By Abdulwahab Abdulah
The Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, Prof. Ben Angue has taken the campaign for the observation of every Nigerian human rights to the four walls of the Nigerian prisons.
Flagging-off the national campaign for human rights audit of the Nation’s prisons from the Kirikiri maximum prison, Lagos recently, Professor Angue condemned the number of inmates on awaiting trial saying that “standing for trial for more than five years without judgment, is no longer a fair trial.”
This came as the majority of the in-mates who had the opportunity of speaking one on one with the visiting team, which included representatives of the National Assembly, Lagos State Attorney General, the state police commissioner and senior officials of the NHRC said their major problems were that of slow and sometimes unfair judicial process as well as the subhuman condition in the prison.
Although, a visit to the inner walls of the prison, especially the Kirikiri maximum prison, showed a departure from what is obtained in the nations prisons in term of cleanliness compare to situation years back. This was as a result of the “operation health for all” being carried out by the inmates and coordinated by the wardens.
In his reaction to the complaints of the inmates, the NHRC executive secretary urged the judiciary to address the problem of prolonged trial to ensure fairness.
According to him, the prisoners had the right to life and deserved to be taken care of, noting that a country’s human rights index in most cases judged by the condition of its prisons.
“A trial is no longer fair when it goes on for too long. For instance, a trial spanning 11 years could affect the witness’ ability to recollect what transpired during the incident.
“If after 11 years, such a person is found not guilty, how would you compensate the person for the years lost? Some inmates are innocent, many of them are victims of false allegation or were arrested by the police during raids and branded as armed robbers. I’m not saying criminals should go scot free but the innocent ones should not be criminalised.
“The cost of N200 for the daily feeding of an inmate is too low and government needs to increase funding. Some prisoners need to be on special diet due to health conditions and it is their right and a human rights.”
The inmates who were jubilant on the visit of the Rights Commission during the commencement of the 2012 South-West Zonal prison audit, said, many of them had been awaiting trial for years. They added that some of the convicts were facing health challenges due to lack of health facilities in the prison.
One of them, who is on a death row, Matthew Nwokocha, an asthmatic patient, complained that due to the stuffy nature of the cells, he had had frequent asthma attacks, only he was saved by whisker. He said the prison’s medical unit had run out of inhalers on several occasions.
He narrated his ordeal, “I was sentenced to death in Imo State in 2006 but was transferred to Kirikiri. When I get asthma attacks, it’s always unbearable. One night I almost died but for one of the doctors that gave me an injection.
“I’ve asked for inhalers and other drugs but they said they don’t have any. As I am talking to you, non of my relatives visit and I don’t have anybody in Lagos”
Majority of the inmates also complained of the slow judicial process. One Ogechukwu Obioma, who narrated his ordeal, said, “I was brought here in 2005 for robbery and conspiracy and was taken to Ebute Meta Magistrate’s Court but I haven’t been to court since then.”
Another inmate, Emmanuel Uzor, said he had been on trial for 11 years despite the fact that witnesses had yet to come forward.
Paul Samuel, has this to say,“I was brought to Kirikiri for alleged robbery in 2005. I was arraigned in Yaba Magistrate’s Court 4 but the Director of Public Prosecutions has yet to issue advice.”
The Controller of Prisons, Abayomi Oguntuase, urged the government to offer free healthcare to inmates.
“The issue of treating inmates for free has become pertinent. When we don’t have funds, taking an inmate to hospital becomes a problem,” he said.
On congestion, Oguntuase said it was majorly caused by the awaiting trial persons. He said, “The medium prison for instance, has had no less than 2,400 inmates at any point in time this year as opposed to its capacity of 1,500. The cells are no longer conducive for habitation.”
Speaking on the health facility, Hemeson Edwin, one of the doctors at the prison, said there was need for the government to increase funding especially in the area of health. Though, he said some non governmental organisations and religious bodies have been on hand to help.
He added that the prison authorities usually paid for treatment of inmates referred to hospitals outside the facility, but that due to lack of funds, all inmates eat the same food even though some of them need special diets due to health challenges.
He added, “All patients, including the diabetic ones are made to eat the same food because that is what we can afford. Inmates who have been referred to hospitals are also made to pay. Recently, a female inmate gave birth through caesarean section and has been bleeding since. We took her to a government hospital and we were made to make down payment.
“When prisoners die, we are also made to pay mortuary fees. The only hospital that gives concession as regards corpses is the Isolo General Hospital and that may soon end because there are moves by the state government to privatise that as well.”
Some of the old inmates pleaded with the government to release them as they no longer posed a threat to society. One of such inmates, Steven Ojoko, convicted of robbery, said he had been in Kirikiri for 34 years.
Another inmate, Edet Akpan, 52, who has been in prison for 30 years for robbery and another inmate incarcerated in 1984 for attempted robbery, Ibrahim Lasisi, urged the government to release them.
Though, he was not brought out to meet the delegation, the oldest inmate was said to be 82 years.