By Nnamdi Rapheal Anagor
The Nigerian prisons like most prisons in developing countries are overcrowded by inmates, with most of them awaiting trial. It goes beyond saying a vast number of the inmates may end up being innocent of the crimes levied against them.
Ordinarily, a visit to a detention centre any day is hardly fun, talk more of a prison in despicable condition. The recurrent theme of the terrible nature of these prisons is not news to the average Nigerian or the Government. This hasn’t resulted however, to providing better facilities to contain the inmates.
Statistics from the Nigerian Correctional Services as at the end of May 2019 on its website puts the number of inmates under its roofs in Nigeria to be 73,248 of which only 23,373 have been tried and convicted, and 49,875 yet to be tried at all.
The Police is responsible for the arrest and detention of inmates before they are remanded by an order of court. The Nigerian Police force is established by the constitution, and empowered by the Police Act. Most times, it is the procedural and technical details that involve prosecuting some of the suspects that makes for the congestion of the Prisons.
The prisons most times are congested for reasons like inability to fulfill bail obligations and conditions, missing case files in the registry and more.
Notably, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) has tried to mitigate some of these shortcomings in the Administration of Criminal Justice System. And I will replicate some of the laudable solutions it offers and other that have been offered over time.
Some of its innovation include the outlaw if the arrest of any person in place of a suspect. It further makes the very important provision that Magistrates as a matter of compulsion visit Police Stations or other places of detention at least once a month to inspect records of arrest, and as the case may necessitate, order the arraignment of suspects.
To aid decongestion issues which ACJA has tried to address in its provisions, all states of the Federation must domesticate it to become Local Laws.
For minor offences, offenders should be placed under arrest. Reason being that it keeps the so-called inmates from conventional Prison centres.
A higher, and better level of training is also required for personnel of the Nigerian Police force to motivate and better understand the concept of “duty”. There appears to be problem of proper training of our police officers and therefore they lack the required mindset to diligently prosecute cases, hence the drag-feet approach to litigation whenever a suspect apprehended. Consequently, their welfare should also be reviewed so as to provide no leeway for bribery in order to frustrate cases and prosecution.
Holding charge should be discouraged in Nigeria as it delays the effective dispensation of Justice and slows down the Administration if Justice System in Nigeria which contributes to the high number of pretrial detentions in Nigeria.
Notwithstanding the bad situation above, the initiative of the Attorney General of Lagos State maybe one of the steps in the right direction as regards prison decongestion.
The Attorney General of Lagos State, Moyosore Onigbanjo, SAN earlier this year set up an Advisory Committee to look into the role of non-lawyer police prosecutors in the criminal justice system of Lagos State and determine whether their involvement in the process adequately aligns with the law and the Attorney General’s prosecutorial policy, and whether their activities in the process serves the public interest. The committee submitted its report on the 12th of February 2020 to the Office of the Hon. Attorney General with its recommendations.
One of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee was that there should be an establishment of a sub-unit of the DPP’s office at each magisterial districts for the purpose of filtering the charges brought by an Investigating Police Officer (IPO) to the Magistrate Court, to ensure they meet at least the minimum threshold of a case fit for and deserving of a trial. This part of the recommendation has been adopted and implemented by the Lagos Ministry of Justice. It is already in action and yielding dividends.
In essence, spurious charges that stems from civil matters or domestic feuds which really had no criminal ingredients would no longer find its way on criminal cause lists in Lagos lower Courts where criminal proceedings are often abused. It will also encourage better preparation and prosecution of criminal matters by the police.
Although the corona virus pandemic has stalled its effect but I have no doubt that by the time initiative has gone its full length and the achievements recounted, all the states of the federation will adopt the initiative. And one of the institutions that will benefit from such initiative will be the Nigerian Correctional Services and by extension, the people. The initiative may just be an ace up our sleeves.