There is an urgent need to decongest the prisons

In what has become another season of lamentations by top government functionaries, the Minister of Interior, Lt. General Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd), confirmed recently that more than 70 per cent of Nigerian prison inmates were on the awaiting trial list. While it is not unlikely that many of those unfortunate Nigerians may have spent the equivalent years or even longer than the period for which they would have been jailed if their cases had been promptly disposed of, the main concern is that there is no sign that anything would change or that efforts are being made to address this problem.

As we have argued on this page repeatedly, having these individuals languish in prison without any attempt at hearing their cases is a clear violation of their fundamental rights. Beyond that, what the huge gulf between the number of convicted persons and those awaiting trial clearly revealed is that the machinery of justice dispensation has ground to a halt in Nigeria.

While we do not advocate a wholesale release of these detainees, it does not make any sense keeping people behind bars for years in excess of the length of the prison term they would have served had they been tried and convicted. Therefore, we believe the minister just re-echoed the sad narrative of the state of the Nigerian prisons across the nation. The United States “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’’ had pointed to the fact that the condition of the Nigerian prisons was probably the worst in the world.

There are stories that in many of the stinking, tiny prisons across the country, some inmates have spent between 10 and 20 years in detention without trial. Prisoners and detainees, many of whom had never been tried in court, have been subjected to extrajudicial execution, torture, gross overcrowding, food and water shortages, inadequate medical treatment, deliberate and incidental exposure to heat, and infrastructure deficiencies that led to laughable sanitary conditions that could result in death.

The security breaches in many prisons were strong evidence of a failed prison system for which the appropriate government authorities must take full responsibility. For example, there is no reason whatsoever why Kuje prisons located in the Federal Capital Territory, with a capacity for 560 beds, should have a population of almost 2,000 inmates. With congestion comes overstraining of infrastructure followed by repulsive stench and outbreak of diseases in the prison environment.

There is therefore the need for some intervention measures which should include access to justice programme for the inmates; better endowment for prisoner education; vocational training and rehabilitation programmes. There is also an urgent need by the authorities to conduct prison inspections on a regular basis while there must always be a swift response to complaints. Above all, the federal government must work with the states on how to decongest the prisons, especially of those who ordinarily should not be there.

We must also note that many of the prisons were built during the colonial era and since then no efforts have been made to renovate many of them or build new ones. Consequently, the worn-out facilities and infrastructure are unable to cater for the increasing population of prisoners. The result is outbreak of diseases in the prison environment. It is therefore no surprise that whereas the prison systems in most countries are meant to reform the prisoners, the Nigerian prison system hardens them.

Therefore, efforts at decongesting our prisons or ameliorating the plight of awaiting trail inmates would come to naught without adequate judicial reform aimed at a complete overhauling of the country’s criminal justice system. That is the only way we can ensure that our prisons are not populated by innocent people while the real criminals roam the streets.