There is urgent need to overhaul the criminal justice system

The recent jailbreak at Abakaliki Prison in Ebonyi State (fourth within a period of six weeks) reinforces the argument that the Nigerian prisons are in dire need of decongestion. But such efforts, aimed at ameliorating the plight of Awaiting Trial inmates will come to naught without a judicial reform to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system. If crime investigation continues to drag on endlessly, if suspects are detained indefinitely in custody or dumped in prisons on trumped-up charges, if court trial is stalled by endless adjournments at the instance of the prosecution for lack of vital evidence, then there is no way the Nigerian prisons can be reformed.

More importantly, the horrific conditions prevailing in Nigerian prisons are scandalously degrading to humanity such that after spending long jail terms, inmates come out as hardened criminals. Meanwhile, most of the prisons are archaic with statistics and profiles of prisoners kept in old and worn out files. Therefore, finding themselves in the hell hole without speedy trial, the prisoners are so desperate to do anything, including being killed, to regain their freedom through jailbreaks. But there are other problems.

Over the years, the provision of welfare services to inmates in Nigerian prisons has been far from satisfactory. Many prisons do not meet the minimum standard for the treatment of inmates while others violate the right to medical services and the likes as stipulated by rule 31 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. For instance, the document insists that mentally handicapped prisoners should be isolated and given adequate treatment in mental institutions. Unfortunately, the present system tends toward secrecy and an attempt to hide from the relevant authorities how exactly prisoners fare while they serve their sentences.

There are other critical challenges that border on corruption and organised crime. In the Lagos area alone, 197 people were jailed (without option of fine) between 2005 and 2007 for drug trafficking. None of them was ever found in any prison. A government panel identified the syndicate of prosecutors, defence lawyers and warders behind the criminal enterprise but the indicted suspects have been allowed to remain in the system. There were also allegations that some young boys were usually substituted for rich convicts between the courts and the prisons. The lucrative trade, we understand, is called “prison exchange”. Unfortunately, the prison reform bill designed to halt the rot and modernise the prison which was submitted by the executive to the National Assembly in 1999 never saw the light of day.

For now, we wish to suggest that all prison inmates who escaped from prisons be declared wanted. State governments should also be urged to contribute to the funding of the prisons. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association which has over 100 branches spread across the country should be advised to collaborate with the National Human Rights Commission, the Legal Aid Council and the human rights community to decongest the prisons.

Besides, given the rate at which high-profile individuals are qualifying for jail terms, may be it is time to deploy some of the huge sums being recovered from treasury looters to build and develop better prisons. In parts of Latin America, arrested and jailed drug lords are allowed to build their own jail houses but the state ensures that they are kept out of circulation. In parts of the United States and South Africa, the private sector builds, maintains and owns some prison facilities which they lease out to the government. This may be the time to try innovative ideas to keep bad people out of circulation and perhaps make them better citizens when they have served their term.

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