Decongesting correctional centres at this time
The Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) reports that it has released 3,751 inmates consisting of convicts and persons awaiting trial.
This is in response first to the order by President Muhammadu Buhari that this is done to reduce the spread of coronavirus infection and second, a subsequent instruction by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad to the chief judges of the states and the Federal Capital Territory to decongest the correctional facilities under their respective jurisdictions.
The Nigerian correctional facilities are, according to one account, meant to hold a little over 50, 000 inmates but in the words of the CJN, “from available records, the inmate population at various custodial centres across the country at present stands at 74, 127, out of which 52, 226 are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs).” This is outrageous. It is unacceptable in a humane society. Whereas Buhari hinged his order on the expediency imposed by the danger of COVID-19, Justice Muhammad on his part, was prompted by a charge from the United Nations to, “consciously reduce the population of inmates since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”
The point that sticks out embarrassingly from this narrative is that, without COVID-19 and the prodding of the UN, our high officials had no sense of urgency to address the inhuman concentration of Nigerians in the custodial centres. While acknowledging the marching orders from the President and the CJN, it should be stated directly that both delayed too long to do the needful. De-congesting the custodial centres is a task that must be done once and for all.
There is absolutely no reason that a correctional centre should hold so many more than it is designed for. There is no valid point for persons awaiting trial to be so many more than convicts. There is absolutely no justification for the law enforcement officers and the justice dispensing officers to allow this to go on for so long. It appears strongly that not enough direction is being applied in the processes. If justice is to be well served, both the spirit and the letters of the law should be the constant focus of all officers concerned. Indeed, former U.S. justice Earl Warren apparently ranks the former even above the latter by saying that, “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.”
It is not justice to incarcerate an accused without fair trial for so long as obtains in Nigeria. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. In this specific respect, both the law enforcement and the judicial arms of government stand accused of not doing enough to uphold the fundamental rights of ATPs as well as fall short of global best practices. Needless to say, even convicts have rights; so do persons merely accused too. One example: the right to be accommodated in separate units grants that awaiting trial persons shall be kept apart from convicted prisoners. With the level of congestion in the centres, this is not possible. It is a violation of the rights of these persons, as well as a breach of correctional service rule. But even more dangerous to society is the possibility of ‘‘contamination’’ of an ATP by a hardened criminal. The CJN should draw up for chief judges, a timetable of periodic visitation to the correctional centres to discharge according to agreed terms persons should not be there.
There are, on simple offences and misdemeanour, discretionary measures that law officers and judges should apply to encourage pre-arraignment settlement on the one hand, and out-of-court settlement on the other, thereby preventing accused persons from avoidably adding to the numbers in detention. For example, in Lagos State, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act allows, in Section 347(1) that, “a person convicted of an offence triable summarily may be ordered by the court to render community service in lieu of sentence or fine.” Part 8, Section 75 allows for plea bargain whereby “…the attorney-general of the state shall have the power to consider and accept a plea bargain from a person charged with any offence where the attorney-general is of the view that the acceptance of such a plea bargain is in the public interest, in the interest of justice, and the need to prevent abuse of the legal process.” Section 316 (1) also empowers a court to, “in its discretion, impose a fine in lieu of imprisonment” on a convict.
Besides these measures, there exists in the statute book, the right of prisoners to remission of sentence “as the reward for industry accompanied by good conduct.” This newspaper strongly supports the relevant officials to carry out measures that will relieve quickly, the correctional centres. Furthermore, judicial officers should not wait to be instructed by higher authorities or nudged into action by foreign powers before they act on the side of moral justice that tempers justice with mercy on even the most guilty.
Judicial officers are of course expected to uphold the law. But, since the law is made for man, and not man for the law, it may be said that to apply the law on accused persons with sensitivity to a holistic consideration of circumstance is a mark of wisdom. If officers of the law can keep this in mind as they discharge their duties, the correctional centres are less likely to be congested. The law should not be about how many lives are ruined but about how many lives are saved.