said the decision not to accept new inmates was deliberately aimed at ensuring the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 in the country, adding that the Service has ensured social distancing in its facilities, especially as it concerns the elderly in its custody.

Speaking through the spokesman of the Service, Chukas Njoku, the CG advised state governors to put strategies in place that would help salvage the situation, noting: “We have separated the elderly people in our facilities to a special section where there would be minimal contact with them.

“We have also sanitised all our facilities to ensure we maintain the safety standards.” Human rights lawyer and advocate, Toluwani Adebiyi, said the decision to free some inmates to decongest the facilities “is the most meaningless and directionless act so far by this government,” noting that the inmates are there for correctional purpose.

He added: “Have they received the orientation and reformation needed to make them fit for admission into society? If released, they would be back into the society to do more havoc and destroy more souls, rather than their personal lives to be lost if left in the prison.”

He argued that by not giving them means to continue to live in the society, they would be released at this point in time to re-group, since they would be motivated by the need to survive at all cost.

“People lost so far due to the release is not limited to people they attacked, but people who died of the phobia/high blood pressure of the fear created by these hoodlums. A woman is to be buried this evening due to high blood pressure developed after attempts to gain entry into her home.

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“The hoodlums couldn’t get in, but she immediately developed high blood pressure and was rushed to five different hospitals. Four rejected her and she died at the fifth hospital. She is gone forever and will be laid to rest this evening.”

Another activist lawyer, Yinka Oyeniji, said the release of prisoners cannot be done in isolation of necessary data gathering and tracking systems, saying it is not certain that Nigeria has any such infrastructure.

According to him, identification of those detained in our correctional centres, such as all police formations, is done with chalk on the wall. “Therefore, if we are interested in releasing inmates from correctional centres, we had better do these in conjunction with different sectors of the society in the absence of electronic tracking systems. Who do we release them to? Many of the inmates have since lost contact with family members and may have become excommunicated”

“Rather than releasing them on the streets without any structure for monitoring, the third sector, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which support correctional services, could be consulted to take on these inmates for rehabilitation.

“I will rather suggest that the Ministry of the Interior coordinates with such organisations to determine who is allocated responsibilities for the well-being of the inmates after being released. If this is not considered, we shouldn’t be surprised that the inmates may commit crimes within hours and may end up getting arrested and returned to the correctional centres,” he warned.

Also, Oyeniji suggested that those who have been placed on awaiting trial and those remanded on minor offences or those unable to pay fines should be considered for community services, while the NGOs, the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) through the office of the Attorney General and the Chief Judge, could work in concert to provide a framework for rehabilitation and subsequent release for productive engagement in the society.

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Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Ikorodu branch, Adebayo Akinlade, believed the timing for the release of the inmates should be reconsidered, while they are subjected to COVID-19 test before they are released.

He stated that those to be released must contact their families, while the NGO involved in correctional services issues provide them with reintegration orientation.

Akinlade said: “The timing is to be considered, but the trick is to test all of them first. Those to be released will also need to contact their families, if they have. There are some NGOs that provide reintegration services and perhaps provide a stipend for them to get to their hometowns.

“By and large, there are lots of factors to consider before they are released. They should receive their freedom, but their families need to be contacted to come pick them up.”

National Coordinator of Legal Defence Assistance Project (LEDAP), Chino Obiagwu (SAN), whose organisation advocated the release of the inmates in the light of the ravaging pandemic, told The Guardian that LEDAP’s campaign was for the release of low-risk inmates.

“We are asking that the state governments release low-risk prisoners. These are prisoners who are convicted or persons on awaiting trial for minor offences or offences that do not involve the use of violence or sex crimes. These categories of prisoners pose no threat to society and they are the ones that fill up the prisons.”

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