EVERY administration claims it has concerns about prison decongestion. Many conferences and seminars down the road, the prisons are more congested. The slow pace of judicial processes is guaranteed to keep them over flowing.
Minister of interior Abba Moro more than two years promised a major prison reform.
Challenges with the prisons pre-dated this administration. We also note that after the many promises Moro made, on behalf of the government, he has joined the long list of those whose speeches recount statistics on prison congestion.
His stewardship appears to end there. He recites the statistics without any emotions, diminishing the fact that the statistics are people, some of who have never been brought to trial, and some of who have spent more years in detention than they would have served, assuming they were convicted.
The commissioning of a 160-person prison in Umuezena, Anambra State, was a great occasion for Moro to lament, like the rest of us, prison congestion.
According to him, “As a result of the congestion in prisons, it was becoming cumbersome for the federal government to properly reposition its reforms in the sector aimed at reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of the prisoners”.
He said that the government was addressing prison congestion by building more prisons. His short list of three prisons could not have qualified for “more prisons” and was definitely off the mark in dealing with congestion. The prisons in Anambra State, for example, were meant for 360 inmates. Before the latest addition, they were holding about 1,600 people.
Official statistics have about 51,000 people in prison. The number excludes detainees in police cells and other facilities. Of the 51,000, about 36,000 or 70 per cent are awaiting trial. Some of those awaiting trial have never been charged to court.
There are instances where people await trial for more than 10 years for offences with sentences of two years or less. Those affected are mostly the poor, who cannot pay for legal representation.
How would the construction of “more prisons” address these cases? The lapses that result in prison congestion follow from numerous laws that rule the nation, which have minimal considerations for the availability of judicial machineries to implement them.
People arrested for environmental offences (urinating on the street, dumping of refuse, street trading) are dumped in prison, once they are charged to court. Officials do not have time to prosecute such unimportant cases. Theft, murder, armed robbery have windier trials, if the cases ever make the courts.
The various agencies in the justice system need to address the matter urgently. Changes in the laws, to respect human rights, and assumption of some responsibilities for prisons by States, could help.