DECONGESTING NIGERIAN PRISONS
By Olu Akeredolu
Recently, Detainees & Indigent Help Centre, a charitable non-governmental organization held a public discourse at the conference hall of the University of Lagos on how to decongest the heavily congested Nigerian prisons with emphasis on formal introduction of probation/suspended sentence, plea-bargaining, parole, community service and etc into the Nigerian Criminal Justice System. Eminent Nigerian Scholars of law and criminology like Professor Akin Ibidapo-Obe, Professor Ayo Atsenuwa, Dr. Reuben Abati, Mr. Bamidele Aturu and etc attended the discourse and participated. They bore their mind on the state of Nigerian prisons and what should be done to modernize the prison system in Nigeria to be in conformity with international standard. They also discussed those parameters that could reduce the number of inmates in our prisons or those being sent there on a daily basis.
Many of the States Attorneys General were represented by officers not below the rank of Directors and they came from States like Anambra, Edo, Ogun, Lagos and so on to participate in the event. Ironically, the Attorney General of the Federation, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Speakers of the thirty six states Houses of Assembly, the Minister for Internal Affairs and Comptroller General of prisons were invited to the event and receipt of their individual invitation letter acknowledged, but none of them was present and neither was any of them represented in the discourse. That shows the low attitude of Nigerian leaders in solving Nigerian problems but that will be reserved for another day.
Among the myriad of problems facing Nigeria today, over congestion of its prisons is palpable. The pain and suffering being experienced by detainees inside Nigerian prisons are untold and without measure. It is now at a level that when a Judge is sending an accused person to prison custody pending his trial, is like indirectly sentencing him to death. The inevitable agonies and mental torture he is going to face as a result of the terrible condition of the prisons have rubbished the presumption of his innocence before guilt and will surely reduce his life span if he is lucky to ever come out alive. The pitiable aspect of it is that many of Nigerian detainees find themselves in those houses of horror called prison custody for offences they may know nothing about but because they were at a wrong place at a wrong time. What do you say of somebody who was charged for wandering and ended up spending two years in prison custody for an offence that is either not known to law or which may attract a maximum term of three months in prison if found guilty?
The problem of prison congestion in Nigeria appears to be intractable because I do not think our leaders like the way the prisons are. May be they don't get it or they always put the cat before the horse. We have been very slow at development in Nigeria because most of the time, we tend to look for solutions to our problems without first looking at the cause(s) of those problems. It is when we look at the causes that we will know how to tackle them. I will therefore discuss the causes of congestion in Nigerian prisons the way I see them and what I think may be the solution as follows:
Undue delay in criminal trial: To be fair to poor awaiting trial detainees, their cases ought to be disposed off in good time but the opposite is the case in Nigeria. This is because the Judges/Magistrates write in long hand, some of them sometime may not sit on time may be as a result of personal or family problem. The prosecution of criminal cases in the Magistrate Courts is done mostly by Police officers. Most of the time, they don't have their witnesses in court and as such will ask for adjournment. Where they need advice from the Director of Public Prosecution, it may take months or even years to obtain because of the bureaucratic bottleneck in the administration of justice and general administration in Nigeria. Forty eight years after independence, you find that we still apply most of the laws we inherited from Britain. In fact, it is embarrassing that you still find the names of some of the streets in Britain in some of our codes and laws. Those laws are so old that they are no longer useful in this age.
There is inadequate number of Judges and Magistrates to try cases. In developed countries and where federalism is truly practiced, all the tiers of government, that is, Federal, State and Local Government have the right to appoint Judges and Magistrates to try cases. In fact, most of the cases in the United States are tried by County/District Courts. In Nigeria, the Local Government can only appoint Customary Court Judges who are all laymen and cannot try criminal cases. Even at the Federal and State level, you find that it is the same Judge or Magistrate that handles both criminal and civil cases.
Vehicles conveying awaiting trial detainees to Courts are not enough. It is a breach of detainee's right to fair hearing to adjourn his case behind him because there is no vehicle to take him from prison custody to court to answer to his charge or the only available vehicle breaks down. To add to all these is the constant strike by the Judiciary workers which can keep detainees in custody for many months without calling their case at all.
Centralization of the management of Nigerian prisons: The management of the Nigerian prisons is placed under the exclusive legislative list and therefore being controlled solely by the Federal Government. Most of the criminal cases emanate and are tried in the States. The States are mostly the one sending accused persons to prison or prison custody. They are the one that have the statistics or the number of people they send to jail or prison custody, so, centralizing the management of the prisons is a big problem. In the developed countries, prison facilities are built and managed by the Federal, State and Local Government. In fact, there are some prison facilities being managed privately in the United States.
Inadequate number of prisons: There are 227 prisons in Nigeria which accommodate over 40,000 inmates. I think the number of prisons is grossly inadequate because if the facilities are adequate in number and in size, there will be no over congestion.
Absence of prison alternatives: Prison alternatives like probation or suspended sentence, plea-bargaining, community service, parole and etc are absent in Nigerian Criminal Justice System as regards misdemeanor or non-violent offences. Here, I am not talking about very serious offences like murder, armed robbery and treason. Even in those very serious offences including manslaughter, a convict who was sentenced to life or a number of years imprisonment may be entitled to parole by being of good behaviour. I am aware that it may be difficult to introduce the above stated diversionary programs in Nigeria because the level of our development is too low. Lack of basic and non-functional structures like I.D. card, I.T/Connectivity, electricity, not knowing our population and accountability for assets surrendered are some of the challenges the programs will face. The programs may also not work if there is no effective monitoring, if the society does not value the dignity of the human person or if there is apprehension that the programs if given a chance can be compromised by the rich. Plea-bargaining will be abused in a corrupt society.
Near absence of pro-bono services by lawyers: If you are facing a fresh charge in a Court in Nigeria, you can either plead guilty and go strait to serve prison sentence or plead not guilty and go to prison custody if you are poor and having no body to put you on bail. The two choices facing the poor guy here do not relieve the prison of heavy traffic since they both will lead him there and so, he needs a lawyer to assist him. In America, an active or practicing attorney has a number of pro-bono cases he must do in a year and which he must report to the Bar Association. Pro-bono service by a lawyer is designed to assist an indigent litigant or accused person to pursue his case so that he is not on his own. This is not readily available in Nigeria although it is now being proposed by the Human Right Institute of the Nigerian Bar Association. The Legal Aid Council that would have been doing this has not been effective because of poor logistics and inadequate human resources. Very little help or none at all is coming the way of poor accused persons in Nigeria, they are mostly on their own and so, will continue to congest the prisons.
The way out: In a nutshell, I think reformation of Criminal Justice System that will entail faster judicial procedure, decentralizing the prison system from exclusive to concurrent legislative list, deterrence, societal positive mind-set to ex-convicts, victim's interest, corruption-free society, free legal services by lawyers to assist the poor, good I.T/Connectivity, building of more prisons and renovating the existing ones, enhancing the welfare of prisoners/detainees, respecting the rights, privileges and dignity of prisoners/detainees, improving the quality of management of the prison and judicial machineries would be required to achieve prison decongestion in Nigeria.