By Dotun Ibiwoye

THE Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos is home to some of the most hardened criminals in the megacity. As fate would have it, several inmates recently breathed fresh air again when they regained freedom having being left off the hook. This is because the state is moving to decongest the inmates particularly those who had been awaiting trial for several years.

The Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to legal representation and this is also laid down in the Legal Aid Act. Counsel should always be appointed at all stages of proceedings for people charged with crimes punishable by death if the accused does not already have the assistance of counsel of his or her choice.

An Amnesty International report had stated that in Nigeria only one in seven inmates awaiting trial and one in five convicted inmates in Nigeria have legal representation. Of those awaiting trial, 25 per cent have legal representation from the Legal Aid Council and other non-governmental bodies offering pro bono services, so having no lawyer leads automatically to years in prison awaiting trial.

*Kirikiri prisons, Lagos. Inset: Lagos State governor, Fashola
*Kirikiri prisons, Lagos. Inset: Lagos State governor, Fashola

The Kirikiri Medium Security Prison has a capacity to house 835 inmates, but it currently accommodates 2,554 inmates while more than 2,100 of them are still on the awaiting trial list. Of the 748 inmates at the Maximum Security Prisons, about 401 are on the awaiting trial list.

In October last year, the Vice chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Human Rights, Rotimi Makinde, had described the Kirikiri Maximum Prisons as appalling, after the conclusion of his committee’s annual prison audit. Makinde decried the non-conducive working conditions of the prisons’ staff and the lamentable welfare of the inmates.

The Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Ayotunde Philips, last week freed 119 awaiting trial inmates from both the Maximum and Medium Security Kirikiri Prisons, during her visit to the prisons as part of weeklong events marking the commencement of the 2013/2014 legal year. It was a happy moment for 50 inmates freed at the Medium Prison out of the 99 inmates that were slated to be freed. 44 had earlier been freed on the advice of the Director of Public Prosecution DPP, 81 inmates were, however, said to have committed capital offences while 18 committed minor offences.

The inmates were released by the Chief Judge following powers conferred under Section 1 (1) of the Criminal Justice Release from Custody Special Provision Act CAP C40, 2007, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria. As part of decongestion of prisons, Justice Phillips had earlier released 279 inmates from the Kirikiri Maximum and Medium Security Prisons and Ikoyi prisons last year.

Number of inmates

Philips admonished the beneficiaries thus: “This is my third visit to Kirikiri since I was sworn in as chief judge on June 14, 2012. I am surprised that the number of inmates has been increasing even after some have been released. Once you leave, you say bye-bye to Kirikiri Prisons. If you keep coming here, you will be putting me in shame. I release all of you today, September 25, 2013 from custody in pursuant to the powers conferred on me. It will be a mockery on me and other members of the judiciary here present if you are seen here again. I admonish you to go and sin no more.”

The Prison Controller, Lagos State Command, Mrs. Catherine Onoye, noted that it was a special day, “a day that brings joy to the prison.” She revealed that those freed are inmates that are awaiting trial and not those on trial. Onoye, while expressing appreciation on the gesture of the CJ also told the beneficiaries, ‘it is not every Chief Judge that has the courage to come to the prison and say leave, you have stayed enough. The CJ is here today to do what is necessary and statutory part of her job as the Lagos CJ, so you shouldn’t be seen in prison again.”

The controller, who said that the number of inmates was overwhelming, also told the freed inmates to go and sin no more once they have been released. According to her, most of the inmates were young people in their prime, who should be working, getting married and also helping the country through either farming or doing other legal ventures. Onoye said: “The CJ has been here twice, she is on her third visit and she has promised to always pay the prison visit in order to decongest the prison and she has kept to the promise, she made by coming here today to free the inmates.

“One of the reasons you are freed today is the grace of God and secondly, you have a second chance. Most importantly that you leave to live a new life. There is justice in Lagos State that is the last thing that should be in your mind. If it is not your turn today, it will be your turn tomorrow.

The Deputy Controller in charge of the Maximum Kirikiri Prison, Mr Tinuoye Olumide, said, though the prison was meant for inmates involved in high profile cases, those accused of “petty offences were also being transferred to the facility.” He said many of the inmates have been remanded in prison custody for periods ranging from eight to 13 years.

Olumide said that there are 748 inmates in the facility, 146 are condemned while 400 are awaiting trial, while 20 inmates were short listed for release. “Some have been here for 13 years and their case is not moving forward.”

Various vocations

According to him, the inmates have learnt a lot of things some of them are attending the Open University in the prison and they are doing very well. Some are already in 400 level, while there are a lot of them that believe that education is not their line and they are doing very well in their various vocations. He said: “90 percent of the building of the mosque was done by the inmates, except for the roofing of the mosque.”

The CJ, said “this is my second time of coming here while I have been to the Medium prison three times, because some of you have just been languishing here, without appearing in court or being charged with any offence. That is why I have come to free you because it is part of our legal service every year. I ask you to be of good behaviour when you leave this place.”

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