By granting state pardon to 30 prisoners, and setting them free from the custody of the Lagos and Ogun states Correctional Centres, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba has set the tone for prison reforms in the country. His effort is commendable, given the deteriorating condition of the country’s correctional centres that have featured more inmates awaiting trial than those actually convicted. Certainly, the Nigerian prison is in dire need of urgent reforms to rid it of the perennial problem of congestion and its adverse consequences on the health, wellbeing and human rights of the inmates. Justice Alogba’s action deserves frequent and regular repetition, just as other state chief judges should emulate him and routinely visit prisons, and carry out the same pardon in their respective states. Ultimately, such actions should be tailored towards reforming the entire system of justice administration in the country.
The released prisoners included four juveniles from the Borstal Training Institution, Adigbe, Abeokuta, Ogun State. The prisoners were pardoned under the Decongestion of the Custodial Centres Exercise 2023, which conforms to the provisions of Section 1(1) of the Criminal Justice Release from Custody Act, Cap C40, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2007, and Section 377(c) of the Administration of Criminal Justice (amendment) Law 2021.
There is no doubt that the Chief Judge’s action has gone a long way in decongesting the Correctional Centres in Lagos and Ogun states and, by extension, in revamping the country’s criminal justice system. Nigeria’s criminal justice system cannot claim to have a pass mark, given that almost all the Correctional Centres in the country are overpopulated and over-stretched with awaiting-trial-inmates (ATMs). Many of these inmates were victims of police brutality, faced tardiness in the prosecution of criminal cases, suffered from abuse of the judicial process, and endured miscarriages of justice.
The Deputy Controller of the Nigerian Correctional Service, Lagos Command, Comfort Obiosio, represented the Controller of the NCS, Lagos, Mr. Ben Freedman, on the day the Lagos State Chief Justice ordered the release of prisoners. She disclosed that, since 2013, almost 9,000 ATMs have been languishing in the three Correctional Centres in Lagos State. Therefore, she also pleaded with the Chief Judge to grant pardon to all illegally-detained ATMs in the three Correctional Centres since 2013.
This is sad and worthy of consideration by the Chief Judge of Lagos State. Looking at the survey conducted by Travesty of Justice, an advocacy and human rights group in Nigeria, it is sad to learn that 70% of prisoners languishing in the various over-congested Correctional Centres in Nigeria are ATMs. Most of the prisoners are crammed together in tiny suffocating cells and under very excruciating inhuman conditions. For example, a tiny cell that has the capacity for 800 inmates is overcrowded with 1,700 inmates. It is no surprise, then, that suffocating odour constantly oozes out from the centres; occasioning the outbreak of diseases and leading to jailbreaks, and dehumanisation of prisoners.
Worse still, most ATMs in Correctional Centres in Nigeria have exceeded the number of years they would have served if they were properly charged to court, tried, and sentenced. Crime investigations drag on endlessly. Oftentimes, the inmates are not brought to court because there are no “Black Maria” vehicles to convey them. Even when they are brought to court, the trial may be marred by the absence of the trial judge or Magistrate or endless adjournments at the instance of the police due to a lack of vital evidence or witness to prosecute the suspects. Not infrequently, Magistrates who lack the jurisdiction to try certain offences, like murder charges, continue to remand suspects in prisons under the cover of “Holden Charge,” which is unconstitutional. These problems are compounded by corruption, as some police officers arrest innocent citizens on trumped-up charges just to extort money from them. Even juvenile suspects who ought to be remanded in Juvenile courts are arrested by the police and dumped in various Correctional Centres without bail.
The most tragic aspect is that about 3008 condemned prisoners are languishing in the country’s 227 Correctional Centres and have not been executed. This is due to the fact that state governors over the last 25 years have not been signing death warrants to endorse the execution of any condemned prisoner, contributing to the swelling of the country’s Correctional Centres.
Obviously, revamping of the country’s criminal justice system is long due. President Bola Tinubu’s government should embark on an immediate revamping of the country’s criminal justice system. For more than 40 years, the Federal Government made a lot of rhetorical commitment to the reform of Correctional Centres and the revamping of Nigeria’s appalling criminal justice system, but woefully failed to carry out any reform afterward. Funds budgeted for Correctional Centre reform and the welfare of prisoners have ended up in private pockets.
The Tinubu government needs to correct this anomaly and strive to implement the various recommendations tabled before successive administrations on reforming Correctional Centres and the criminal justice system in Nigeria. There is an urgent need to build new correctional facilities across the country to accommodate more inmates as well as improve their living conditions and create a conducive learning environment that will facilitate their reintegration back into society after serving their prison terms. ATMs who have not been tried within the time prescribed in the Constitution should be freed. The police should release all illegally detained persons in their police stations. For many offences, bail should be free and devoid of arm-twisting conditions. It is also a constitutional right of criminal suspects. Police authorities should stamp out extortion and other forms of corruption within their rank and file.
Apart from government intervention, public-spirited individuals, NGOs, corporate organisations, churches, mosques, and others should erect frameworks of solidarity in assisting prisoners.
Granted that the death penalty has attracted controversial debate globally on whether or not it should be abolished, governors should recognise that the law has not been abolished in this country; and they are duty bound to execute it in accordance with their constitutional oath.
Continuing to keep condemned prisoners in agonising indefinite conditions in the Correctional Centres is a violation of their right to life and personal dignity, as enshrined in Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution and Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and as decided by the court in Peter Nemi V Attorney-General of Lagos State. It is well-established that the right to life is applicable even to condemned prisoners or prisoners on death row until their execution is carried out according to the law.
Public-spirited Nigerian lawyers should render pro-bono legal services to assist in securing the freedom of illegally-detained prisoners. Nigerians have waited too long for concrete actions to revamp the country’s criminal justice system. They are tired of mere rhetoric. Government should act now.