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Prison decongestion hurdles for Aregbesola

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Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, made a very ambitious promise on October 2019.

He promised that Nigerian prisons, now renamed correctional facilities, will be decongested. Aregbesola made the statement soon after President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Nigeria Correctional Services Act on August 14. Aregbesola’s statement is ambitious because every government in the last 20 years had instituted one prison reform or the other, with little or no result.

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From June 2001, for example, former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up six different inter-ministerial, presidential and working group committees on prison reform. The situation got so unwieldy that in 2007, the same government set up a committee to harmonise the reports of the various committees.

According to Honourable Minister of Justice, there are 74, 127 inmates in custody in the nation’s custodial centres. Out of that number, 52,226 are pre-trial inmates, 21, 901 are convicts and those that are condemned. Rauf Aregbesola has pointed out that our correctional centres are operating far beyond their capacities. United Nations has encouraged member countries to pay necessary attention to their prisons and correctional centres. The UN expects individual nations to carry out the decongestion exercise under internationally acceptable best practices as it suits the local environment. Rauf Aregbesola is in dilemma handling with 52,226 pre-trial inmates and 21,901 convicted inmates.

Aregbesola has also called for immediate decongestion of correctional centres to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. He has warned that if drastic measures are not taken now, the situation could quickly spiral out of control. On March 28, President Buhari approved the decongestion of Correctional Service formations due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Buhari had constituted a Presidential Committee for the Decongestion of the Correctional Centres, which will be coordinated by the Federal Ministry of Justice. The delay in the Justice System has put Aregbesola and 52,226 pre-trial inmates in a hard moment.

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The committee on decongestion has the following criteria to follow as it affects those on remand:
(A) Those who have spent six years and above should be released conditionally or unconditionally.
(B) Discharge of those who are terminally ill and those who have no confirmed cases of criminality, persons who have become old, those who are low-risk offenders and those who have no sufficient legal basis to remain in custody. The United Nations is calling for countries to reduce the number of people in detention, saying that “physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.” UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet says authorities should look for ways to release people in detention who are especially vulnerable to the disease, such as those who are elderly or who have health issues. She says they should also consider releasing low-risk offenders.

“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” Bachelet said. It is vital that governments should address the situation of detained people in their crisis planning to protect detainees, staff, visitors and of course wider society,” Bachelet says.

I must blame the menace of correctional centres congestion on the nature of the criminal justice system in Nigeria despite the fact there is limited funding. Criminal justice system encompasses all the paraphernalia of the justice system in Nigeria; ranging from police, court, correctional centres and other law enforcement agencies. Investigation takes weeks or months to conclude and when a matter is concluded on investigation and brought to court for trial, if charges are not filed against them in a court of competent jurisdiction, there will be a delay.

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The other factor is the slow pace of justice dispensation in the country which is attributable to long and, sometimes, mischievous adjournment of cases which has led to non-dispensation of most cases thereby abandoning the inmates in prisons, inadequate funding of the judiciary, slow investigation process by the police. Unfortunately, due to the inherent lapses in the system, the correctional centres system which is supposed to be reformatory has eventually turned punitive, thereby defeating the true essence of sending convicts to prisons. The implication of this reversed system of prison administration is that the inmates of our correctional centres come out more criminally minded than they were before conviction.

Also, the constitutional duties of the Chief Judges to visit prisons should be consistently complied with. This power vested in the Chief Judges to visit and release inmates with offences or those that have over-spent their prison terms and are still there would help to drastically decongest the prisons.

While the various governments dither, the prison population continues to grow exponentially. It rose from 29,000 at the beginning of the Fourth Republic to 75,000 at present. About 80% of the inmates are on the awaiting trial list. They are held for minor and bailable offences but they are often never taken to court again after their first appearance. Therefore, they stay in over-crowded prisons for years, far more than the period they would have served if they had been taken court, tried and convicted. They live in overcrowded and degrading conditions, ravaged by disease and hunger and psychologically ruined.

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Similarly, there is the institutionalised way of delaying trials in the justice delivery system by way of holding charge. Time has come for the nation to do away with such stop-gaps. Of equal importance is the upward review of funding of the Judiciary and the right Judiciary personnel to do the job. With adequate funding, the prison authorities would be able to bring inmates to and from the courts to the prisons. In the present situation, there are instances where the courts cannot sit because there are no vehicles to transport them to the courts.

The police also should be given the wherewithal to perform their constitutional role in justice dispensation. It is my candid view that when these are done, the justice delivery system would improve and this, in turn, would help to decongest our prisons for a saner society.

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