The shelves are filled with reports on how to reform the prisons

In yet another bid to decongest the prison, the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice of Minister, Mr Abubakar Malami recently inaugurated a national stakeholders’ committee. Chaired by the Chief Judge of Federal Capital Territory High Court, Justice Ishaq Bello, the committee was charged with the responsibility to oversee the implementation of a directive by the Federal Executive Council to fast-track decongestion of prisons.

While we have nothing against setting up such a committee which was also mandated to carry out periodic analysis of the number of detainees, including those discharged, granted bail or convicted; conduct audit of criminal cases pending in courts to ascertain causes of delay in prosecution, and to undertake an audit of prison facilities with a view to determining their capacities, we must state very quickly that there are already several reports that the federal government can use if it is really serious about reforming the prisons. A notable one is the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) 2012 prisons report which focused on the structure, facilities, access to justice and welfare issues, among others.

It is noteworthy that the committee is already visiting the prisons and has indeed set some inmates free. But if there is going to be a meaningful change in the system, the federal government team must go beyond that. The distress, the health conditions and the poor sanitary situation of these prisons are disgraceful and so are many of the reasons that militate against prison decongestion. Inmates like those thrown in for wandering, for chicken theft, and related petty crimes are usually consigned to cleaning and cooking and therefore considered essential part of the prison workforce. Will they be set free this time around?

 Indeed, the challenge has always been the implementation of reports. Some of the key recommendations from previous reports include the removal of pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants from prisons so they could be kept in special mother centres as provided for under Section 248(2)(a) and 250(7) of the Child Rights Act 2003.

Recommendations from previous reports also include discharging prison inmates who were arrested and locked up for minor offences while those who are above 60 years are recommended for discharge on account of old age. On compassionate grounds, inmates with life-threatening ailments are to be released to their families for adequate medical attention. Along this line also, persons who have awaited trials for over four years are recommended to be considered for conditional bail, while those who have stayed more than their terms in the course of awaiting trial should be granted unconditional release.

Similarly, persons who have awaited trial for more than 10 years, no matter the offence, are to be considered for unconditional release. All inmates with mental challenges who are usually classified as “lunatics” are to be removed from prisons and taken to appropriate health institutions in accordance with the provisions of the UN Standard Minimum Rules, international Human Rights Standards and Section 34 of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.

Beyond these recommendations, which were never implemented, a major challenge to reforming the NigerianPrisons systems is the state of the infrastructure. For instance, some of the prisons have for several years been caught up by urban encroachment. Glaring examples are Suleja, Benin, Okene, Ikoyi and Agodi Prisons, among others. Such prisons have since been recommended to be relocated from their present sites while the old and dilapidated ones are supposed to be rebuilt, yet nothing has been done in that direction.

…To be concluded tomorrow