As the nation grapples with the issue of prison congestion, a research report by the Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation (CJMR) has revealed that arbitrary arrest and illegal detention is one of the major factors for prison congestion in Nigeria with various inmates arrested and detained for crimes by the police but without trial. YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE reports.
Over the years, there has been the issue of congestion in custodial centres of the Nigerian Correctional Centre across the country as many of these centres are always filled with more than double their population capacity every day. However, contrary to belief, most of those behind bars are not convicts as many are awaiting trial inmates who may at the end of the day be declared innocent of the allegations against them.
In this group, however, are people who are charged with minor and bailable offences but for one reason or the other are languishing in custody. A research has revealed that arbitrary arrest and illegal detention is a major cause for prison congestion.
The research results may not be far from the truth as the Chief Judge of Oyo State, Justice Munta Abimbola, while giving the order for the release of 45 inmates from the Agodi Custodial Centre on Tuesday in a bid to decongest the prison, stated that “after going through the list that contains minor and bailable offences and by consensus of the monitoring committee of ACJL that most of the cases were minor offences that even if trial had gone on and they were convicted, they would have completed the terms of imprisonment. We thought it was appropriate to let them go, so 45 were given the prerogative of mercy. One of them was released because both prosecution and defense attested to the fact that witnesses haven’t been showing up. We feel it isn’t necessary to continue to detain such person because he can’t be convicted out of the blues without witness testimony.”
Justice Abimbola explained that if the circumstance surrounding the arrest of an individual is illegal, his subsequent detention is also illegal and cannot hold under the law. This exactly is the finding of a research carried out by the Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation (CJMR) titled ‘Offences pattern of arrest and causes for delay in trial as predictors of prison congestion’ with Ijebu -Ode Noncustodial services as case study.
Adopting a descriptive survey design, the CJMR study focuses on the Ogun State Non-Custodial Services and used one of the major Noncustodial Centres, Igbeba Ijebu-Ode as a case study. The findings of the study revealed that inmates in the Ogun State Non-Custodial Service had been arrested by the police and detained for crime they were alleged to have committed but were not properly arraigned or cases stalled. And many are languishing behind bars for bailable offences due to inability to get counsel or inability to meet bail conditions.
According to the CJMR report prepared by its founder Pastor Hezekiah Deboboye Olujobi, “some of those who have been in detention since 2009 /2010 have appeared before the High Court since 2012 / 2013 with inconclusive trial. Some of them have not been taken to court for the past two years while the defence lawyer holding brief for the accused has given up the trial. Some of those who were arrested on the allegation of armed robbery, attempted rape are still appearing in the Magistrate Court awaiting legal advice.”
The study stated explicitly that there is the need for a social intervention for justice to reduce and depopulate the Nigeria prisons by identifying cases who may have no legal advice from year 2017 in detention and above and those who have not been going to court so they can resume trial with immediate effect or otherwise should be released without further delay.
The goal of this research is to solve the endemic problem of prison congestion by allowing the muted voices behind the bar to be heard as a strategy for informing the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice about the true position of cases alleged on capital offences that contribute to prison congestion in Ijebu Ode Correctional Service.
An example of such cases is that of three people who do not know each other but were arraigned for the same offence in a case delineated MIJ/194C/2013. Umukoro Monday, a taxi driver from Ughelli, Delta state said he was traveling to Lagos on January 9, 2013 to buy spare parts when the vehicle developed fault along the Ijebu Ode Express road. A vehicle parked, he was asked to enter and taken to Igbeba Police Station from where he was transferred to Abeokuta for three months in the cell before he was arraigned with six people and charged to court with suspected robbery. He got bail but with strict conditions that he couldn’t meet.
Abiodun Akeem, a mechanic from Ijebu Igbo who was arrested on February 28, 2013, was waiting for a bike at Ilese, Ijebu Ode Express way when he was picked by police, detained in Igbeba Police Station for two weeks then transferred to Abeokuta State CID where he spent another six weeks. He was arraigned with Monday and four others. Ali Famous, a timber operator based in Ijebu Igbo, was arrested on March 7, 2013 on his street during a mass arrest because there was a street fight in the area. Many people were later released on bail and the police took four of them to Abeokuta after two weeks when they couldn’t meet the financial demands of the police officers. He was arraigned on the same offence of conspiracy and armed robbery. Out of the six arraigned, three got bailed leaving the three and they are still waiting for legal advice.
The trio has spent over seven years in custody without legal advice and are just one of many in prison custody for wrong arrests or poor prosecution services as well as inability to get legal advice.
CJMR observed that society is at big risk when unrepentant criminals are released to the society without any means of tracking them or plan for rehabilitation, and is advocating that rather than an arbitrary release of such criminals, a diligent review of such cases might reveal why their trial dragged for long and inconclusively.
CJRM said: “The logical thing is to remove the bottleneck and pursue the cases to ensure that justice is done. This is the only way the purpose of justice will be served to both the perpetrator and the victim, as the famous judicial quote, justice must not only be done, but be seen to have been done. From the description of the processes of arrest, most inmates were arrested by the road side; none of them were arrested on the scene of crime or with any offensive weapon or pointed by the victim of any crime.
“Some of them were arrested on their way from traveling from different places at different months at different locations on the allegation of suspicion or attempt to commit a crime. The police have not been able to charge them with any particular crime but rather awaiting Legal Advice from the Ministry of Justice. CJMR has written letters to the office of the Attorney-General, Ogun State, to confirm the case files in the Ministry of Justice and up till now, no attempt has been made to make sure their cases are looked into and necessary step taken; rather, they are held in the prison for such a long period.
“From information obtained, inmates have been in the prison for as long as three to nine. To this end, to curb arbitrary detention, it must become a policy that in case of an allegation of a capital offense, the court should not allow the police to arraign a suspect without the proof of having served the duplicated file on the Director of Public Prosecution.”
The organisation also asked for the establishment of a committee to review the case files of prison inmates within a reasonable time to determine whether they have a case to answer while there should be an intervention to show mercy and justice to those who are not responsible for the crimes for which they are held so that release would be granted to them to go and start their new life in their community.
CJMR further asked for serious intervention processes to reduce and depopulate the Nigeria prisons and give privilege to inmates to contribute to the development of their families, communities and national development while several rehabilitation opportunities should be provided for inmates after release so that they can regain their wellbeing for effective community and economic participation.
In addition, the group advocates that educational opportunities be provided for those who are interested while there should be support for those that want to learn vocational skills and funds to establish their business to serve as a corrective measure of the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index (2020) so that the judiciary could exhibit fair justice that could take Nigeria out of the corruption index at the local, regional and global levels.
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