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Decongesting our prisons

THE prisons and prison system in Nigeria have  been in the news of recent. About a week ago, an aborted jailbreak in Kaduna led to the death of three inmates and the injury of many others.

In Lagos, the Chief Judge, Justice Inumidun Akande, in the company of officers of the Ikeja branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA went to the Kirikiri Medium Prisons and ordered the release of dozens of prisoners as a means of decongesting the penitentiary.

Also of recent, the Governors Forum, feeling the pressure occasioned by the large number of condemned prisoners, made up their minds to commence their execution, also to decongest prisons. It is reported that up to 30,000 detainees awaiting trial are languishing in the prisons. The slow wheel of justice in Nigeria has taken its toll in an atmosphere where poverty and hardship are driving more and more people to crime.

The situation has got the Federal Government worried.
In his familiarisation tour of Kaduna prisons, the new Minister of the Interior, retired Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho, told Governor Namadi Sambo while on a courtesy call, that decongestion of the prisons is a subject of heated discussions within his ministry.

Said he: “If we can find the right administrative mechanism to effect the release of those who are awaiting trial or indeed to send them to trial as quickly as possible, but certainly to take them off the hands of the prisons system,” the ministry would gladly do so.

One of the causes of prison congestion is our usual myopic approach to the management of our affairs. The population of Nigeria is growing exponentially, and there is little or no effort to upgrade facilities to cope with the rising population. In fact, the situation is compounded by the fact that the facilities built by the colonial masters and in the 1960s and 1970s have been allowed to fall to bits.

The rising poverty rate, which triggered rising trends in criminal activities, also contributes to the population surge in the prisons.

This is compounded by the poor delivery of the justice system in Nigeria. Many of those awaiting trial are innocent people victimised by unscrupulous police officers and put behind bars because they could not afford to pay for their “bail.” Because of the delays occasioned by postponements of their trials in the courts, some of the inmates awaiting trial spend more years in detention than they would have done had they been given appropriate sentences at the conclusion of their trials.

The authorities responsible for the administration of our correctional institutions should consider mechanisms such as fines, suspended sentences, paroles and sentences to community service for minor offences. Those who commit minor offences requiring these mild punishments need not spend more than 48 hours in police cells.

As for condemned prisoners, we advise the state chief executive officers to tread with extreme caution. It was lack of courage that led to foot dragging on the part of past governors in carrying out their official duty of pardoning or approving death sentences.

But we need not wake up one day and hand over all condemned prisoners to the hangman.

We advise that a toothcomb should be applied to ensure that those who are not violent criminals and premeditation murderers should be considered for commutal of their sentences. What is required in reducing the population of inmates in our prisons is an integrated strategy, which must be ongoing and unbroken.


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