Travails of Awaiting Trial Inmates in Anambra Prisons

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David-Chyddy Eleke who went undercover to some prison facilities in Anambra State reports that the facilities are bursting at the seams with awaiting trial inmates, most of whom have over-stayed the term they would have served if they were convicted

In 2011, a neighbour to this journalist, Emeka Okeke-Ngwu was among four persons arrested by the police in Awka, around the old Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) building in Ziks Avenue. A robbery had occurred along the stretch of road that leads to Eke Awka, a popular market in Awka, Anambra State, but Okeke-Ngwu was oblivious of this.

He was an apprentice at a local fast food joint in Amawbia and was trekking home after the day’s business at about 8p.m. when he was arrested by some policemen, alongside four others.

Of the five, four were able to contact their relatives who coughed out varying sums to get them released on bail, but Okeke-Ngwu could not. His elder brother, Gerald, who was an automobile mechanic had lost his phone then and there was no way to contact him.

Okeke-Ngwu was declared missing but his brother insisted on not reporting to the police. He feared that reporting to police may not help find Okeke-Ngwu but rather lead to expenses. What no one knew was that Okeke-Ngwu had been moved from police cell, charged to court, booked to stand trial and was already languishing in Awka Prison, Amawbia, while awaiting trial.

Like Okeke-Ngwu, many suspects are today languishing in most prisons across Nigeria. More worrisome is the ugly fact that some of them still don’t know the reason for their continued detention while the ones who know have patiently been awaiting justice to be served on them to no avail.

Most have no hope of going to court, just as they do not also know what the future holds in stock for them as their matter have become a forgotten one. This set of people often do not have legal representation. They live each day in the prison, hoping that by a stroke of luck, something would happen, and they would be freed.

But in Nigeria, ‘nothing’ happens to get most of them out.

Anambra’s ‘One for Three’ Prisons

Accessing the prisons facility in Onitsha or any other in Nigeria is not an easy task. Not even the introduction that one was a journalist, was enough to lead one in.

This reporter was on a mission to access the prison, with a hope to find out the size of awaiting trial inmates in it, in comparison with the actual capacity of the prison, and also ascertain how they live, but just when all hope was lost, a friend hinted that the best way to do so was to pose as an official of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), with gift packs for the inmates.

Two cartons of noodles did the magic, and upon entering the prison in Onitsha, after registering the gift with the name of an non-existent NGO, a lot of revelations began to pour in. It was early July.

On the notice board, THISDAY found out that the net capacity of the prison was 326 inmates. Also on the same notice board, prison officials wrote that the facility houses a total of 1,179 inmates.

Consequently, the figure, a little over three times the stipulated capacity of the prison, suggests that three inmates would have to share facilities meant for one, but what was more worrisome is that the number of awaiting trial inmates in the prison.

As could be seen on the board, the figure on this date stood at 1,033. A prison source told this reporter that most times, the figure is higher but the prisons staff deliberately post lower figures for visitors to see, thereby hiding the plight of the inmates.

What the 1,033 total of inmates posted on the board meant was that save the high number of awaiting trial inmates, the prison would have just 146 convicted inmates, and only then would the dream of the prison as a reformatory centre have been maximally achieved.

This reporter was not allowed to interact with inmates but he generally observed a low living standard characterised by misery, hunger and frustration. While the awaiting trial inmates are seen securely locked up in crammed cells, duly convicted inmates, especially those who have served a considerable part of their term are allowed to mill around the prison compound freely.

From Onitsha, this reporter visited Aguata prison in Ekwulobia, Aguata Local Government Area where he found the case not to be any different. While the capacity of the prison is just 80, the facility had as much as 204 inmates, with a whopping 165 of them being awaiting trial inmates as registered on the board. The living condition was also not different from that of Onitsha.

In the Awka facility, this reporter’s entry into the prison was won with a lucky hand of poker. Unlike Onitsha and Aguata where gift item of cartons of noodles, and an introduction as an NGO official did the magic for his entry, even though phones and other working gadgets were confiscated, Awka was a different ball game as the reporter’s attempt coincided with the visit of the presidential committee on prisons decongestion. The committee which visited on July 4, was led by Justice Ishaq Bello.

Embedding himself with these officials, this reporter gained easy entry, even with his phone, thereby saving the cartons of noodles.

Asides being filled to its brim like the others, inmates awaiting trials for years are trademarks of Awka Prison. Some have stayed as much as eight years without appearance in court to stand trial. Inmates like this had simply resigned their fate to the hands of their creator as they languish in jail, despite having not been ascertained to be guilty.

While the prison had a capacity of 238 inmates, it housed a total of 499 as at the date of visit. This number is a little over twice the capacity. While 427 of the inmates were awaiting trial inmates, only 68 were convicted, while four were on a life sentence.

The three prisons – Onitsha, Aguata and Awka – with a net capacity of 644, was found to be housing 1,882 inmates, leaving an excess of 1,238 inmates. The case in Anambra may not be different from prisons across the country, and these leaves inmates crammed in each cell.

The Public Relations Officer of the Anambra Prisons, Mr Francis Ekezie, who spoke to our correspondent said the authority tries to separate the inmates with marked cells, such that those among the awaiting trial inmates who are standing trial for felonious offences do not mingle with those who were in prison for simple offences.

“All these we do to try to protect their rights and also to ensure that the prison which is known to be a reformatory place does not end up teaching inmates to be hardened criminals by leaving them to associate with the hardened ones,” he said.

As for the female inmates, he said there was a prison inside the prison where they were kept, and such areas were a no-go-area for even male prison wardens.

Inmates Inhumane Living Condition

Cutting across the three prisons are frustrated sights of Nigerians, young and old, crammed in marked cells. While this reporter moved around, the inmates make a more-than-normal peep from the bars to catch a glimpse of the visitor.

A prisons warder was on hand to tell this reporter the reason for the stare.

“It may be so they can check out the persons dressing and know the new trend in town, for those who have flair for fashion, others want to see the person to know if it is someone they know, so they can beg for money, while sometimes it is just to know what food item a person brought.”

Settling down to work, Bello’s committee announced that it had the task of considering the release of inmates on three challenges, including; age grounds, inability to meet options of fines imposed and cases of ill-health that were beyond the capacity of the welfare departments of the prison to handle.

Operating from a hall within the facility, the committee for several hours treated cases of inmates who had been in prison for years without trial or court appearance.

Such cases included that of Uche Madu, a 20-year-old who was in prison for stealing and had been there since 2015, Ugochukwu Okeke, who last went to court in 2016, Uchenna Igwe a 42-year-old man who last went to court four years ago, Apollos Uzoka, a 30-year-old man who was in prison for killing his brother, but last went to court six years ago, Chikwado Igweze who has been in prison for 10 years without trial for murder, Joseph Eze, a 40-year old man who was in prison for murder and had been in prison since 2011 and many more others.

One thing that stood out for the inmates was that while most of them had no legal representation, others had their cases before magistrates who had no jurisdiction over them based on crimes they are accused of, and who simply adjourned them sine die, or discontinued them for lacking the jurisdiction to handle them, thereby condemning them to perpetual prison life.

A good example of this is the case of one Chijioke Udo, a 36 year old man who was arrested for kidnapping and was charged to a Magistrate Court in Oraukwu, Anaocha Local Government Area, but has remained in prison for seven years since after his last visit in court in 2012. THISDAY gathered that this was because the Magistrate had adjourned his trial sine die because he does not have jurisdiction over it, and Chijioke has remained in prison since then as he does not have any legal representation to move a motion in High Court for the continuation of his matter.

A visibly enraged Justice Bello spoke after documents of about 50 inmates who were said to be mentally unstable were tendered before him to consider their release, on the ground of ill-health.

“Why do you want me to release them?” Bello queried. “We will not release them. Where do you want them to go to upon release? To go and be roaming the streets? You are the major cause of them developing Psychosis. You do not know that keeping them here for years without even taking them out of these walls to court is enough to cause them to have psychosis, and now you want us to release them, to who?” Bello lashed out at prisons officials.

A medical doctor, Dr Uchenna Akor, however told our correspondent that, “Psychosis is a condition that affects the way a person’s brain processes information. It causes one to lose touch with reality. You might see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real.”

He said mental or physical illness, substance abuse, or extreme stress or trauma can cause it, and that it is important to get treated early, after the first episode of psychosis. For the inmates, Akor said trauma could be responsible, but added that, “Doctor may recommend coordinated specialty care (CSC). This is a team approach to treating schizophrenia when the first symptoms appear. It combines medicine and therapy with social services and work and education support. It is not too complicated a thing to do, and the prison should have a psychiatrist who can do this”.

The long stay at Awka Prison also afforded this reporter time, to feel the pulse of the inmates. One of the inmates in Awka prison, Apollos Uzoka speaking about the food said, “Which kind of food will you eat here that will give you satisfaction? There is nothing as good as freedom.” He was even more embittered by the fact that he was turned down by the committee, despite having been in prison since six years, without trial. He said, “The regular food here is beans, and it is almost an everyday thing.”

Only Seven Inmates Freed

For the awaiting trial inmates who had no legal representation, Bello insisted that justice must take its full course. He prevailed on the Chief Judge of Anambra State, Justice Ijeoma Onwuamaegbu, who was also at the event to ensure that lawyers from the state Legal Aid Council are assigned to the inmates to ensure that their matters progressed.

The Legal Aid Council is a body which helps indigent persons to access free legal representation, so as to aid speedy trial of their cases. The council has offices in all the 36 states of the federation, and in Anambra, it liaises with the police to represent indigent accused persons in courts.

Briefing journalists on his visit, Bello said, “We have been able to set free seven inmates in Anambra facilities. One area that is very disturbing is the fact that inmates stay up to eight years in prison without going to court, and that has been injuring their health, as they now suffer psychosis. We have put our heads together, I and my team, the Attorney General, the Chief Judge of Anambra and the Legal Aid Council for them to get lawyers, and for their matters to leave the magistrate courts for High Courts for speedy trial.”

Justice Bello put the blame for the high number of awaiting trial inmates who have been dumped in prison without a return date to the court on the door steps of the prisons officials. He tasked prisons officials who always take inmates to court to “always insist that inmates gets a return date to court anytime they appear in court before taking them back, it is very important. You must also tell the presiding Magistrate or judge so, there is nothing wrong in doing so”.

How we Manage Large Numbers- Prison

The Public Relations Officer of the Anambra Prisons Service, Mr Francis Ekezie, speaking for the Comptroller of Prisons in Anambra State, Mr Emmanuel Arukeze, explained why problems in the prisons compound.

“There are three arms of the criminal justice system. The police arrest, judiciary commits to jail and the prisons remand the suspect. Nigeria Prisons cannot accept an inmate without a valid warrant. So when you find fault in the system, you cannot just point fingers to the prisons, or the police or the judiciary, it is a holistic thing, and each sector complements the other.”

On why most of the inmates stay as much as eight years without going to court, Ekezie said, “You know our job is to keep the inmates in our prisons. We do not also keep the inmates, except the court issues a valid warrant, and once we have that, our job is to keep them. We are not happy to keep these people too, that is why once the court also orders their release, we release them accordingly. This is because we have a constraint of space in our facilities, the federal government is trying to erect structures inside the prisons in places where there are spaces, and our job is just persuasive and welfare services.”

Speaking on why most awaiting trial inmates have remained in prison, even though the prisons authorities knew that the magistrates had adjourned their matter sine die, and that the inmates have no legal representative to move a motion in the High Court for the continuation of their trial, Ekezie said, “That is mostly the problem some of these awaiting trial inmates have that make them to stay so long. This is through Holden charges, where a matter is brought before a Magistrate, who clearly has no jurisdiction over the matter, and the Magistrate after sometime simply says the matter cannot go on in his or her court, because they have no jurisdiction over it, until a motion is brought before a higher court before the hearing can continue.

“Adjournment of case sine die is also another way a magistrate tells you that he is not ready to have a matter continue in his court, and it is now the job of the counsel to the suspect to take the case to a higher court, but unfortunately, most of the suspects do not have legal representation, and it is not our job to provide them legal representation. Our job is to keep them, and to also provide them in court when they are needed”.

On how the inmates are fed, Ekezie said that was no problem as demands from contractors were placed depending on the number of inmates at that particular time. He said the number is usually not steady, but demands were made depending on the number. He however lamented that the plights of awaiting trial inmates were made worse by the fact that despite their long stay in prison, they never acquired skills or enrolled for any formal education.

“The prison is a reformatory place, but for these awaiting trial inmates, we do not enroll them for any skill or even higher education because it is believed that they can leave any day. If there were convicted, you can check the duration of their stay and guess that they can register and sit for exams, but for awaiting trial, they can go to court one day and be freed, so they are usually not considered for such schemes,” he said.

Why Trials Drag on – Police

Also speaking on what the police is doing to curtail the number of awaiting trial inmates in prisons, the Spokesperson of Anambra State Police Command, SP Haruna Mohammed absolved the command of blames. He rather stated that the technicalities in the justice sector contribute largely to the slow dispensation of justice, which has led to the dumping of suspects in prison to await trial for a very long time.

He listed the various forms of offenses which suspects involve in to include; Felony, misdemeanor and simple offences. He said simple offences are bailable, and most times never charged to court, but for cases of felony like rape, murder, kidnapping and robbing with arms and others, the police upon arrest of suspects makes sure that they are charged to court.

He said that, “We usually charge them to court in order not to infringe on their right by keeping them in our detention facility, more than the time frame stipulated by the law, as that may amount to infringing on their right. Again, our police divisions cannot charge a case to the High Court, instead it is the Magistrate Court, and those are some of the lacuna we experience.

“But for us the police, we always think that our job is done once we arrest people who are involved in crime, after thorough investigation, and proceed to charge them to court which issues a warrant for them to be remanded in prison. The court can now take it from there, and let justice be served.”

Investigation however revealed that while lack of legal representation for most inmates causes the delay and long stay of the inmates in court, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria in Anambra State is grossly understaffed. A source who begged not to be named said the council in Anambra only had two lawyers in its employ, while hundreds of inmates in various prisons in Anambra were in need of lawyers for their cases to proceed.

But a staff of the council in Anambra who was identified as the coordinator of the Anambra Office, but refused to be named countered the claim. He said, “It is a lie for anyone to say what they do not know. The person who told you we had only two lawyers, is he or she a staff here? Let me tell you, we have four lawyers, and if you add the corps members we have, then you we have more staff here.”

THISDAY gathered that another major cog in the wheel of decongesting prisons of awaiting trial inmates is the seeming non-functionality of the Administration of Criminal Justice Reform Team (ACJR), which a prison source also said have failed in their duty of regularly visiting prisons to help free inmates who were in prison for simple offences that were not worth all the time in court.

The Justice Sector Reform Team (JSRT) is a team comprising key players in the administration of criminal justice sector, has among other things the obligation of visiting prisons to check out new cases and ascertain encumbrances in speedy dispensation of justice. But the near absence of following this duty religiously may be responsible for some of the lapses witnessed, a Lawyer, Uchenna Aleke told our correspondent.

“The problem of high number of awaiting trial inmates, and their long stay in prison without dishing out justice to them has remained very worrisome. With the story you have just painted, I see no difference between what was obtainable before the cry for the reform of the criminal justice sector and now. I can say the Nigerian factor may be responsible for this, because the ACJR was fashioned after other countries where it is working, so why is that of Nigeria not working? We must follow strictly the recommendations of the reforms and people who are entrusted with duties in this line must ensure they carry it out diligently. If not, some of our brothers who are not guilty will continue to languish in jail.

Freedom at Last

As the sectors continue to work hard to ensure speedy justice, and also absolve themselves of blames for the rot in the administration of criminal justice, inmates would continue to tell sad stories if they ever make it out of prison sane and in good health like Emeka Okeke-Ngwu. THISDAY traced Ngwu to Onitsha where he is now a metal fabricator for an interview. He said, “Sir, you want to remind me of something I had long forgotten. That my experience in prison was something I will never forget in my life.”

On how he was able to make in out after two months in prison, Okeke-Ngwu said, “After a very long stay in prison, I was taken to court one morning, and that was in Amawbia. The magistrate looked at me after my charges were read, and by then I was already crying. I was so lean because I had not been eating well, and had also not been sleeping well in prison, and no one knew where I was. I thank God for that Magistrate because she looked at me and insisted that the police authorities should go and look for my relatives to take me on bail. I think that was what they said, and since Gerald’s number was not going, the prison officials had to lead me to our compound that morning when you people saw me and that what how I was released. During my stay in that place I heard a lot of stories from fellow inmates, but I thank God for saving me,” He narrated.

Okeke-Ngwu capped his suffering in prison with the story of how a certain inmate, who he described as fat and about 50-years old always snored heavily in their cell, disrupting the sleep of other inmates in the cell, and even those cells away from theirs. He said, “You can imagine how uncomfortable it is for you to sleep in your house when the weather is hot, not to talk of being in a small cell with over 15 people, all adults, with some snoring heavily? It was a pain to me,” he concluded.

Until a lasting solution is found, most awaiting trial inmates may continue to languish in prison as they await trial forever, one which may never come until a total and workable reform is carried out in the criminal justice sector.

This investigative report was supported by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)