When the Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau visited Kano Central Prison recently, he was inundated with complaints about the circumstances of prisoners and why failure to decongest the facility could be a time bomb.
The minister was told that some inmates were wrongfully sentenced to death for stealing duck and car radio and others for refusing to register political allegiance. Many were transferred from other prisons after spending between 10 to 19 years on death row – aged, condemned and without access to lawyers who could plead their cases. Also, part of the complaints he received was that the capacity of cells were over-stretched and, in many cases, quadrupled.
The crises in prisons and justice administration system are legion and, in our view, well documented. They raise fundamental issues concerning the nation’s respect for the dignity of her citizens as well as the sanctity of life. They also make a compelling case for institutional reforms.
Jail breaks have been recorded and jail houses have become grooming grounds for benign miscreants who graduate as hardened criminals. Generally, Nigerian prison detainees are usually ill-treated and kept under inhuman conditions. Some shackled, manacled, bruised and hooded. Some are kept in perpetuity while many spend close to 15 years awaiting trial. Our statute books still consider prisoners to be part of human community with rights and privileges, even as they are restrained. We have heard of congestion, poor infrastructure and lack of motivation for prison warders. These are issues that deserve to be addressed.
The comptroller-general of the Nigerian Prison Service, Dr Peter Ezinwa Ekpendo, once attributed slow trial of inmates as a major factor that leads to prison congestion accounting for more than 90 per cent of prison population in urban centres. His predecessor, Mr Zakari Ohinoyi Ibrahim, had said that the awaiting trial to convicts ratio stands at 73:27. This situation is objectionable, in our opinion, because our prisons are housing more than triple the number of inmates that they were built for. The British government once budgeted N250 million to transfer 400 Nigerian prisoners in their country back home. This is a sad commentary on our awfully poor prisoners’ situation.
We have observed that since the return of civilian rule, no governor has been bold enough to sign death warrants for convicted armed robbers. This is a curious dimension as no State has officially outlawed capital punishment. Perhaps, it is in their enlightened self-interest to err on the side of caution. But with the high profile trial of top brass in the last administration, present office holders should take prison reforms seriously because the big and mighty today could become prison inmates tomorrow if we sincerely prosecute, in a sustainable manner, this war against corruption.
As a matter of urgent national importance, we think the time to reform the prison and justice administration systems is now. Prisoners’ dignity must permit access to training and those awaiting trials should have legal assistance. Our prisons should be well funded, staffed and prisoners decently fed and housed with proper medication. Our security apparatchiks in all the agencies should establish efficient inter-agency collaboration to ensure that justice is not misplaced and prison officials must wake up to their responsibilities. There is no better time than now to carry out fundamental reforms in the criminal justice system with prisons made more habitable for inmates. The justice system should not grind too slowly because justice delayed is justice denied.