Prison Act amendment: Raising the hope of Awaiting Trial Persons, By Ibironke Ariyo

Concerned Nigerians have expressed concern about what they describe as increasing number of persons who are awaiting trials in various prisons across the country.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, the Minister of Interior, also alluded to such concern recently when he visited Kano Central Prison and observed that more than 70 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons across the country were awaiting trial.

“The high number of awaiting trial inmates is worrisome because the prisons are meant for convicts, but you find out at the end of the day that more than 70 per cent of the people there are awaiting trial inmates,’’ he said.

Worried by this development, the Nigerian Prisons Service, in collaboration with Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) and civil society organisations, held a retreat in Enugu to push for the review of the Nigerian Prisons Service Amendment Act.

According to Nigerian Prisons authority, the plan is to repeal the Prison Act and replace it with Correctional Services to check the rot in the criminal justice and decongest the prison.

The Nigerian Prisons Service, therefore, engages the civil society organisations such as PRAWA and Justice, Rule of Law and Anti-corruption (ROLAC), among others, to achieve the task.

Stakeholders, especially, the House of Representatives Committee on Interior, assured the Nigerian Prisons Service of adequate plans, particularly on research and consultations, to produce a document that would address most of the challenges in the prisons.

Rep. Adams Jagaba, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Interior, said during the retreat that the bill to amend the act would provide effective processes of managing the prisons.

The proposed bill for the amendment of the Nigerian Prison Act CAP 29 Laws of the Federation (2004) will allow, among others, awaiting trials inmates to undertake formal and vocational training.

It also seeks for special centres for pregnant and nursing inmates and children less than three years and below.

Jagaba recalled that the plight of Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs) was among the key issues identified by the reports of a survey conducted by PRAWA, which was presented to stakeholders on Feb. 1.

He assured the stakeholders that the bill would be one of the fastest bills to be passed by the house because everything had been put in place to ensure that the president signed the bill.

According to him, the committee has therefore, begun intensive research and consultations with critical stakeholders for purposes of producing a document that would be comprehensive enough to address most of the challenges in the prisons system.

“There is no gainsaying that the major challenges bedeviling the Nigeria Prison system include, but not limited to, overcrowding of its facilities by ATPs, inadequate staffing, poor funding, inadequate logistic support and decaying infrastructure,’’ he said.

Sharing similar sentiments, Dr. Uju Agomoh, the Founder of PRAWA, commended the lawmakers for their efforts at decongesting the prisons by involving critical stakeholders in the nation’s criminal justice system.

He said that the need to amend the act which was due more than 16 years ago ought to be given serious attention in solving the challenges bedeviling the Nigerian Prisons system.

Agomoh also said that the government should, in the interim, establish a case a management system to promptly track ATPs’ cases and status to decongest the prisons across the country.

Making reference to the findings of the organisation on how to decongest the prisons, she noted that its Penal Reform Fact Sheet indicated that more than eight per cent of the inmates sampled in Enugu, Kano and Lagos had not appeared in court for more than five years for the offences they were charged with.

According to her, some of the offences can attract six months imprisonment or less upon conviction but two per cent of those sampled for the study have spent more than 10 years in prison custody.

She noted further that the organisation recommended implementation of legal provisions and operational policies aimed at speeding up trial process.

Other recommendations according to her includes encouraging less use of pre-trial detention and increased utilisation of alternatives to imprisonment measures, especially for minor offenders.

She appreciated the commitment of the stakeholders to pushing for the amendment process of the bill, advising them not to surrender until the passage of the bill into law.

Expressing concern about the plight of ATPs, Assistant Controller-General of Prisons in charge of planning, Research and Statistics, Mr Suraj Olarinde, said that an overwhelming percentage of inmates in Nigeria Prisons were awaiting trial.

“With this, it follows that the functions of reform and rehabilitation of prisoners become an arduous task given the dearth of resources in an overstretched system.

In his view, Mr Godwin Odo, Component Manager, Justice, Rule of Law and Anti-corruption, applauded the decision of the House of Representatives to support the service, promising that his organisation would also support in that regard.

Alhaji Ahmed Ja’afaru, the Controller-General of the Nigerian Prisons Service, said that the idea of the retreat was to focus on prison correctional and reintegration service system to ensure that offenders would not go back to the same crimes.

He said the service was looking forward to training prisoners and offenders even while in the prisons, noting that the service would train them, reorient them and prepare them for re-integration into the society.(NANFeatures)

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