By Sunmola Olowookere
Laws are like one way traffic where motorists cannot take any lay-by or make any detour, it is either you take that route or you don’t ply the road at all. Laws, in every clime, are made by humans and for humans in order to check excesses in our day to day dealings with our fellow human beings. However, administration of the law does not consider people’s lack of knowledge of the law and as our learned colleagues would harp “ignorance is no excuse in law”. Hence no one can hide under the pretext of lack of prior knowledge of any misdemeanor.
Many have fallen prey to the long reaching arms of the law and have tales of horror to recount today about their sojourn in the prisons. The prisons in Nigeria are overcrowded, congested and lack the required package that prisons should have. Nigerian prisons are more of incarceration than being a corrective facility. Inmates are shut away from the public in this formidable walls without any attempt made at making them fit again for civilized society till their prison sentence ends.
As at October 2016, Out of the 922 inmates housed at the Olokuta Medium Prison facility along Ondo expressway, Ondo state, Nigeria, statistical data revealed that a whopping 819 are awaiting trials for several offences with only 99 out of the 922 inmates already convicted. While the male accounted for 802 of these data, the female are just 17.
The then Ondo state Chief Judge now retired, Justice Seinde Kumuyi made these known during one of his visits to Olokuta Medium prisons when he was in service. At a special court sitting at the time, Kumuyi freed 14 of the inmates among those awaiting trials at the courts. Seven out of these favoured ones were released on health grounds while seven were released due to an extended stay of over seven years at the facility which was occasioned by cases of missing files.
Speaking on issue of prison congestion, the CJ then described it as endemic and the awaiting trials he attributed to some lapses in the administration of justice.
The resident doctor at the prison, Dr. Ogunsuyi complained at the time that the prison had been experiencing shortage of light and water for months which had accounted for the high level of infection and casualty at the prison facility disclosing that there had been 10 casualties in the previous year among the inmates. He claimed that the congestion of the prison coupled with the scarcity of water and light had been responsible for the serious health challenge faced by inmates at the facility. Several of the casualties recorded died of chronic tuberculosis and some of the corpses have not yet been claimed by their families.
According to research by The Hope, the prison lock up at olokuta, a surburb of Akure is the only congested prison facility in the state. The numbers of the prison inmates is high due to the high courts that are concentrated in Akure and because of the perceived security system; most of the hardened criminals are relocated to Olokuta prisons in the Ondo State capital. That in itself has brought a problem of congestion.
It has been a continuous struggle on how to depopulate the prisons lock up without opening the gate of prisons for those who are non conformists in the house to molest those who are innocent in the freer society.
Another reason for the congestion is that for capital offences, bail is not automatic. That had been the major challenge in the over population of the prisons. i Nigeria’s growth, our government should continue to enhance these prison facilities. Make them more comfortable and bigger. And also make them more suspect friendly.
Speaking on the issue of reformation and reintegration of inmates back into the society, a one-time Commissioner for Justice, Eyitayo Jegede in an earlier report said that apart from the general belief that award of sentence should serve as a deterrent to others, our prisons must be reformatory i.e. corrective. It should be able to reform those that are unfortunate to be in the prison’s lock up so that when they come out, they will not constitute some other forms of nuisance or danger to those who are law abiding.
He regretted that the prison system in Nigeria does place much emphasis on custody which is refraining of the accused in the prisons lock ups so he could not go out far more than the reformatory aspect.
“The reformatory aspect should ordinarily involve training them in some vocations or crafts and having moral values inculcated in them. And even when they are out, having served their terms, they should be referred to reformatory houses that should clear them. When I say ‘clear’, it is in the advisory sense. The ex convicts are controlled and moderated in a way that would ensure that their transition from the prison into the free society goes smoothly in a gradual and controlled manner.
“Unfortunately again, apart from private initiatives, governments at the federal and at the state levels, and all of us are guilty of this, have not done much to establish these institutions that would be reformatory and serve as a bridge between the convicts that are out and the larger society where there is freedom. The institutions that are performing these roles are private institutions, non Governmental Organizations and people of immense good will.”
These are set of people that believe that those who are ex-convicts should not carry the label both in facts and substance all over the place in terms of their behaviours.
He said that what the government does is to support such institutions such as the private agencies and the Non Governmental Organizations in performing these really credible functions for the larger society. And these functions are even in the best interest of the government itself.
Reforming the prison inmates is indeed a service to the people and the government because in the long run, it could reduce the number of the prisoners that we have if those correctional programmes turns out to be effective. Prisons are correctional facilities for criminals in a bid to make them fit for the society. For inmates, one of the fundamental consequences of their imprisonment is the lack of control over decisions about their activities. This lack of autonomy is evident in nearly all aspects of prison life.
Since then, prison systems have improved tremendously with inmates being treated with consideration and windows of opportunities open to them to better their lots. The era of dark dungeons and smelly beans no longer exists. In United States, they have educational programmes for inmates and they could even learn to be computer literate. Nigeria is however behind in all these innovations. We are not yet through battling with prison congestion.
Should it be like this? Should convicts and suspects be treated like animals? What happens to that clause “innocent until proven guilty”? Shouldn’t there be a time limit to the time a suspect should stay in prison custody without conviction? What use is the dispensation of justice to a man that has been wrongly accused? The most pathetic is the ones committed in ignorance.
This brings to mind the issue of a woman remanded in the female prison in Ondo some years back. A Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) known as FIDA, the lawyer’s women wing were on a mission there to assist inmates that needed legal assistance. There was a woman who was remanded in prison custody for contempt of court though she does not realize what she did wrong.
The woman and her mother had been living with her brother and the wife ever since her marriage disintegrated. Soon, the aged mother came to live there because their son was wealthy and able to support them. When the man died few years after, the wife who was not on good terms with these women sought a court injunction to evict them. The sister was enraged at being served eviction notice that she attacked the court clerk. She tore the letter and threw the shreds at his face. Then she slapped his face. In the ensuing melee, she tore his clothes.
She now went inside with satisfaction at having dealt with the silly woman by beating up her messenger. It was a huge shock for her when she was arrested barely two hours later. Since then, she had spent six months remanded at Yaba prisons awaiting trial. When she was interviewed by The Hope she said when she was to be taken to court twice but there was no fuel for the vehicle. She had spent six months in there by then.
The prisons as a matter of urgency need to be decongested. The new Chief Judge of Ondo state, Justice Olanrewaju Akeredolu reechoed this sentiment recently when he visited the Olokuta prisons and set free 17 inmates in the spirit of the independence anniversary of the nation.
The lucky men were inmates who were earlier ordered by the court to be remanded at the facility pending the determination of their cases and they were charged with various offences ranging from kidnapping, carnal knowledge, armed robbery to murder.
These men got pardoned by the Chief Judge for several reasons like health challenges that could no longer be managed in the prison custody such as tuberculosis, mental instability and on account of the prosecution’s inability to locate their case files.
Before the court session commenced, the Chief Judge led his entourage on a tour of the facility saying that there was a need to take a peep into the various cells and the surroundings before the jury sat and make their decisions.
He commented that there are many innovations that are contained in the Administration of Criminal Justice Law in Nigeria document which have not been put to use yet and observed that the prison should be a correctional center which should prepare inmates for reintegration into the society and not just a place where accused persons are locked away from the society. He observed that there were more inmates in the prison awaiting trials than the actual convicts while decrying the state and the plight of the inmates locked up in the cells.
He spoke of the need to introduce education of inmates into Olokuta prison while noting that it will help with their reintegration into the society and also reduce the issue of stigmatization against them and expressed his desire to put in place certain things which would ensure improvement and decongestion in the facility while promising that the relevant provisions in the ACJL document will be put into use as it is designed so that it would be less burdensome on those who run the facility.
Also, in order to help with the reintegration of inmates back into the society, the Ondo state judiciary has recently renovated and reopened a facility named halfway house in the prison that had been allegedly neglected and closed down by previous administrations.
The halfway house is a facility which is created to cater for convicts that have served their times in prison or those that were granted pardon and freed unconditionally by the state and it also ensures that they adequately reoriented and fully prepared for reintegration back into the society.
The country coordinator of the St Joseph half-way house, Pastor Bayode Joshua Adaramola while addressing the Chief Judge during the prison visit said that the decision to reopen the facility is a good one which would ensure that the process of reintegration of prison convicts into the society is regularized in the prison system.
He suggested the introduction of a system of data capturing into the prison system which would ensure proper documentation of inmates and urged the judiciary to start considering the issue of parole while commenting that the longer he accused stay in the prison, the more criminally-minded he becomes.
He also advised the judiciary to look into the possibility of having at least two cells at the halfway house so that accused persons who would not be spending long period of time in remand could stay in the cells.
While urging the judiciary to considered ways of introducing education into the prison system, he expressed his readiness to work with other Civil Liberty Organizations in ensuring that inmates are properly reintegrated into the society and that the halfway house works smoothly.
Responding to his comments, the Chief Judge regretted the comatose state of the halfway house for such a long period and promised that the judiciary would make representation to the state government in order to make the facility which had recently reopened fully functional as a halfway house should be.
On the issue of parole, he said that it is provided for in the ACJL while observing that such people that are released on parole need to be closely monitored so that they do not relapse.
We no longer live in the cave era. Inmates should not be treated as animals. Government should try to upgrade our prison system to what obtains in overseas countries like Canada. There are several opportunities for inmates to develop themselves and prepare themselves for life outside incarceration.
Our society faces a danger from these individuals who might have become doubly corrupted from a prolonged stay in the prisons if we fail to properly reintegrate them. Let the government overhaul the prison system in order to evolve a better person out of the convicts who are not yet hardened.