Posted by: Editorial
•Lagos CJ’s example should be sustained even as stakeholders must facilitate the criminal justice system
We scoff at official lassitude to the salient issue of prison congestion despite the fact that the matter requires urgent national attention, especially with many of the inmates awaiting trial for years. This depraved official attitude is better underscored by the ennui shown to this over-flogged matter by successive administrations in the country. We had thought the democratic dispensation would make a difference but it has not; little has changed in this regard since the return to civil rule in 1999.
The Federal Government seems bereft of ideas on the way forward. Abba Moro, its Minister of Interior, recently bemoaned its helplessness in remedying the situation. Moro reportedly said: ‘34,000 of the 42,000 inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial and a good percentage of them have been incarcerated for at least five years’. He also observed that not less than 1,000 Nigerians are daily dumped in various prisons and remain there for over three years without trial. Yet, he has no clue as to what should be done or is planned to ameliorate the deplorable prison situation.
While we doubt Moro’s statistics in view of the poor record-keeping profile of the nation (the figures could be much higher), we applaud Justice Ayotunde Philips’, the 14th Chief Judge of Lagos Sate, who seized the occasion of commencement of the 2012/2013 legal year in the state to release a record 233 awaiting trial inmates at the Kirikiri Prisons. The breakdown: 130 inmates from the Maximum Prison and: 103 inmates from the Medium Prison.
This kind gesture exercised pursuant to the chief judge’s power under Section 1 (1) of the Criminal Justice (Release from Custody) (Special Provision Act) Cap L40, Laws of Federation 2007 is long overdue if the essence of justice in criminal justice system must be achieved. For instance, how can one explain that 2,378 of the 2,502 inmates in the Kirikiri Medium Prison alone are awaiting trial? Only 124 were already convicted with just four on life sentence. Overall, over 80 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial.
We recollect that as far back as February, 2008, Amnesty International came out with a report titled; ‘Prisoners’ rights systematically flouted’, in which it pointed out federal authority’s tepid approach to prison sector reform. If the avalanche of recommendations of several committees set up by government to help chart the way forward on prison congestion have been implemented by successive governments, the matter should have become history.
Unfortunately, the governments failed to take the bold step necessary to eradicate a criminal justice system that encourages prolonged detention and overcrowding in prison yards. Rather, it seems to derive pleasure in touting its phantom respect for the rule of law. We ask: What has the government done to improve prison infrastructure in about a decade? Nothing seems to have been done to improve the prosecution chain that delays arraignment due to poor investigative skills, inadequate Black Maria to convey suspects to courts and more importantly, inadequate/and incessant transfer of judges, among others.
But Justice Philips’ generous amnesty to inmates would only be meaningful in decongesting the prisons if it could be made a routine and not a one off-thing by her and her colleagues in other states. Above all, the debilitating situation in the prisons demands a declaration of an emergency so as to allow for a complete overhaul of the current criminal justice system that inflicts unjustifiable punishment on inmates that may forever not get justice.
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