There have been calls for the reduction of inmates in our prisons; sadly, over 70 per cent of them are awaiting trials. Despite the statutory powers to release some of these inmates by State chief judges, the number of freed ones recently by State chief judges are insignificant compared to the over capacity of the prisons. ONYEWUCHI OJINNAKA x-rays this worrisome situation and the issue of regular visits by state chief judges to the prisons.
Consequent upon the federal government’s determination to decongest her over populated prisons, an inter-ministerial presidential committee on decongestion of prisons nationwide was sometime in May inaugurated by Mr. Abba Moro, the Interior minister.
During the inauguration, the minister urged the committee to investigate the immediate and remote causes of prison congestion and make necessary recommendations that would evoke solution to the problem.
The minister was particularly concerned with the inmates awaiting trials, who have remained in the prison beyond the sentence they could have served if they had been convicted.
He told the committee that statistics from the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS), showed that a total of 41,524 prisoners were currently in various prisons nationwide with 29,372 Awaiting Trial Persons(ATP), adding that the figure, which accounts for 71 per cent of population of inmates was embarrassing and not acceptable to the government. He observed that for the past 20 years and above, the nation’s prisons have been overcrowded by the ATPs
Giving the astronomical increase of awaiting trials to the presidential committees, Moro said, “In 1985, the total number of prisoners in our prisons was 53,786 and out of this number, 21,515 were awaiting trial. By 1990, the figure changed slightly to 55, 331 inmates, comprising 27,665 ATPs”.
In the year 2000, the total number of inmates in prisons was 43,312, with 26,485 of them awaiting trial.
Towing the same line with the federal government, the Senate last Thursday expressed worry over the menace of prison congestion and inadequate legal representation for the poor.
Senator Umaru Dahiru, chairman, Senate committee on Judiciary, human rights and legal matters expressed the concern of the Senate at the one day stakeholders’ conference organised in Lagos by the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria.
He posited that there should be adequate representation of the poor in the society by the judiciary in order to decongest the prisons, stressing that no Nigerian should be denied access to justice, irrespective of social class and financial strength, adding that it was a fundamental right of all.
“In the past we approved N8 billion for the decongestion of prisons, yet we have no result.
“This year we funded the judiciary with N68 billion. Is it just to build courts and appoint judges? “Those things don’t make meaning to the poor. The only way out is for the poor in the society to feel the impact of the judicial system in this country”, Dahiru said.
With the commencement of the new legal year in all the states of the federation including the federal high courts, some state chief judges have between June and September visited prisons within their states to release inmates, who have remained in confinement beyond the time they would have served if they had been convicted. It is pathetic to note that some inmates, especially those in the maximum security prisons, have been incarcerated for rover 30 years without trial.
It was also noted that some of the inmates allegedly committed minor offences such as fighting, wandering and reckless driving.
In a bid to decongest prisons within Lagos State, Honourable Justice Ayotunde Phillips, the state chief judge last week released 248 prison inmates from Ikoyi, Kirikiri medium and maximum security prisons in accordance with the powers conferred on her by Section 1 (1) of the Criminal Justice Release from Custody Special Provision Act CAP C40, 2007, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
During the visit of the chief judge to Kirikiri medium security prisons, statistics obtained from there showed that the prison, which has a capacity of 800 inmates is over congested with 2, 555 inmates, out of which 2, 457 inmates are awaiting trial while 98 are convicted and serving various terms. At the maximum security prisons, it has 748 inmates. Out of this figure, 126 are condemned, 76 persons sentenced to various terms of imprisonment while over 400 inmates are awaiting trial. It is pathetic and disheartening to note that majority of these inmates are young men and women, who ordinarily should be useful to their families and the society at large. It was disclosed by Mr. Olumide Timioye, a deputy controller of prisons while welcoming the chief judge to the maximum security prisons that old people inside the prison are not up to 0.1 per cent. In Ikoyi prison, the open capacity is 1,835 inmates while 1,677 inmates are awaiting trials.
Explaining the pathetic situation of the prisons to Justice Phillips, Olumide said that some inmates have stayed over 30 years and yet their cases are not moving forward. “Thirty years in the life of a youth is wasted already,” he expressed.
In Kebbi State, Justice Bala Ibrahim Mairiga, the State chief judge while on a visit to Birnin Kebbi old prison, freed 27 inmates. Out of the figure, 6 were females while 21 were males. Justice Mairiga released the inmates in exercise of the powers conferred on him under Section 1(1) of the criminal Justice, Special Provision Act Cap C 40, 2007, under the laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
According to the Chief Judge, the exercise was part of the efforts of the judiciary with other relevant authorities in the state, to decongest prisons and ensure quick dispensation of justice for those inmates, who have been incarcerated for a very long time awaiting trial.
“We know that justice cannot be hurried if you want to do a thorough job. But there is room for improvement and the dispensation of quick justice should be a collective responsibility of the authorities concerned,” the Chief Judge posited.
He decried the alarming rate of over 72 cases of armed robbery, 65 homicide cases awaiting trial in the prison, which has 203 inmates and 34 convicts, assuring that prison visit would be a regular exercise as other prisons within the state would soon be visited.
In Yola prisons in Adamawa state, it was filled with joy as a court proceeding was held inside the prisons by the acting chief judge of the State following the resolve of the state government in conjunction with the prison authority of Nigerian prison command , Yola to embark on prison decongestion.
Yola Prison, which was established in 1914 by colonial masters to serve as a centre for reforming convicted persons had a capacity of 500 inmates at inception but as at July, 31, 2013 there are 553 inmates in the facility, an increase of 53 more inmates over its carrying capacity. Out of the 553 inmates in the prison, 300 were awaiting trial inmates, while male convicts are 242 with only two female convicts. Five of the female inmates are awaiting trial cases and four condemned cases.
As the new legal year commences, state chief judges who have not performed the statutory function of releasing prison inmates, who have remained beyond what the law said should try to perform. By so doing, they will reduce the overcrowded prisons nationwide.
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