14th May, 2020
By Jethro Ibileke
To discourage citizens from engaging in criminal activities and to deter other would-be lawbreakers, governments all over the world set up prison facilities, where violators of certain laws are confined for a period of time, as might be handed down by a court of law. Inmates could also include those awaiting trials or convicts who were granted options of fine but are yet to perfect their bail conditions.
This third arm of the criminal justice system, is always under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior, with the mandate to provide correctional services to inmates through rehabilitation, reformation and reintegration to the society at large. Perhaps that informs why the Nigerian Prison Service, NPS, was changed to Nigerian Correctional Service.
Mrs. Elizabeth Iyamu-Ojo, a lecturer in the law department of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), said “a person could be remanded in correctional custody once an offense is committed and he or she is charged before a court of law, or the person does not meet the bail conditions, the person will remain in jail.”
In Nigeria, correctional facilities are established in each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), with many of the states having more than one facility.
In Edo state, for example, there are two facilities in Benin City, the state capital, one each in Ubiaja and Auchi. Like every facility across the world, each of the facilities was built to a certain capacity. But more often than not, the facilities are stretched far beyond their capacities, with attendant challenges. Many of these centres have become overly congested.
For example, the Oko correctional Centre in Benin was initially designed with a capacity for 680 inmates. But a report of SERVICOM Compliance Evaluation of Nigerian Prisons Service on the facility carried out a few years ago indicated that a total of 1,033 inmates were packed into the facility.
Little wonder then, that rather than reforming the inmates, the centres have become grounds for breeding criminal elements. There are instances where jailbreaks and other violent crimes outside the prisons were planned and coordinated by inmates.
There is no gainsaying that increased criminal activities have contributed in no small measure to the congestion of these facilities.
Besides, because of loss of case files by either operative of correctional centres or the office of Directorate of Public Prosecution, DPP, many have remained behind bar longer than they would have originally served if convicted, there are others also, those who could not meet up with their bail conditions and have to remain in jail.
Investigations, however, indicated that police authorities and the judiciary have also contributed in no small way to prison congestion.
A typical example of how the police and the judiciary contribute to prison congestion is the case of a 24-year-old commercial bus driver, Lucky Elum, who was recently granted unconditional release from the Benin central prison by the Chief Judge of Edo State, Hon. Justice Esther Edigin.
Elum was a beneficiary of an amnesty granted by the federal government to inmates as part of urgent measures taken by all stakeholders, especially in the Administration of Criminal Justice System, to ensure speedy decongestion of correctional centres, in view to the ravaging global Covid-19 pandemic.
The crime that landed him in the police station, the court and finally in the Benin city central correctional facility, was that he allegedly overtook a one-star mobile police officer while driving his commercial bus along Sapele road. His vehicle was also impounded by the police.
Pertinent questions begging for answers are these: When has it become a crime in Nigeria to overtake another vehicle on the highway? What will the driver be investigated for by the investigating police officer? What crime will the driver be charged with by the police prosecutor? Under which law will such alleged crime be prosecuted? And, on what basis did the trial magistrate order his remand?
To Iyamu-Ojo, the UNIBEN law teacher, the offence the man was charged with is an aberration. She said: “It is a fundamental principle of law that one cannot be charged for an offence that is unknown to law. A locus classicus which speaks to the matter in issue is the case of Aoko vs Fagbemi. In that case, a woman was charged for adultery and the court held that adultery is not an offence under the criminal code which is applicable to southern states of Nigeria. In the instant case, overtaking is not an offence known to the law and the man ought not even to have been remanded, much less jailed.”
Little wonder then, that the Honorable Chief Judge ordered the unconditional release of Elum. In her words, Edigin said: “I don’t know or understand when overtaking has become an offence. The defendant is hereby released unconditionally and his vehicle released to him. The O/C legal present here shall supervise the release of his vehicle within the next 24 hours.”
Commenting on the culpability of the police and the judiciary in the crime of prison congestion, a human rights activist, Leftist Osaze Edigin, noted that law enforcement agents contribute a large percentage to it
According to him, “Congestions in our correctional centres are primarily caused by weak institutional defects in Nigeria. The law enforcement agents contribute a larger percentage to it. There are instances where suspects are charged to court with offences that are more grievous to actual offence committed which most times make meeting bail conditions difficult, and some instances, turning a seemly bailable offence to a non-bailable one. Magistrates and Judges are also part of the problems, when they give extremely stringent bail conditions and suspects are unable to meet them, thereby leading to a remand in prison.”
Edigin is also of the opinion that most law enforcement agents are not abreast with the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law which prescribes the processes of arrest, detention and prosecution. He went ahead to suggest that the prosecutorial powers of suspects should be removed from the police and that only trained lawyers with the ministry of justice should be saddled with such responsibilities.
According to him, “Remarkable advancement have been noticed in such model in Lagos and other states. In Lagos for instance, any criminal case brought to the court must first be vetted by officials of the ministry of justice to determine its merits or otherwise, so as not to waste the time of the court or unnecessarily congest correctional facilities with cases where such suspects have no case to answer to.”
It is hoped that police operatives and the judiciary will henceforth be agents of prison decongestion, rather than helping to contest the facilities.