20th December, 2010
The release of 22 inmates of Kirikiri Medium and Female Security Prisons last week by the Chief Justice of Lagos State, Justice Inumidun Akande, as part of activities to mark the 2010 Annual Law Week of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ikorodu branch, is laudable.
The exercise, during which 19 male and three female inmates who had been in custody for more period than they would have if convicted for their alleged offences, were set free, is a clear testimony to the miscarriage of justice in Nigeria.
In prisons all over the country, thousands of inmates are languishing behind bars, theÂ majority of them awaiting trial either because they could not meet stringent bail conditions set by the magistrates or judges, some police prosecutors are incompetent or even because, embarrassingly, the prison authorities do not have a vehicle to transport them to court on their next adjourned date.
The condition in Nigeriaâ€™s prisons is appalling with inmates dying almost daily while yet more people are sent there. A prison sentence in Nigeria might as well be a death sentence.
As at January 2010, Nigeria had 228 prisons housing close to 50,000 inmates. 145 prisons are for convicts while 83 are satellite prison camps. The figures reeled out by Amnesty International recently was mind boggling. Sixty-five per cent of prison inmates, revealed the group, are awaiting trial and most of them have been waiting for several years because they are too poor to afford lawyers. Only one out of every seven people awaiting trial has private legal representation.
This is why we commend Akande, who also stressed the need for amendment of some provisions of the law in order to remove stringent bail conditions for minor offences.
Government must start thinking about prison reforms and re-educating the police on human rights infringements. Prison officials and social workers in the prison system should also be regularly re-educated on the treatment of inmates. Many times, sick inmates with communicable diseases are lumped with healthier ones, thus endangering their health.
Both the government and judiciary should also look into the issue of suspended sentences and community service as practiced in developed nations to check the problem of overcrowding in our prisons.
A regular tour of the prisons and review of inmatesâ€™ cases would also help in the decongestion.
Lumping minor offenders with hardened criminals has often resulted in creating more problems for society. Many armed robbers have confessed to having met their gang members in prison.
It is time to take another look at our criminal justice and prison system.