Awaiting trial inmates: NGO challenges FG on proper funding of Legal Aids Council

THE Federal Government has been urged to properly fund the Legal Aids Council of Nigeria (LACON) so as to provide legal representation for awaiting trial detainees in order to decongest the nation’s prisons.

Executive Director of a non-governmental organisation, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), Sylvester Uhaa, made the call in Abuja while expressing concern that the rising number of detainees awaiting trial was mostly responsible for prison congestion in the country.

He noted that in Nigeria, of the over 72,000 prison population, more than 47,000 were awaiting trial, which he said did not include hundreds of detainees in police stations and other detention centres.

Uhaa, said the money the Federal Government used in taking care of inmates on awaiting trial could be used for other developmental programmes to improve the standards of living of Nigerians.

While calling on people of goodwill to assist detainees without lawyers, CURE-Nigeria boss noted that government had the obligation to provide every detainee with legal aid.

He called for increase in the funding of the Legal Aid Council, recruitment of more lawyers into Council and support for organisations with demonstrable capacity and commitment to legal aid, saying this would ensure that every detainee had access to a competent legal counsel.

He also stressed the need for constitutional reform, in such a way that the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) would be empowered to reject inmates when the prisons were above their capacities.

“In particular, we call on the National Assembly (NASS) to initiate an amendment process of Section 293 of ACJA, which empowers law enforcements to apply to a magistrate court that does not have the jurisdiction to try a matter to remand suspects in custody, pending investigation and advice from the Attorney General.”

On the poor medical facilities in prisons across the country, Uhaa called on the Federal Government to through the Federal Ministry of Health, direct all public hospitals across the country to treat inmates without asking for payments, just as he asked Government to take immediate and progressive steps to provide people in prison with access to health care.

According to him, CURE-Nigeria had credible information from different prison formations across the country that prison wardens contribute money to take inmates to hospital for treatment because they are no longer receiving budget subversions and public hospitals demand payment before treatment.

Uhaa said, the reduction of the the number of pre-trial detainees will address the problem of prison congestion, limit the spread of diseases, reduce poverty, and spur development in the country.

“Most pre-trial detainees are poor, economically and politically marginalized. The poor and powerless lack the money to hire a lawyer, procure bail (or bond), or pay a bribe. Poor and marginalized people also lack the social and political connections and influence that can facilitate pre-trial release in many places. This why most of the pre-trial detainees in Nigeria are poor and marginalised people.

“Compared to sentenced inmates, pre-trial detainees have less access to food, beds, health care, and exercise. While convicted prisoners are often segregated into low, medium, and high-security facilities, a pre-trial detainees charged with minor theft will be confined in the same facilities as someone charged with a serious violent crime”, he said.

According to the organisation, “A reduction in the pre-trial detention population could generate significant savings which governments could use to prevent crime through investment in education and social services”.