TO say that Nigerian Correctional Centres are congested is an understatement. This is an undisputable fact; and there are many identified factors responsible for the congestion of the correctional facilities. Among the yet-to-be-addressed factors is the slow pace of justice delivery in the country.
About 80% of the inmates in all the correctional centres across the country are on the awaiting trial list. Some of them are never taken to court again after their first appearance. The awaiting trial inmates continue to stay in overcrowded prisons for years, far more than the period they would have served if they had been tried and convicted. They live in overcrowded and degrading conditions, ravaged by diseases and hunger and psychologically ruined.
The judicial system is to blame for the continuous congestion of correctional facilities, due to slow pace of justice delivery in Nigeria. The correctional service officials have times without number been alerting the authority on the congestion.
Correctional Centres’ officials make monthly updates to the Attorney-General’s Office, both at the state and federal levels, on the condition of the facilities, but the situation has not been addressed over the years. The officials worked under pressure to ensure that the facilities are not congested; sometimes they had to transport the inmates to various courts with their money on daily basis.
Judges and magistrates should try to visit correctional centres regularly in a bid to decongest the facilities. Judges and magistrates should also conduct monthly inspection of all police stations and other detention facilities in Nigeria.
Section 34 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 requires chief judges of the Federal High Courts, Federal Capital Territory High Court and State High Courts to assign judges and chief magistrates to conduct monthly visitation and inspection of all police stations and other detention facilities in all the states of the federation and the FCT.
The purpose of this practice direction is to carry into effect and ensure compliance with the overriding objective of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 as expressed in section 1(1) of that Act for:
Ensuring efficiency and speed in the case management of criminal trials and dispensation of justice, protecting the interests and fundamental human rights of defendants, victims, witnesses and society; particularly the right to fair hearing, and ensuring active participation of all parties to focus on matters that are genuinely in issue for trial, thereby reducing delays and expense at trials.
However, the newly enacted Nigeria Police Act, 2020 has imposed a duty on all chief magistrates and judges to conduct monthly visitation and inspection of all police stations and other detention facilities within their territorial jurisdiction other than correctional centres.
The law holds that during a visit, the magistrate may call for and inspect the record of arrests, direct the arraignment of the suspect and where bail has been refused, grant bail to any suspect, where appropriate, if the offence for which the suspect is held is within the jurisdiction of the magistrate.
It is left for the judiciary to activate and implement the provisions of the law in order to end the incessant arrest and prolonged detention of the Nigerian people without any further delay.
We must blame the menace of correctional centres congestion on the nature of the Criminal Justice System in Nigeria, despite the fact that there is limited funding. Criminal justice system encompasses all the paraphernalia of the justice system in Nigeria; ranging from police, courts, correctional centres and other law enforcement agencies. Investigations take weeks or months to conclude and when a matter is concluded on investigation and brought to court for trial, if charges are not filed against them in a court of competent jurisdiction, there will be delay.
The other factor is the slow pace of justice dispensation in the country which is attributable to long and, sometimes, mischievous adjournment of cases which has led to inconclusiveness of most cases, thereby abandoning the inmates in correctional centres, inadequate funding of the judiciary, slow investigation process by the police. Unfortunately, due to the inherent lapses in the system, the correctional centres’ system which is supposed to be reformatory has eventually turned punitive, thereby defeating the true essence of sending convicts to prisons. The implication of this reversed system of prison administration is that the inmates of our correctional centres come out more criminally minded than they were before conviction.
Also, the constitutional duties of the chief judges and magistrates to visit prisons should be consistently complied with. This power vested in the Chief Judges to visit and release inmates with offences or those that have overspent their prison terms and are still there would help to drastically decongest the prisons.
Inwalomhe Donald writes via [email protected]