AS part of measures to curtail the spread of coronavirus in the nation’s correctional centres, President Muhammadu Buhari recently ordered the speedy trial of cases and decongestion of the nation’s correctional centres. He also called for the immediate release of awaiting trial inmates. These include those with minor offences, the aged, terminally ill and others without legal basis to remain in custody. He also requested the creation of special courts in all states and the Federal Capital Territory to try serious offences in line with the requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act /Law by desisting from issuing remand warrants in criminal matters, especially in cases beyond their jurisdiction.
These measures are contained in the President’s letter to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, wherein the President reiterated the call by the United Nations on all countries “to consciously reduce the population of prison inmates.” There are about 240 correctional centres in the country.
Available data show that there are no fewer than 74,127 in the nation’s correctional centres, out of which 52,226 are awaiting trial persons. The President noted that most of the correctional centres currently house inmates beyond their capacities. For instance, the Kirikiri Correctional Centre built to accommodate about 1,000 inmates has over 2,000 inmates, while the one in Ikoyi built for 7,000 inmates is reported to house double that number. The situation is the same in Kuje and Port Harcourt correctional centres. The congestion makes the spread of disease in the custodial centres a present danger to the inmates.
It is, therefore, appropriate that the President has enjoined the Chief Judges to consider conditional release of awaiting trial persons who have spent six years or more in custody. Chief Judges are expected to visit all correctional centres within their respective states to identify and release deserving inmates where that has not been done. President Buhari has also directed that a report on the proposed visits should be forwarded to the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat, Federal Ministry of Justice, Abuja, for compilation and onward transmission to his office. He urged the CJN to take steps to ensure the setting up or designation of special courts in all states, including the FCT, to try cases of armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping and other serious offences, in order to facilitate speedy trials.
We think that the President has shown concern towards preventing the spread of the pandemic in the nation’s correctional centres. Undoubtedly, the nation’s correctional centres are among the worst in the world. Therefore, the need for reform is long overdue. Many of the awaiting trial suspects are hauled into the centres on minor offences, while some are innocent of the charges against them and have nobody to facilitate their bail. Some of them have spent more than the maximum sentence they should get if convicted, while a good number of them come out worse than they were before they went there.
Some inmates have reportedly contracted communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and other contagious ailments. This defeats the purpose of the correctional centres. The president’s directive is timely considering the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CJN should ensure that the order is strictly implemented. COVID-19 has provided the opportunity for us to reform the correctional centres. This is also the time to relax the stringent bail conditions that have kept many inmates behind the walls of the centres more than they supposed to be.
Interestingly, some state governors have used the prerogative of mercy provision in the constitution to release some inmates to avoid the spread of the pandemic to the correctional centres. Beyond these measures, there is need to build more correctional centres across the country. According to the National Bureau of statistics (NBS), the total population in the country’s correctional centres grew by 5.6 per cent, with Lagos having the highest number of prisoners in the country. The statistics also revealed that up to three quarters of the prison population is serving time without being sentenced. The report, which covered the period, 2011 to 2015, showed that 72.5 per cent of Nigeria’s total prison inmates are languishing without being sentenced. The alarming figures have exposed the flaws in our criminal justice system, with proceedings dragging for years without end. While lawyers often cite a large number of cases being tried as a reason for lengthy trials, the awaiting trial suspects spend many years to know their fate.
There is also the disturbing culture of arbitrary arrests by law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, arrests over petty crimes such as traffic offences often land people in prison. This is unfair and unacceptable. Let there be measures to ensure that our correctional centres are indeed deserving of that name. No longer should awaiting trial persons be allowed to overstay in the correctional centres without trial. Staying for a long period in the centres without trial may make them hardened criminals.