Prison decongestion: So far, how well?




In a bid to decongest Nigeria’s overpopulation correctional centres a Presidential Advisory Committee led by Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, was inaugurated by the federal government. In this report KEHINDE OSASONA examines the committee’s efforts to fulfill its mandate.

The federal government in August 2018 constituted a Presidential Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy as part of plans to decongest the nation’s prisons. Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, was designated to serve as the committee’s chairman.

Part of the responsibility of the panel would be to recommend to the President prisoners and ex-convicts deserving presidential pardon.

Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha inaugurated the committee following President Muhammadu Buhari’s approval of the composition of the committee in June.

At the inauguration, Mustapha tasked members to brace up to the new challenge by visiting all prison location in the country to enable them recommend eligible ex-convicts and convicts deserving presidential pardon.

Reports from the Nigerian Prisons Authority has it that as at March 31, 2018, the pre-trial prisoners’ population stood at over 50,000 compared to that of convicts, which was 17,000.

Kaduna

While the exercise lasted in Kaduna, no fewer than 450 inmates were freed in Kaduna, Zaria and Kafanchan Prisons, after their fines were paid by the federal government and the Kaduna state governments.

The inmates were sentenced to various jail terms with options of fine but were unable to pay the sums.

Kano

Similar exercise carried out in Niger state saw about 730 inmates breathyed air of freedom in Kano Prison.

Niger

During the tour of Niger state by the prison decongestion committee, a total number of 126 inmates were released from Kuje and Suleja Prisons.

Nassarawa

A total of 41 inmates, 39 males and 2 females, were released from the Keffi Correctional Centre, with option of fines paid by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, the Minister of the FCT Minister as well as Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in the area.

The need for a permanent data base and permanent record which has photographs of convicts was emphasized by the committee.

Anambra

Although, the Presidential Committee on Prisons Reform and Decongestion turned down requests to free drug offenders serving jail terms in prison facilities in Anambra State, the team, which was led by Justice Ishaq Bello, the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), said it would not release the inmates, who were still in prison for their inability to pay options of fine, because they were not only consuming but selling drugs.

The rejection was despite announcement that the Anambra state Governor, Chief Willie Obiano, had paid the option of fine for the inmates to ensure they were released.

The team, which was in Awka Prison with the Chief Judge of Anambra State, Justice Ijeoma Onwuamaegbu, and the state Attorney General, Dr Uju Nwaogu, however released seven inmates of prisons in Awka, Aguata, Nnewi and Onitsha, which he said merited their freedom.

Justice Bello said: “We have only released seven persons who merited it. We refused to release most of the inmates. The inmates were mostly young people and their cases are centered on drugs. Some don’t only smoke but they sell it, and releasing them will not be in the best interest of our country.”

Enugu

In a statement by the Deputy Director of Information in the Federal Ministry of Justice, Ogundoro Modupe, the committee chairman, Justice Bello was quoted as asking the state chief judge to address the challenges to speedy in his state.

After the committee had released 30 inmates in Enugu prisons during their visit to the states, its chair re-emphasized the need for speedy trial, saying that it would helped reduce the high rate of psychosis among prisoners who had lost all hope in the system.

After listening to the submission and reviewing the circumstances that led to the incarceration and subsequent conviction of the inmates Azubuije Ehirio, 86, his son, Ehiodo Azubuije, 33, and cousin, Ngozi Onyekwere, the presidential committee Chairman, Justice Bello gave order that the Octogenarian and his children be set free.

The trio was in 2005 sentenced to death by hanging by an Abia State High Court. According to them, a dispute with a member of their community who attempted to take their ancestral land by force landed them in prison.

Train berths in Keffi

When the presidential committee led by Justice Ishaq Bello left Keffi Correctional Centre, Nassarawa state, last week, 41 inmates breathed the air of freedom.

The lucky inmates, consisting of 39 males and two females, got their fines paid up by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, the FCT Minister and some Non-governmental organizations in the country.

As a way of proffering lasting solutions to custodial congestion, the committee has so far visited 34 Correctional Centres in 16 states of the federation, where the release of over 3,768 inmates has since been carried out.

The programme which was put together by the ministry of interior with the support of the ministry of justice was in recognition of the aspect of training and rehabilitation of the inmates as provided for in the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019.

Expatiating further on the committee’s role, Bello explained that it would continue to review cases of inmates that had been convicted of minor offences with the option of fines and were unable to pay.

He hinted further that the committee was poised to providing a permanent data base, permanent record and inmates’ photographs which according to him would help in accessing them any time.

But aside decongestion via the jail delivery exercise, there was also the unveiling of skills acquisition centres designed for inmates to get requisite craft and vocational training across the various prisons in the country.

According to the committee, after their release from the correctional centres, the skill acquired during their jail terms would enable them integrate easily and quickly into the society, without becoming a burden to anyone or even attempt to take into crime again.

“The upgraded skill acquisition at the new Custodial Centre in Keffi, Nasarawa state, is to ensure proper rehabilitation, re-orientation and re-integration of inmates into the society upon their release,” Bello added.

Preparing for life after prison

During the unveiling of the workshop which comprises carpentry, welding, shoemaking, metal works, computer software and a host of others, Bello who declared opened the workshop, hailed the centre, saying the feat recorded via finished products, within months of launching was a rare one.

According to him, in reconciling with the Nigerian society after prison terms, inmates’ should be able to acquired skills in any trade of interest and continued to live responsibly.

The chief judge further clarified that the skill acquisition programme came as a result of demonstration of some of their findings and situational assessments and lapses noticed by it.

“It is a positive factor exposing inmates to skill acquisition which can occupy their minds as they strolled back into the Nigerian society.

“Without the skills, they will go back into crimes, so the initiatives is a way of raising fund for them and I hope the Federal Ministry of Interior be able to replicate this,’’ he explained further.

While speaking at the occasion, the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, reiterated that the skills acquisition centre set up by the federal government was meant to place high premium on prison inmate’s welfare by the Buhari-led administration.

Represented by the Assistant Comptroller General Nigeria Correctional Service, Peter Pevigo, the minister noted that the Act could not have come at a better time, saying that inmates’ welfare and rehabilitation have become a global phenomenon.

He said, “This event connotes the high premium placed by the president Muhammadu Buhari’s administration on the welfare and indeed the judicious use of time by the inmates’ in our custodial centres.

“Correctional services across the globe through the instrumentality of good legislations are tilting towards improving and upgrading the lives of their citizens who have ran afoul of their laws,” he added.

 Also speaking, Malami particularly harped on the need to decongest the Nigerian prisons, reiterating that exercise has been designed to review the cases of inmates convicted of minor offences.

He added: “It is the mandate of the committee to secure the release of many of such inmates as possible through the payment of their fines as well as those with special cases, and carried out the on the spot assessment of prison conditions,”

Speaking further, Bello explained that the project which was part of the efforts to decongest the Nigeria Correctional Service was in stages.

He explained that the skill acquisition projects would help equip inmates for life after serving their sentence and shift their focus from crimes and criminality.

Non-Custodial measures

According to the Attorney-General of the Federation, apart from the fact that the committee would be carrying out on the spot assessment of the prisons condition, cases of inmates with special cases would also be reviewed by it.

The minister, who spoke through a Deputy-Director in the ministry, Mrs. Jane Awanen, assured that the present administration would continue to advocate non-custodial measures as provided for in the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019 and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.

He said it has become clear that the nation cannot continue to overlook the need for non-custodial measures, community service orders and probation, as clearly provided for in the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019 and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.

“Today’s event to me signifies the strong synergy existing within my ministry and the Presidential Committee on Correctional Reforms and Decongestion to ensure that the policies and programmes of President Muhammadu are achieved in such a manner that an enduring legacy in the Criminal Justice System will be felt by this generation and posterity,” he said.

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