Children in prisons
It was such a heart-breaking sight the other day when many under-age children were brought out of prisons in Lagos and granted amnesty. It was an embarrassment of maximum proportions not only that so many of them were caught in any crime, if they were, but that the system chose to keep children, certainly with lives of promise ahead of them given their ages, in prisons meant for adults.
The amnesty recently granted 80 of those underage inmates of the Badagry Prisons by the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Olufunmilayo Atilade, may, however, not yield the desired results unless the deeper issues that led to the incarceration of the under-age children are addressed. Also the problem of congestion in the prisons and the consequent dehumanisation of citizens in need of reformation will not end until the right steps are taken in terms of good policing, appropriate justice administration and suitable correctional infrastructure.
Why were the underage children jailed? “The minors, whose ages range from 12 to 17, were said to have been arrested and charged with offences of breach of public peace and “having no means of livelihood.” However, it is not unlikely that many of these children are poor village boys, possibly without parents and guardians! Anyway, whatever their offences might be, children should not be incarcerated in an adult prison because it is not in line with the juvenile justice system; and it is a form of child abuse. Why not incarcerate them in the remand homes and reform them? Incarcerating the underage in adult prison is heart-rending and shows the low premium the Nigerian state places on human life. In fact, it is a shame that this happened in Lagos, which prides itself as a model state and one that championed the judicial reforms in Nigeria and domesticated the 2003 Child Rights Act. This level of dehumanisation of citizens is unacceptable.
The incarceration of children is a manifestation of systemic failure. There is a breakdown of family values, poor parenting and a failed system that does not have good records of birth thereby making many Nigerians seemingly anonymous and prone to being dispensed without trace. The country is also bedevilled by a poor justice administration system, often occasioned by poor policing, poor investigation as well as prosecution and then miscarriage of justice. The whole system in Nigeria is certainly enveloped by injustice!
It is noteworthy that there are plans for the relocation of prisons across the country from their present sites to more spacious locations to address the challenge of over population. However, unless there is a deliberate move to redress the nagging issue of prisoners awaiting trial and the slow wheel of justice, such that suspects are not unduly detained and abandoned in ‘perpetuity’ without trial, the problem of congestion would remain a recurring decimal. Why is it so difficult to try suspects promptly in Nigeria? What is difficult in having special courts to deal with the teeming population of awaiting trial inmates and thereby decongest the prisons?
A system that advertises complete absence of human kindness, exploits the weak and vulnerable in the society, much against acceptable international practice, and places little or no value on human life is a destructive system. So, first, the police should stop arbitrary arrests of citizens because many people are arrested and detained for frivolous reasons, including wandering that has been expunged from out criminal statutes.
Rounding people up and dumping them in the prison without trial amounts to gross human rights abuse. Secondly, the judiciary should brace up to the need for faster delivery of justice.
Thirdly, it is one thing to have supply of free legal services, it is another to push the demand. So, the civil society organisations (CSOs), especially the media should educate members of the public to seek help from the Office of the Public Defender (OPD), Legal Aid Council, Ministry of Youths and Social Development and other agencies when they are in need. Many people who should have access to these services do not know about their existence and therefore become victims of state orchestrated injustice. Also, lawyers should take on some of these cases pro bono as their social responsibility. Again, the population of Lagos State is high and the ratio of citizens/residents to lawyers may have dropped. So, there is the need to increase the number of courts for quick dispensation of justice in the ‘centre of excellence.’
Specifically for children, the judiciary and government of Lagos State should have zero tolerance for child abuse and security officials must stop holding children in adult prisons whether under conviction, on trial or otherwise. As such, the 50 children still in Badagry Prisons should be freed and rehabilitated. Also, anytime a child commits an offence, the emphasis should be on how the child should be reformed and rehabilitated in correctional facilities rather that keeping the child in prison, which has the potential to traumatise or harden him or her further in crime. It is also imperative to build the capacity of the police in investigation and prosecution and improve their remuneration for the job of keeping the society safe.