November 2, 2023

Decongestion of custodial centres


The House of Representatives has once again brought to focus the need to regularly decongest our overcrowded custodial centres or prisons. Two members – Messrs Chinedu Ogah and Imo Okon, recently called attention to the sorry state of these prisons and canvassed for immediate measures to ameliorate the plights of the inmates.

They argued that “the deplorable state of the centres puts the inmates at great risk to their health and safety, violates their fundamental rights to humane treatment, dignity and fair and speedy trial and, most importantly, undermines the effectiveness of their rehabilitation”.

Due to the increase in the scope and quantum of crimes in our society, our jail houses and detention centres are filled virtually to the rafters with prisoners and detainees.

The World Prison Brief, WPB, in September 2023 indicated that 81,742 inmates were behind bars in Nigerian prisons and detention centres. Ogah and Okon pointed out that only 27 per cent of detainees have been convicted, while 73 per cent are awaiting trial.

The conditions of these awaiting trial inmates are pathetic. A recent viral video taken from one of our custodial centres showed hundreds of young men stripped to their briefs and packed like sardines on top of one another in a manner reminiscent of the ways that slaves were transported in ships to America during the days of slavery.

Many of these inmates are victims of police impunity or those who could not get someone to procure their “bail” after they were arrested for minor offences.

They are made to share the same fate with hardened criminals, killers, kidnappers, terrorists, cultists and ritualists.

What we can only get out of this primitive administration of criminal justice is a travesty of correction, to say the least.

It is obvious that the routine decongestion of custodial centres by the Chief Justices of the states are not going far enough. We need an emergency measure, with the target of cutting the number of awaiting trial inmates to more than half of their current population.

We call on the House of Representatives to go beyond its usual but ineffective routine of raising issues, debating them and setting up committee just for media optics.

Every member of the House should be mandated to liaise with the Chief Justice of their state and human rights groups to ascertain inmates who are qualified for this exercise.

Those who can be made to perform non-custodial punishments such as community services should be released to do so. Also, those already convicted with minor offences, especially first offenders, should be pardoned.

The Judiciary should employ more magistrates and judges to speed up trials. It is unfortunate that most of the people in our detention centres are victims of our warped system which preys on the downtrodden.

•Kabiru, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja.