By Runsewe Solomon & Damilola Akinmolayan
Awaiting trial persons are those who could not perfect their bails or pay for legal representation. It was also gathered that over 40 percent of them are the poor and were responsible for prison congestion. The Hope Classics spoke with some lawyers on the matter. Excerpts:
In a report recently from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, it was disclosed that the entire national custodial facilities have maximum capacity for 57,278 inmates, however, the total population of inmates all the facilities across the nation was given at 68,747 inmates. The governmental data showed that the facilities were congested by 18 per cent.
The report noted that 50,992 inmates, representing 74 per cent of the total population of inmates are awaiting trial, while only 17,755 inmates had been tried and convicted.
However, awaiting trials is not the only factor responsible for prisons congestion in Nigeria. Other factors identified as causing overcrowding include delays in the administration of justice, overuse of prison sentences by judges, over-criminalization, and lack of adequate resources to build new prisons.
One particular factor responsible for congestion of detention and custodial facilities in Nigeria is the difficult bail system and reluctance of the Magistrates and judicial officers to grant bail to inmates especially for offences that are ordinarily bailable.
Therefore, though awaiting trial is one of the causes of custodial and detention facilities congestion across the nation, but other underlining factors also contribute to the congestion. There is a need to build new facilities and redesign the bail system. Inmates that are awaiting trials for bailable offences should be granted bail, the provisions of the law regarding noncustodial sentences should be applied and capacities of the existing facilities should be upgraded.
Awaiting trial detainees have numerously led to huge congestion of the Correctional facilities.
One of the reasons for the delay in my own view is the days within which a defendant can be remanded based on the order of a Magistrate pending the outcome of a Legal Advice.
Nigerian prisons cannot be discussed without mentioning the judiciary because the problem is partly the outcome of delay judgement. Contrary to good judicial practice, most of the Awaiting Trial Persons have been on trial periods longer than necessary which constitute abuse of human rights. This could be very frustrating and capable of eliciting violent behaviour from the affected inmates.
The correctional institution, though an integral part of the system lacks the capacity to move the ATPs outside the arena of the judiciary where they are going through trial. Regrettably, the third tier of the criminal justice system (Prison) bears the brunt, of the ineptitude of the system it belongs.
This phenomenon has resulted to the inability of the prison management to manage the prison population effectively.
Delays encountered in the processing of cases before a final sentence is passed, have a significant impact on the size of the pre-trial prison population in many countries including Nigeria (Ayo, 2008).
While in some countries, detainees will spend only short periods in pre-trial detention, in many others, pre-trial detention periods can extend to months and years.
In capital cases in particular, prisoners may spend up to 10 years or more awaiting trial.
These long delays can be due to a combination of many factors, usually mutually reinforcing, which include; interruptions during criminal investigation, disconnection in communication between police, prosecutor and the court, bureaucracy in court proceeding, incessant adjournment of cases occasioned by shortage of judges, absence of witnesses, lack of transport to take accused person to court, lack of security for transport (particularly in crisis area) and lack of proper filing and tracking systems in prisons to ensure that pre-trial detainees are taken to court on dates fixed by the court system.
There are many causes of prison overcrowding: the over reliances on imprisonment as a means of punishing offenders, the imprisonment of offenders who do not pay their fines, the large number of remand prisoners admitted to institutions, and a lack of suitable prison facilities.
Overcrowding severely impacts on penal administration and reduces the quality of life for inmates. Some solutions to the problem are suggested: diversion from the criminal justice system, decriminalization and diversion to non-penal institutions, measures to reduce the remand prison population, and measures to reduce the convicted prison population including modification of penal sanctions, use of community corrections, and use of traditional alternatives to imprisonment.
Over the years much have been said about decongesting prison population in Nigeria, yet the ever-growing population of people awaiting trials continues persistently.
It is believed that 36,217 or so out of a population of about 74, 000 inmates, are suffering at various prisons without undergoing trial for years. This is certainly no fault of the prison management.
The legislative arm of the government have had hearings on this national challenge, yet the Nigeria prison authorities remain helpless as their prisons remain dumping grounds for all sort of cases from the police and the courts. The current troubles of the entire criminal justice system of Nigeria which is a direct result of decades of out dated governmental and administrative policies keeps the police, prisons and the judicial continuously in a state of dislocation and lack of proper linkages in terms of functional roles and workable connections.
Consequently, the prisons have become overwhelmed with the pressures of overpopulation, congestion and destabilization.
The effects of congestion and of having overpopulated number of awaiting inmates as well as institutionalizing them along with convicted inmates make the Nigerian prisons grounds for developing psychological or mental health as well as physical ailments.
Our courts remain overburdened with no clear system of modern resolution-based placement systems as in incarceration, probation, community control, community supervision, home supervision, and other diversion or controlled alternative methods. As a result, our prison system is left in a state of chronic congestion, crowdedness and security risk.
It is a fact that the increasing number of mentally ill persons has continued to contribute to congestion of the courts and consequently the prisons. Yet the federal government continues to have no clear system of removing the severely mentally ill inmates from our overburdened prisons.
One common sense way to seek solution to the increasing prison congestion is to create policies that will assist in differentiating the meaning of a jail and its use as against the role of a prison.
There is a place for holding offenders awaiting trials for various crimes, they are called jails. The Nigeria correctional Service with adequate technical assistance, expert help, and special financial resources could open separate jails.
As it stands now there is currently a lack of unified jail/prison effectiveness with regard to utilization systems.
The jail in every rational and contemporary society operates on a short term basis, while the prison is all about long-term punishment.
By designation, jails are locally operated by municipalities or local councils, or even by private corporations in advanced countries but in the case of Nigeria the federal government could set up, manage or operate jails in various towns as it is currently the practice with prisons.
Jails are used to hold individuals waiting for trial, or in the middle of legal proceedings, and certainly, and they are not located within the prison environment.
Jails, in many cases, serve as settings for serving a short term sentence, such as 364 days or less than a year.
Also, it is essential to treat rather than punish the mentally disordered, terminally ill offenders and drug addicts in highly supervised mental health/home-based centers. There is no reason why the Federal Ministry of Interior cannot create jails, as extension of the police and courts to hold criminal violators awaiting trial, to house persons revoked of their probation status, or serve those under short term sentences.
Yes, there are going to be challenges in a society with a dysfunctional system of telecommunication, poorly codified street/home address and poorly-lit roads, adequate house arrest and probation systems. But we can try.
However, these alternatives to lock-up remain essential as they will make the correctional system function better financially, cost-wise and organizationally. These alternatives also help reduce the pattern of making prisons dumping ground or dumpsites, especially for those with little means or nuisance to families or society.
Note that if there are no improvements in our courts in terms of providing adequate system of court administration or record management, we will remain disorganized as such system helps to account fully for the status of a case, or to track a case up to the penal system.
The unbearable prison backlog for persons in the middle of legal proceedings will continue if the entire criminal justice system, the correctional system especially does not get the modern help it deserves from the legislature. No reasonable mind or government wants our prison system to remain an unsafe or inadequate place for managing inmates or convicts.
Prison congestion is a phenomenon that occurs when the demand for space in prisons in a jurisdiction exceeds the capacity for prisoners.
It arises where the number of inmates at a given period of time exceeds the actual capacity originally meant for that prison. Prison congestion or over-crowding is caused by a variety of factors such as increasing crime rates, harsher penalties for criminal activities, high recidivism, needed improvements to the penal system, backlogs and undue delays in the trials of criminal cases and unresolved civil disputes remain key problems in the justice sector and is one of the main causes of the very high number of awaiting trial detainees and invariably prison overcrowding in most prisons across the globe. Then there is also the non-duplication of case files by investigating Police Officers (IPOs) and cases of police not bringing of suspects regularly for prosecutions or court trials are among these factors.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), as of February 2017 , 72 per cent of inmates in Nigeria prison formations were awaiting trial persons. The menace of congestion in various prisons across the country has become worrisome and if not promptly looked into, it is capable of defeating the very purpose of establishing prisons in any society, principal among which is to serve as a reformative, rehabilitating , correctional and re-integration facility for the betterment of the inmates, the country and society at large and which can never be achieved under the present condition of our prisons across the country. The prolonged trials and overuse of imprisonment for minor offences have done more damage than good to all; they constitute a major threat to the welfare of the inmates and on the individual. Most minor offenders during the years or periods of awaiting trials and even after being tried and sentenced are locked up with hardened criminals who in turn influence them, making them become hardened thereby becoming terrors to the society at large after being released from prison.
Also, the attitude of the society and the stigma attached to a person who has committed a minor offence and has served a jail term could make him or her feel unwanted in the society leading to his desire to deliberately commit grievous offences that could send him or her back to prison. In order to reduce the rates at which most of our prisons are being congested and to achieve the primary purpose for which most of these corrective facilities were established for, I think it’s high time non – custodial measures such as adopting the “Community Servicing” as alternative to imprisonment for minor offences was adopted into the justice system as it has being in practice in developed countries of the world. Neither the Criminal Code Act nor the Penal Code Act of Nigeria makes provision for community service as a form of punishment for minor offences and misdemeanor. But the spate at which our prisons are being congested with awaiting trial inmates makes the inclusion of community service in the laws governing crimes imperative. There are many instances whereby community service would be apt as an alternative to prison or jail term.
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