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Nigerian Custodial Centres and over-crowding

Not too long ago, the Federal Government sought the cooperation of state governments towards addressing the congestion of the 39 custodial facilities across the country by building additional centres for awaiting trial suspects. The government’s position was made by the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, while inaugurating the Osun State Command Complex, Oshogbo of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS). While lamenting overcrowding in custodial facilities in his address entitled: ‘Unmatched Infrastructural Development’, Ogbeni Aregbesola noted that an overwhelming majority of inmates in custody were state offenders being tried by their respective state governments. New Telegraph commends the Federal Government for its concern for the decongestion of the custodial centres previously called prisons.

The concern has been amply demonstrated through the setting up of a high-profile committee on the Decongestion of Custodial Centres, the call for state governments to construct additional custodial facilities, among others. Congested custodial facilities no doubt have negative consequences for the country. One of them is the dehumanization of the inmates.

Rather than becoming reformed, they instead become more hardened, rugged and deadly with their lives or those of others meaning nothing to them due to the uninhabitable conditions they have been subjected to. At the drop of a pin, they would resort to jailbreaks, after which they would further pollute the society and commit more acts of criminality. Being subjected to a sympathetically unhygienic environment and poor feeding, their personal health is heavily compromised by such diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, meningitis, dysentery, Lassa fever and now COVID-19, which currently has a more virulent Delta strain.

Unfortunately they might not have been properly treated and cured before they finish serving their sentences and are released and reintegrated back into the wider society. All the nation’s custodial facilities have a cumulative maximum capacity for 57,278 inmates. Sadly, about 69,767 males and 1,325 females are held at the centres. About 50,992 inmates, representing 74 per cent of the total population of inmates at the centres are Awaiting Trial Detainees (ATDs).

Still disturbingly, only about 17,755 inmates, representing 25 percent of the total population of the number of inmates at the centres are the actual convicts. Even if the 36 states embark on massive construction of additional custodial facilities, as enjoined by the Federal Government, their response will likely worsen the situation rather than help decongest the custodial centres. It may not be entirely true that the 36 states are to blame for the congestion of custodial centres as claimed by the Honourable Minister of Interior.

The Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Department of State Services (DSS) and Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which are law enforcement and prosecuting agencies, are all under the Executive Branch of Government at the Federal level. Some of the suspects being prosecuted by them in the different courts of jurisdiction end up being remanded in the custodial facilities. Arrested persons have also allegedly been made to stay longer than necessary in detention due to the transfer of Prosecuting Officers (POs). Some lawyers do everything humanly possible to go for limitless technicalities to slow down the pace of justice, thereby resulting in the continued detention of some suspects. Similarly, some magistrates and judges also have their share of blame in the overcrowding of custodial centres.

They are in the habit of insisting on rigid bail conditions which tend to make the custodial centres have a large number of ATDs. The disposition of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Federation as well as their counterparts in the 36 states also help in determining the extent of overcrowding or reduction in the number of inmates in the custodial centres by their actions or inaction towards cases.

For as long as the referred contradictions exist, Nigeria will continue to grapple with congested custodial centres. What is the way out of this dilemma? There is a need to quickly do a more comprehensive review of the Criminal Justice System. The review should not be done by lawyers but must include historians, philosophers, sociologists, economists, psychologists, mass communicators and political scientists.

The mistake in the past was to give the impression that such exercise was an affair for lawyers with the members of the Bar and Bench as the chief drivers of the process. The nation has been the consistent loser on account of the neglect and under-utilisation of the pool of expertise domiciled in the disciplines of history, philosophy, sociology, economics, mass communication, political science psychology and the like.

The solutions to the challenges, including the over-crowding of custodial facilities, confronting nations are locked in the referred disciplines, among others, and it is in the interest of Nigeria to prompt the scholars of the referred non-law disciplines to be more involved in the decongestion of the custodial facilities. New Telegraph is of the conviction that the adoption of the African Legal System will go a long way into successfully tackling congestion in the custodial centres.

Under the African Legal System, persons whose offences are minor are subjected to carrying out community service, which helps the offenders acquire improved behaviour while making the community a beneficiary of a developmental contribution. Others whose offences are major are given severe sanctions as the town or village deems fit.

Conscious efforts are made, under the African Legal System, to give accelerated hearing to cases, thereby discouraging a trend whereby suspects are clamped into detention for a long time, as that is a dual loss to the society and the suspected offenders. Rights and obligations of citizens should be taught in the markets, places of worship and educational institutions. Recruitment into the law enforcement agencies should be made more competitive so that criminally-minded elements will be screened out.

The different agencies should obtain information about the conduct of the applicants to be recruited under confidential cover while insisting that such persons meet the prescribed academic, medical and psychological requirements. Security personnel found to have arrested people on trumped-up charges should be subjected to severe sanctions.

The Chief Judges of the 36 states should frequently visit the custodial facilities with a view to releasing inmates whose offences are minor and those who have stayed longer than their sentenced terms, if they had been prosecuted. The National Judicial Council (NJC) should strive harder to ensure that those appointed to the Bench are persons who are exceedingly grounded in law and have the scholarship to exhibit adjudicative activism, as epitomised by accomplished jurists such as Justices Chukwudifu Oputa, Anthony Aniagolu, Kayode Esho and Adolphous Kabiri-Whyte, whose positively enduring judicial pronouncements help give Nigeria her golden era of judiciary. New Telegraph is confident that the above recommendations will help solve overcrowding in the custodial facilities and certainly not the construction of additional custodial facilities across the country.

 

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