They must not take delight in the admission of inmates when they know that the facility is incapable of accommodating the potential inmates Towards principally addressing the challenge of decongesting the prisons, section 18 of the recent Nigerian Correctional Service Act signed by the President enjoined the officials to notify the heads of courts once a facility reaches its maximum capacity. Consequent upon this, the Act commands that they reject any further admission of offenders into such facility. I know as a fact that there is hardly a single facility in this country that is not currently overburdened. Notwithstanding this obvious fact, I have not seen a trigger of the rejection by way of notification, much less the actualization of the rejection till date. The belief is that the officials, despite the state of overcrowding, still enjoy the receipt of inmates for economic benefits. In as much as this might want to be contested, I am curious as to know the rationale behind the inaction in this regard. I have heard the Honourable Minister equally alluding to this mechanism but still, no action. My admonition is that except the Honourable Minister actualises this, it might be another provision of the law being more honoured in breach than obedience. This will automatically defeat the novel provision squarely targeted at decongesting the prisons. With regard to the construction of more prisons and the expansion of the existing ones, I must confess that I am not a fan of the idea. This is premised on no other reason than the funding. I am aware that the country is passing through excruciating austere period where the law-abiding citizens are not comfortable at all. Why would I then advocate the spending of the available limited resources on the deviants/non-conformists? Please understand that I recognise the importance of reforming the non-conformists and the effect of their rehabilitation on making the society safe for the conformists.
However, I consider building more prisons unwise as it may signal the promotion of a hunger for custodial sentences and remands where such is not necessary. More importantly, as a matter of priority, we need to concentrate on the conformists so as not to frustrate them and force them to migrate to the other level of being new inmates of the prisons. Should this be allowed, more and more prisons will be required ad infinitum to accommodate the potential inmates until the entire country becomes a huge prison yard. I am aware, as indicated earlier, that the use of the non-custodial measures in the punishment of offenders has been on the front burner for some time. It is to a certain extent already being implemented in haphazard manner. What is, therefore, required for this intervention to be meaningful is the codification of the different modes into sentencing policy and guidelines to be adopted and implemented by all courts involved in the administration of criminal justice. I am aware that efforts in this regard were made in recent past, but the outcome is yet to be institutionalized. Thus, it is my view that as part of the strategy towards achieving the desired goal of decongesting the prisons, this must materialize urgently.
The introduction of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Laws is meant also to address the challenge of the prison congestion. The Act/Law seeks to achieve this in several ways. By the preliminary to the Act, all ministers in the temple of justice, that is, judges, prosecutors and defence counsel, are enjoined to assist the efficient management of the criminal justice institutions, one of which is the prison. In furtherance of the foregoing, offenders arraigned before courts for offences other than murder are expected to be granted bail as a matter of course except in exceptional circumstances. The legislation, in order to eliminate the imposition of unrealistic conditions of bail, further instructs that the conditions must not be excessive. In fact, unlike in the old legislations on criminal justice administration, bail is as of right except for the discretion of the court in serious cases of adverse report.
Arising from this purpose of the legislation, the discretion vested in the judges is expected to be exercised cautiously in favour of the defendant. Regrettably, however, compliance and discharge of the duty under the legislation in terms of granting of bail has been pathetic (if the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law could be treated this way, you must understand my fear with regard to the implementation of the newly enacted Nigerian Correctional Service Act and its lofty provisions). Practical assessment of the operation so far reveals that the denial of bail as well as the attachment of unduly stringent conditions is more prevalent since the enactment of the legislation than even under the old regime. I am baffled by this, considering the number of trainings done for the stakeholders on the legislation. I believe that there is the urgent and compelling need for reorientation of the various actors, particularly members of the Bench in this regard.
They need to start appreciating the essence of the Act/Law in decongestion of the prisons. The situation at the magistracy is even much more appalling in this regard. The courts need to be reminded of the challenge at hand and the need for all to work in a concerted manner towards decongesting the prisons.
This is an obligation owed by all stakeholders under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act as concerned victims as we all suffer wrong policies and their implementations. There are several other ways of ensuring or commanding the attendance of defendants awaiting trial other than imprisonment. I certainly need no voyage in this regard. Excuses of eloping or absconding or possibility of interfering with ongoing investigation is not acceptable.
Beyond the culpability of sureties in that regard, such offenders can be put on watch list, which are often done by the immigration services. Spare me the lazy excuse that the border is porous. How have we been doing it in recent weeks of closure? Assuming, without conceding, that some defendants vanish, the truth of the matter is that, by our criminal justice jurisprudence, it is better that nine defendants escape justice than for one innocent soul to be punished or destroyed by the facility. The startling thing is that, more often than not, our courts forget that by our constitution, the defendants are presumed innocent until convicted. The main reason why such offenders facing trials are now referred to as defendants. It is no news today that some offenders in minor offences end spending more time than the prescribed term of imprisonment in prison awaiting trial as a result of denial of bail or the imposition of stringent conditions. It is quite disheartening that many have served the term while still being presumed innocent under the law.
Associated with this untoward development is the attachment of strange conditions to the grant of bail. A good example is the verification of tax clearance. There is penalty for tax default under the various tax laws and the default procedure therein. Why now impair the liberty of a citizen on this ground? The most appalling one is the verification of addresses and other bail documents by the prosecutor. In my view, this is not only unconstitutional by putting the liberty of a citizen in the hands of his opponent but adds largely to the overcrowding of the prisons. My recent study/research shows that some of this verification takes an average of two weeks in some instances (where the inmate is lucky).
Prosecutors who are embittered by the fact that the court granted bail to a defendant they do not want to enjoy his liberty, would now capitalize on the verification of addresses to inflict more punishment on the hapless defendant. Prosecutors, to whom the court’s responsibility of such verification has been tossed, have adroitly used this sadistic instrument to inflict greater hardship on their luckless victims. These are areas that must be urgently addressed as little drops of water make an ocean.
The courts must cease to abdicate their responsibilities in the verification of documents and addresses by delegating same to the prosecutors who are largely now persecutors. My submission, therefore, is that all judges and magistrates must be reminded of their duty in this regard.
The prosecutors, nay persecutors, are another class of stakeholders that negatively impacts the decongestion efforts. They take delight in opposing bail always. They forget their duty under the Act/Law towards decongesting the prisons. Most of them that I have had interactions with in this context have said it is the standing directive from their institution or superiors in office. They are lost out of initiative nor allowed to discharge their duty under the Act. I recall, in one instance, the prosecutor told me that he knew that the defendant was entitled to bail and had no reason to oppose the application for bail, but should he fail to oppose the bail application, his superiors would accuse him of having collected bribe.
This is how ridiculous it has become. The solution, therefore, equally lies in reorientation of the prosecutors and the issuance of firm directive by the various Attorneys-General and the head of prosecutorial agencies to the prosecutors generally to desist from this habit of needlessly opposing bail in ordinary simple offences and misdemeanors. Exception must only lie in deserving cases that must be supported by clear evidence of adverse report, such of which must be routinely reviewed by the office of the Attorney General and sanction applied where there is indiscretion. In recent times, denial of bail is assuming a dangerous dimension and is now a potent tool in the hands of the various prosecuting agencies towards the oppression of the citizens. This must not only be discouraged as an infringement of the right of the defendants but must be forestalled in order to decongest the prisons. Additional way of decongesting the prisons is through the office of the various Attorneys-General. I recall in 2003, the decongestion programme set up by the Federal Ministry of Justice. This was impactful then.
A replication of this again and the adoption of the model by all states will further propel the realization of decongesting the prisons. I am also of the view that the deployment of Appeal Court Justices to the various prisons once a week for some few hours to review some of the obnoxious conditions attached to some bail or cases of denial of bail will be helpful. I am certainly not unmindful of the burden on their Lordships as a result of regular cases and sittings. However, visitation to the prisons could be a special program with special remuneration package and could be done on volunteer basis over the weekend until a reasonable level of decongestion is attained. This might appear irregular but the stage we are now requires radical measures. Additionally, we might have to put bail appeals on the fast track at the various appellate levels. These are the various action plans that are urgently needed to address the challenge of prison congestion. They must all be implemented simultaneously to achieve the desired result.