Prison Decogestion in Nigeria: the way forward…
In Nigeria, we have our prisons, just like any other country in the whole world, but, unlike some of the countries, we have the fact here in Nigeria that some of our prisons are seriously congested, choked up with prisoners. We have those there that have not yet been charged with the commission of any offence, those that are there on an awaiting trial basis, and those that are there because their families have simply decided to allow them to rot away there in the prison in one part of the country or the other.
In many prisons, the prisoners take turns lying on beds while some of them will have to make do with sitting on the floor and leaning their backs against the walls for the night. And that is to say that they are the lucky ones. Some will have to stand. Is this the proper way it should be done? And then, we wonder why they turn out becoming worse than they were when they come out of the prison system than they were when they went in.
There is now the question that is being rippled through the walls of the judiciary: how do we go about decongesting our prison system so that there will be space there?
It is a truthful fact that sometimes, the judges do go around the prisons, looking into matters concerning the prisoners and seeking for ways to have them released if there is a way for that to be done, or else, for their matters to be taken to the courts of law.
But the point to be made here is that these efforts is not enough, because there are too many prisoners. And yes, I know we have the legal aid, but that is not enough. Many_ not all of them, note this_ do not really expend the necessary energy into the work of the prisoners they are handling. But then, in all fairness to them, there is no way for them to be able to get it done because of the fact that they are not paid well, prisoners can be such seasoned liars, etc . . .
I remember the time I had gone to the Abakaliki Federal Prisons on the Law Clinic Prison project of the Ebonyi State University Prison Project to see what could be done for one or two prisoners there that have no legal counsel to represent them in their matters in court. I found some there that had spent 3 years on an awaiting trial basis, and that is simply because they lack the legal counsel to adequately represent them in court. The young man that was assigned to me_ name withheld_ had been there for almost a year, and, according to him, he had been accused of stealing corn at the Ebonyi State University farm behind the Ekumenyi River while he averred that he had only been fishing in the river. The prosecution had been busy taking adjournments throughout the duration of the matter in court.
And the above scenario presents one of the classic situations of our prisons being overly congested with prisoners, some of them persons who are not really meant to be there. But then you can trust the decaying monolith of the fabric of the Nigerian societal living and all the crumbling, disintegrating social stratagems involved.
Nobody cares; the judiciary that should be doing something is trying the best they can but the point is that there are too many cases on the case dockets in the courts; there are too few judges and magistrates to handle the plethora of cases that there in the judiciary. They can only do so much.
So, what should be the next step? Because, as it stands, the prisons have to be decongested; there are no two ways about it.
What can the government do to have our prisons less conglomerated with criminal minds and even the non-criminals who are fused together in that system? Yes, by the non-criminals there is to be included those that are the magi-stealers, the pick-pockets, small-time thieves struggling to put the food on the table and a little change in their pockets_ in my opinion, those are not thieves, but rather, they are the victims of the circumstances foisted upon them by the decaying system they have found themselves in.
So, if they are not criminals in the real sense of the word, why then are they in the prisons? Why not look for ways to rehabilitate them rather than have them decaying there in the prisons and forestalling the development of their full potential? And when they have spent these years in the prison simply because of their commission of one inconsequential crime or the other, they are then hardened into something bitter, filled with the auspices of hatred for the society that had wrung them dry, and then they become the real criminals of the time.
And some of them are just young, misled individuals that would have been in need of proper guidance, rather than the choking claustrophobic integration into the congested, flea-infested prison yard. If they had not gone to those prisons in the first place, then they may not have turned out for the worse. They might have had a fighting chance.
So, the government should have to do something about this. Lawyers, who are seen as the mouthpiece of those that cannot speak for themselves, should also fall in and join the fray to help decongest the prisons. How can the latter do this? They can work in conjunction with the Legal Aid Council; they can also take on pro bono cases for the less privileged, or they can even go on active campaigns to help some of the prisoners who are really looking for the help they cannot afford. It might not mean much in the short term, but in the long run, it can be a great help towards achieving a better society.
For, it is to be said that it only the person wearing the shoes that know where it is pinching him (an Igbo proverb). It is the prisoners that can tell you what they are undergoing.
Mr. Ani Kingsley Ugochukwu Esq.
Legal Practitioner, Nigeria.