By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA- A non-governmental organisation under the aegis of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-NIGERIA), has raised the alarm over the mounting number of awaiting trial inmates in the country.
According to the group, out of 72, 000 prison population in Nigeria, more than 47,000, representing 70% are awaiting trial.
Decrying that prisons in the country “have become warehouses for dumping of poor citizens”, the group, said its awaiting trial statistics did not include hundreds of detainees in police stations and other detention centres.
Addressing journalists in Abuja, the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria, Mr. Sylvester Uhaa, stressed that reducing the number of pre-trial detainees could resolve prison overcrowding, limit the spread of diseases, reduce poverty, and spur development.
He said: “Most pre-trial detainees are poor, economically and politically marginalized. The poor and powerless lack the money to hire a lawyer, procure bail (or bond), or pay a bribe. Poor and marginalized people also lack the social and political connections and influence that can facilitate pre-trial release in many places.
“Largely, our prisons have remained places of punishment and retribution, with little or no emphasise on rehabilitation and reintegration. This is why we are opposed to the construction of 3000 capacity prisons in each geopolitical zone without a responding and holistic approach to justice reforms.
“While we are aware of the urgent need for modern prisons to meet humane and international standards, we are concerned that building of prison in isolation from prison decongestion and other reforms will yield no good. We believe that if new prisons are built without investment in justice and prison reforms, investment in addressing the root causes of crime, reoffending and recidivism, the new prisons will soon be filled up with awaiting trial inmates.
“It is deeply troubling to witness firsthand the utter and total boredom of hundreds of men and women who have little or nothing to do to occupy their days in prison. A small percentage attends the few workshops or education programs available in some prisons, while the vast majority sit in their cells doing nothing.
“The only significant investment in the prison has been towards securing inmates, while on a daily basis prisoners, many of whom are able bodied, intelligent and capable people, walk aimlessly around prison yards. Painfully and above all, many of these people are innocent and have no business being in prison.
“My experience of prisons in Nigeria is that they are harsh places of detention and in no way conducive to the change of life that prisoner need. Neither are they places of rehabilitation or preparation for reintegration into society. There is a growing sense within our society that locking offenders up and throwing away the key is the only realistic response. This is wrong!
“We can’t achieve public safely by just sending people to prison. It is high time Nigeria moved fully into the 21st century and developed an approach to incarceration that offers more to people in prison and the community than simply secure custody. A situation whereby our prisons are becoming more and more like warehouses for the poor, economically and socially marginalised, offering no hope for those imprisoned and to the wider community that may be under the illusion that imprisonment will bring real change must be rejected.
“I am surprised by the total lack of political will and lack of investment in justice and prison reforms, especially by the state governments, who have never been interested in prison reforms simply because the prisons are on the exclusive list. For instance, it is very common to hear of donations of vehicles to the NPF by State Governors, but donation of vehicle to prisons is rare even when prisons located in these state do not have vehicles to transport inmates to courts.
“We want to remind the states that while the NPS is the exclusive responsibility of the Federal Government, the greater proportion of inmates in prisons located in each state are either residents or indigenes of those states. This is why the state governors cannot fold their hands and watch the Federal Govt struggle to reform the justice system. But if our plea to them to get involved falls on deaf ears, there is an option: make them pay for the up keep of inmates who are there for violating states laws or slash their security votes to maintain prisons located in their states”, Uhaa stated.
Besides, the group called for strict adherence to section 293 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which provides for a detention time limit of 72 days, saying it would eliminate prolong pre-trial detention when fully implemented.
It noted that access to medical/health care and medicines remained critically and severely lacking in various prisons in the country, “resulting in the death of over 900 people nation-wide in 2016”.
“Access to health care for people in prison is a right that is well protected in international law and not a privilege. We call on the Federal Government to take immediate and progressive steps to provide people in prison with quality access to health care.
“We ask the federal government to direct the Federal Ministry of Health to ask all public hospitals across the country to treat inmates without asking for payments. We are also aware that the House Committees on Interior and Health were mandated to visit prisons with the Hon. Ministers of Interior and Health to access the availability of health services and report back to the House.
“Almost three months after that, we are not aware that the Committees have carried out these visits. We call on the Committees to embark on these visits without further delay and report back to the House for immediate actions to prevent further deaths in prisons.
“A situation where state governors donate 100 vehicles to the Police and one to the prison is regrettable.
“Another worrying phenomenon in our prison is the growing numbers of women and babies residing in prison with their mothers and lack of facilities and services to meet their unique needs. For example, feeding, access to nutrition, sanitary pads, education programs, among others.
“We call on the federal government to implement a policy that will minimize the number of women that go to prison, particularly pregnant women and nursing mothers and to take adequate care of children living in prison. For example, women who are begging for alms should not be arrested and sent to prison, but rather supported and empowered”.
The group said a survey it conducted in 2016 showed that there were a total of 1, 225 female inmates in Nigeria, constituting about two percent of the entire prison population of about 69, 000 inmates.