It is unacceptable to leave inmates perpetually on death row

The Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) was recently renamed Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS). But many are not excited by the name change because in real terms, nothing has changed. This much was confirmed last week by the NCS Controller General, Ahmed Ja’afaru who disclosed that almost 3000 inmates who have spent 10 years on death row still live under the suspense and mental torture of death. “Out of the number, a greater percentage of them may have finished appeals and are still waiting for the determination of the approving authority to either approve their execution or commit them to life imprisonment,” said Ja’afaru.

According to Ja’afaru, the prisons across the nation have a population of 73,102 prisoners, 19,878 convicted males and 299 convicted females. Condemned male prisoners stand at 2677, and females, 42. But like it has always been, prisoners awaiting trial constitute the majority as their numbers stand at 50,216. Some lunatics numbering 13 are also quartered at the Enugu prison while condemned prisoners make up the rest. Most disturbing is the large turnover of inmates on death row in the country.

We can understand that some governors dither in signing death warrants on humanitarian, political, religious, emotional and ethnic grounds. But whatever may be the mitigating sentiments, the delay in carrying out this executive function is breeding congestion that has impacted significantly on the administration of justice. That is aside the helplessness endured in the roller coaster of emotions for these condemned inmates who have practically been reduced to the status of the living dead.

Statutorily, governors are not bound to sign the warrants for the execution of people on death row. They can exercise their prerogative to commute such sentences to lifetime in jail or reduced the jail terms. They can also grant such convicts state pardon, therefore putting a closure to the matter. But it is unacceptable for them to leave inmates perpetually on death row.

The obligation on the governors is specifically enshrined in Section 212 of the 1999 Constitution as well as Section 221 of the Penal Code and Section 319 of the Criminal Code. All this prescribes capital punishment for murder while sections 37 and 38 of the Criminal Code prescribe the same punishment for treasonable felony. There is of course a global campaign against capital punishment, but it is still applicable in Nigeria. Majority of these death row inmates are in solitary confinement having been convicted for such offences as murder, treason, and armed robbery. Some states in the country have also enacted capital punishment for those convicted of kidnapping.

It is an inherent violation on their rights and dignity to keep people interminably on death row, especially for cases that have been concluded by the Supreme Court. Such practice is antithetical and capable of inflicting traumatic shock on the condemned inmates awaiting an imaginary death in solitary confinement. To put in context, prisoners on death row are condemned to a kind of existential limbo, existing as entities in cold storage rather than living as human beings. We therefore imagine the harrowing spell condemned prisoners go through daily in solitary cells, humbled by the force of an impending death that seems to be an eternity.

Whatever may be the justifications, prolonged solitude is a punishment that is detrimental for the psychology of death row inmates. It kills the victims incessantly and unmercifully. We welcome Section 12 (2c) of the new NCS Act which provides that where an inmate on death sentence had exhausted legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years had elapsed without execution of the sentence, the chief judge may commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. It is the right thing to do.

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