More cases of human rights abuses have continued to emerge as the Presidential Committee on Prisons Decongestion beamed its searchlight on prisons across the country. Having reviewed the situation in Abuja, Kano and Kaduna prisons earlier, where a significant number of inmates were freed, the committee recently went to Rivers and Imo States respectively in continuation of their mandate.
Recall that the committee was inaugurated last year to undertake a holistic action towards reforming the prisons. Such actions include reviewing cases of likely rights abuse and over crowding. In Rivers State, the committee, led by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), Chairman of the Committee and Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Justice Ishaq Bello as well as the Secretary, Mrs. Leticia Ayoola Daniels, the committee paid a courtesy on Governor Nyesom Wike.
The governor shared same concern with those earlier visited on the deplorable condition of inmates.He however blamed the situation in Port Harcourt prison partly on the fact that the state has the least number of high courts in the country. According to him, high court was not operational in the state between 2013 and 2015, which adversely affected the administration of criminal justice.
Noting that prison congestion was a serious concern to the state, particularly because of associated human right violation, Wike flayed the Police for contributing to existing problems.He wondered why Police officers were always keen in arresting and detaining persons whose offenses were not only frivolous but also lacked legal substance.He said: “I wonder why the Police should arrest and charge a case of someone who stole yam and sugarcane to court while those charged for robbery and murder for political reasons were released. Wisdom should be applied to save innocent people from languishing in prisons.”
He equally accused prison authorities for often allegedly conniving with some accused persons from going to court to face trial. While commending the committee for taking the bold step, he urged the AGF to be thorough in the assignment by demanding the warrant of all the prison inmates. He noted that proper information about inmates would guide him in separating inmates accused of capital offenses from those of minor offenses, especially those who have been in detention beyond the stipulated jail term upon conviction.
In his response, the AGF admitted cases of human rights violation being perpetuated in Nigerian prisons. He cautioned that since inmates waiting to be charged to court constituted more than 70 per cent of the nation’s prisons population, there was urgent need to address the issue of rights violation in the name of awaiting trial. “I am therefore pleased to announce that the committee will, in addition to ensuring the payment of fines, also conduct a review of cases of inmates awaiting trial for more than five years, in the select priority prisons.
“These able bodied men represent our potential workforce, they represent tomorrow’s fathers to raise the next generations of Nigerians.“We must therefore begin to find improved ways of addressing the issue of crime and the treatment of minor offenders in our criminal justice system”, the Minister said.For the Committee chairman, Justice Bello, dehumanizing condition of inmates could lead to psychological and emotional impacts. He also frowned over situations where certain cases were first referred to lower courts that lacked jurisdiction.
Describing such steps as a clog in the wheel of progress, Justice Bello admonished Magistrates to always send back such cases without delay to the appropriate courts. “Knowing that he does not have jurisdiction over the matter, it is better for the magistrate to send back the case. It is inappropriate to retain such cases in lower courts as it causes delay and contribute to prison congestion”, he said.
While calling on the Chief Judge of the state to carry out a review of inmates’ warrants with a view to identifying those who have over-stayed their terms, the committee chairman expressed the need for a committed effort at tackling some of the challenges confronting the nation’s justice system.
While Wike procured the release of some inmates remanded in custody for their inability to settle their fine options, Justice Bello released some whose offenses were minor but were either remanded for years without trial or sentenced beyond the provisions of the law.
One of the inmates granted freedom was a young woman, Joy Goodluck, an indigene of Imo State. She was convicted for stealing a half bag of cassava and sentenced to Port Harcourt prison for three years. The young woman, who was a month pregnant at the time of the arrest, had already spent 18 months before fortune smiled on her. Port Harcourt Prison was rated among those with the highest number of inmates in the country. While the total number of inmates in the state is 4,900, about 4,200 of them were housed in Port Harcourt Prison.
Speaking during the meeting with the committee in Owerri, Governor Rochas Okorocha admitted that prison atmosphere in Nigeria cannot guarantee transformation of inmates upon their release. He also identified the country’s justice system as part of the factors responsible for prison congestion.He therefore suggested prison concessioning or a private, public partnership, which he said, would enable the private sector participate in the construction of prisons as well as the welfare of inmates.
However, cases of rights violation were more pronounced in Owerri prison. Some of the inmates, who spoke to the committee, have spent between 10 and 17 years in detention without being charged to court. In his reaction, a Port Harcourt based lawyer, Festus Ogwuche, blamed the situation on lack of basic information about public rights and privileges. He held that even as accused persons, inmates still have legal rights to charge authorities to court over detention without trial. “Such people have rights to institute legal actions against the authorities for violating their fundamental rights to freedom. Unfortunately, most of them do not know their rights. Even those that manage to know may not have the financial power to take legal actions”, he stated.
According to him, getting the public informed about their rights was the responsibility of National Orientation Agency. “But I don’t know what they are orientating these days”, he added. Ogwuche further blamed the rot that has characterized the nation’s prison system on failed institutions.He stated that the lapses resulting in over-crowding, poor feeding, detention without trial and other forms of right abuses going on in different prisons across the country were offshoot of insincerity and apathy on the part of all the agencies responsible for the administration of criminal justice.
He listed the Police, the prosecutor, the court as well as the prison officials for violation of both local and international charters on human rights protection, for the atrocities that have befallen the prison system. “Aside the overstretched facility, inmates are malnurished due to poor feeding. Yet, Nigerians were made to understand recently that the prison authority spends N14, 000 daily on every inmate.” He described such position as being “far from the truth.”
In his opinion, a human rights activist and Executive Director, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), Mr. Sylvester Uhaa, blamed issues affecting Nigerian prisons on corruption and abuse of power in the criminal justice system, particularly in the pre-trial stage. He held that since the activities of law enforcement and judicial officers were not opened to scrutiny, they might abuse their discretion and engage in corrupt practices without accountability.
“There has to be checks and balances at every level and stage of our criminal justice system to check corruption, abuse of power and punish law enforcement and the judicial officers who are found wanting.
“This is the reason I have insisted that simply releasing people without putting in place mechanisms that will prevent unlawful and arbitrary arrest of people, most of whom are innocent of the alleged offences, is not a sustainable prison decongestion strategy, and cannot deliver the desired results,” he said. He canvassed a holistic reform approach that will include accountability and effective functioning of the three-arms of criminal justice in accordance with the rule of law and human rights provisions. Otherwise, you release 100 people in Kano prison today and more than hundred go in the next day,” he said.
Uhaa also believed that for the committee to achieve desired result, state government must support the federal government. “In addition, we have to fully implement the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA 2015), especially Section 30 that deals with alternatives to incarceration. “We cannot continue to send everyone to prison and expect that prison will not be congested. Also, we need to adopt a public safety strategy that emphasizes crime prevention. This is the best way to fight crime.
“So, we must invest more in social welfare, job creation and infrastructure development rather than expanding our law enforcement,” he said.Uhaa went further to suggest that the current amendment to the Prisons Act should empower the prisons authorities to reject inmates when a facility has accommodated the required number of inmates. According to him, there is no justification whatsoever for Port Harcourt prison, which was built for 805 but is currently holding almost 5000 to continue to admit inmates. He proposed an amendment that should empower those innocently detained for more than three years to sue for compensation from the arresting agency. This, he said, will force relevant institutions to do work efficiently.