Law  

National stakeholders’ committee and task of prison decongestion  

Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (left); Kaduna State Gov, Nasir El-Rufai and Chief Judge, FCT High Court, Justice Ishaq Bello during their visit to Kaduna prisons.

The recently inaugurated national stakeholders’ committee on prison reforms, last week, began the state tour of prisons with a view to decongesting the over-populated facilities across the country.
 
The process started late 2017 with a visit to Kuje Maximum Prisons, Abuja, where the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN), secured the release of some inmates, particularly those on awaiting trial over minor offenses.
 
Last week, the committee, led by Malami, was in Kaduna and Kano States, where about 810 inmates were released from various prisons across the states.  
 
Following public outcry against the de-humanizing condition of prison inmates across the country, the federal government, through the AGF, in October 2017, set up a committee to carry out necessary reforms.
 
The committee led by the Chief Judge of Federal Capital Territory High Court, Justice Ishaq Bello, was charged with the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of the Federal Executive Council’s directives towards fast tracking decongestion of prisons.
 
The committee was equally charged with the task of producing roadmaps, not only for the decongestion but also, an affecting management of available facilities.
 
Other duties include development of strategy for deployment of technology and the implementation of Virtual Automated Case Management System.
 
The committee 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.
 
The committee led by its chairman, Justice Bello and accompanied by the Secretary, Mrs Leticia Ayoola-Daniels, took the first step by visiting Abuja prison, where it discovered that the facility originally meant for 50 inmates was overstretched to house 823 inmates.
 
The visit however facilitated the release of 126 inmates of Kuje prisons and those of other neighbouring states, including Niger and Nassarawa. 
 
Malami at the ceremony stressed that congestion of prisons negatively affects justice delivery system as well as impacts adversely on the human rights of inmates.
 
He decried the fact that most of the inmates have spent more time than their offenses deserved and assured that review of cases of inmates awaiting trial for upwards of five years would be conducted across the nation.
 
Justice Bello in his capacity as the chairman further promised to collaborate with the National Assembly towards a speedy passage of the bill that would provide a lasting solution to the problem of prison congestion in the country.
 
He added that the committee had identified some prisons across the country that required urgent visitation, and that it was ready to commence a tour of the prisons for that purpose.
 
The urgency required by the situation necessitated the immediate visit to Kaduna and Kano States respectively. Consequently, 360 inmates were released from Kano prisons while additional 450 were set free from Bichi, Kiru, Wudil and Tudunwada and central prisons in Kaduna State.
 
While the elated beneficiaries commended the committee for facilitating their release, the Minister assured that they would immediately be integrated into the federal government agricultural policy.
 
The Minister however stressed the need for a national centralized database management system as part of the reform processes. This he said will serve as a long-term measure towards improving prison conditions across the country.
 
“With prison congestion,comes a number of human rights and socio-economic development issues. The situation affects not only the inmates but also their families, prison officials, the justice system and the society at large”, Malami stated.
 
For Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, the state required not less than additional 20 judges to ensure speedy trial of inmates.
 
The governor frowned that three quarter of inmates were awaiting trial – a situation he said, has reduced the nation’s justice system to mere rhetoric. 
 
During the visit to Kano Central Prison, Malami noted that over N16million was paid by the state government for the release of some inmates, including two women.
 
According to him, decongestion of prisons across the nation is a key policy focus of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. He added that the beneficiaries would be released in matches.   
 
The freed included those who had been in prison custody for more than five years without trial and others who were remanded due to their inability to pay their fines.
 
Recall that President Mohammed Buhari had released some inmates during his visit to Kurmawa Prison in Kano in December last year.
 
According to Malami, the Ministry of Justice has been at the forefront of the collaboration with states towards prisons reform.
 
“It is hoped that these very practical steps would provide some level of immediate relief to the prisons and prisoners in short term, while other measures would be introduced by the committee towards sustaining the decongestion of prisons in the mid and long-term”, Malami stated. 
 
He therefore urged other states to emulate Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, by working with the committee to decongest prisons in their states.
  
The delegation later paid a visit to the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and the Emir of Zazzau, Shehu Idris.
 
Sanusi admonished security operatives to consider taking those arrested for drug abuse to rehabilitation centres rather than reprimand them in prison custody.
 
He also frowned at the ever-increasing number of inmates on awaiting trial list, stressing that the situation makes mockery of the nation’s justice system.
 
Earlier in his remark, Governor Ganduje told the committee that some of the challenges confronting Nigerian prisons could easily be resolved if prisons formation and control were transferred to states.
 
Meanwhile, Ministry of Justice has scheduled a stakeholders’ summit in the second quarter of 2018 to find lasting solution to various issues affecting prison management in the country.
 
There has been a sustained public outcry against the human rights violation of inmates across the country. Recently, a human rights organization – Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errant (CURE-Nigeria), following its tour of Nigerian prisons, drew government’s attention to the need for urgent reforms based on full implementation of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA 2015).
 
The organization through its Executive Director, Sylvester Uhaa, specifically called for drastic implementation of Section 293 of the Act, a segment that stipulates a maximum period of 72 hours within which an accused would be granted bail or charged to court.
 
He held that the deplorable condition inmates were subjected to, could negatively impact them physically and emotionally.
 
With awaiting trial inmates constituting about 70 per cent of prison population, Uhaa noted that the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction, is enshrined in both local and international laws as well as human rights instruments, and as such, must be respected by Nigerian government.
 
He said: “The arbitrary and excessive use of pre-trial detention in Nigeria, besides being a driving factor for increasing prison rates, is a massive form of human rights abuse.
 
“Out of the over 72,000 prison population, more than 47,000, representing 70, are awaiting trial. And this does not include hundreds of detainees in Police stations and other detention centres across the country”, he stated.
 
Uhaa also took special interest in the growing number of women and babies confined without basic care, and suggested that where it becomes absolutely necessary for pregnant or nursing mothers to be detained in prison custody, adequate medical and basic cares should be provided.
 
He held that the poor and powerless, who lack the financial strength to hire lawyers, procure bail (or bond), or pay a bribe are usually victims of long pre-trial detention.
 
“The Poor and marginalized people, who lack the social and political connections and influence that can facilitate pre-trial release, are most vulnerable to this situation.”
 
According to him, most victims of pre-trial detention are often treated worse than convicted persons as most of them are held in over-crowded and harsh conditioned Police lockups that are not designed for long-term occupancy.
 
“Unfortunately for this group of people, only little attention is devoted to them as they are considered temporary detainees, even though in actual fact, many of them spend longer time in prison than convicted persons.
 
“This is why we continually advocate an adjustment in our laws and policies to allow detainees participate in all rehabilitation and re-entry programmess while in prison”, Uhaa added.
 
However, with the activities of the committee within a short period of its inauguration, it is hoped that the nation will experience the much-desired reforms in its prison system.

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