Aregbesola’s jail decongestion move deserves swift action
IT is an open secret that Nigeria’s notoriously overcrowded prisons — rechristened as correctional centres in 2019 — need a comprehensive decongestion strategy. In a fresh acknowledgement of this open sore, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, has just enunciated a programme that aims to facilitate the quick release of 30 per cent of the detainees. According to him, the ministry will collaborate with the 36 states to achieve the goal. This is a welcome initiative deserving of total stakeholder support. The major challenge for Aregbesola is to ensure a quick and efficient implementation.
Given successive Nigerian governments’ dreadful record in seeing through desirable policies, the minister and the state governors should strongly resolve to make a difference with this initiative.
Evidence abounds that many Nigerians are wrongly incarcerated. From those arrested by callous police officers on flimsy grounds, often on legally undefined offences, to the sluggish justice system, a high percentage of inmates have no business behind bars. Aregbesola should do all within his power to get such detainees out quickly.
At 46.6 per cent, stealing is reportedly the leading crime in Nigeria, followed by assault, at 19.9 per cent. These are cases that the judiciary should dispense with quickly. Rather, it allows these suspects to overburden the correctional centres and the taxpayer.
The statistics are grim. Many detainees languish in jail for years without the benefit of a trial. As of October 10, there were 76,031 persons behind bars in the 253 custodial centres nationwide, out of which 74,432 are males and 1,599 females, says the Nigerian Correctional Service. This data does not explain the prevailing unjustness at the custodial centres.
Bizarrely, 53,063 persons, representing 70 per cent of the detainees, are awaiting trial. This leaves 22,968 persons or just 30 per cent as the convicts. This is excessively disproportionate; prisons are primarily meant to keep out convicts from harming society, not to punish innocent persons accused of crime. The law presumes everyone is innocent unless otherwise pronounced by a competent court; keeping suspects in jail interminably, therefore, is an egregious human rights violation. To worsen the laxity, those condemned to death are usually not executed or pardoned.
Over time, this has aggravated the social conditions in the prisons. Dangerously, minor offenders and petty thieves are locked up together with hardened criminals, in some cases, even with bloodthirsty terrorists. In the July 5 attack on the Kuje Correctional Centre in the FCT, terrorists freed over 800 persons, including 69 Boko Haram detainees.