COVID 19: URGENT NEED TO DECONGEST THE PRISONS AND AVERT IMMINENT CATASTROPHE

Introduction

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is holding the world hostage. It is disheartening the world is experiencing such a pandemic in a time like this. One peculiar feature of Covid-19 is that it does not discriminate in its approach as it can affect anyone that it comes in contact with. This is in spite of the understanding that older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart diseases) seem to be more vulnerable. People living in overcrowded environment like those in Nigerian Correctional Centers (Nigerian prisons) including police cells, with all its poor facilities, will find it much harder to practice preventive measures like social distancing. It is common knowledge that virtually all the prisons nationwide are overflowing with inmates, both those convicted and those awaiting trials. Consequently, any outbreak of the virus in those areas can be catastrophic. It is acknowledged that the Government at different levels is taking measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to safeguard public health and provide medical care to those who need it. However, there is the urgent need for the Government to extend its focus on those vulnerable areas as identified, and take proactive steps to prevent any potential tragedy.

State of Nigeria’s Correctional Centres and Cells

Recently, a top-rated Nigerian journalist, Mr Fisayo Soyombo of The Cable, went undercover to uncover the rot in our criminal justice system and the unimaginable hellish condition of our prisons and cells.

A time came when it was expected that, given the number of our top politicians that have had a date with the prisons, there will be urgent reform. However, Mr Soyombo’s findings revealed that these individuals who are of means never get to have a real taste of the rot because they simply “buy cool comfort” while in detention. Only the poor suffer.

Dismally, due to the barefaced lapses in the system, the prison system which is supposed to be reformatory has eventually turned to a hell on earth, thereby defeating the true essence of sending convicts to prisons.  The implication of this system of prison administration is that the inmates in our prisons come out more criminally minded than they were before conviction. It is not enough for Nigerians to continue to pay lip-service to the issues of prison reform. We still have a long way to go despite the coming into effect of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019.

Urgent need to decongest the Correctional Centres and Cells

On the need to decongest our cells and prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the IGP, Mohammed Adamu, had in a statement on Sunday, March 22, 2020 directed zonal Assistant-Inspector-Generals of Police (AIGs) and Commissioners of Police (CPs) in various commands to reduce suspects in detention. The IGP, while urging officers to observe personal safety measures, further directs the AIGs and CPs to ensure that cases of unnecessary arrests and detention of suspects are not condoned. He reiterates that detention of suspects must be reduced to the barest minimum and that only serious cases such as terrorism, armed robbery, homicide and other non-bailable offences should warrant detention. The IGP further directs that adequate measures be emplaced to screen persons to be committed into police custody.

In the same vein, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chairman of the National Judicial Council, Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, CJN have directed all heads of courts to suspend sittings, except in matters that are urgent, essential or time bound according to our extant laws.

It is submitted that an application for bail of detained persons alleged to have committed bailable offences should fall under matters of urgent attention and should be entertained, either at the level of the police investigation or post arraignment. In other words, the directives of the IGP should be strictly observed and where suspects have been arraigned, the courts should entertain an application for bail without hesitation.

Issue of Fundamental Rights

The issues of personal liberty and grant of bail are all issues of fundamental rights which are constitutionally guaranteed. It is important to note that part of the preamble to the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules 2009 – paragraph (g) – states that human rights suits shall be given priority in deserving cases; and that where there is any question as to the liberty of the applicant or any person, the case shall be treated as an emergency. This further lay credence to the essence of treating bail applications as matters of urgency, deserving of being entertained during this lockdown.

Bail is a basic right of every citizen of Nigeria who is charged with a criminal offence, by virtue of Section 35(1) of 1999 Constitution. Thus, every person is entitled to his personal liberty and no person is to be deprived of his liberty except as stipulated by the Constitution and or statute. And in furtherance of that right, Section 35(4) of the 1999 Constitution provides that any person who is arrested or detained in accordance with subsection (c) of the Section must be brought before a court of law within a reasonable time and if he is not tried within a period of – (a) two months from the date of his arrest or detention in the case of a person who is in custody or is not entitled to bail: or (b) three months from the date of his arrest or detention in the case of a person who has been released on bail. He shall (without prejudice to any further proceedings that may be brought against him) be released either unconditionally or upon such conditions as are reasonably necessary to ensure that he appears for his trial at a later date. The section is, however, excluded where a person is detained upon a reasonable suspicion of having committed a capital offence. See Onyebuchi v. FRN & Ors (2007) LPELR-CA/L/358/07; Adeleke v. State (2018) LPELR-CA/B/403C/2017(R).

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) is the organic law of the Country. It declares in formal, emphatic and binding principles the rights, liberties, powers and responsibilities of the people, both the government and the governed. It is the duty of the authorities, including the judiciary to ensure its observance. The position of the courts is quite crucial in this regard for the purpose of safeguarding the constitutional rights of persons through effective intervention whenever, in an appropriate case, it is shown that such rights have been violated. In such a situation, the matter should be closely scrutinised to make sure that any decision reached conforms to the spirit of the Constitution. Fundamental rights are regarded as part of human rights and the regnant trend is to protect such rights for the enhancement of human dignity and liberty.

In addition to the above, we recommend the granting of bail applications to persons detained; exercise of the powers to release from prison by the CJN and Chief Judges of States; and exercise of the power of prerogative of mercy by the President and Governors in deserving cases. See Section 1 of Criminal Justice (Release from Custody) Special Provisions Act, Sections 175(1)(a) and 212(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended). See also FRN v. Achida & Anor (2018) LPELR-CA/S/178C/2017. President Buhari recently pardoned 2,600 inmates. This is commendable. We hope however that the move will not enure to the direct benefit of any corrupt politician.

Since the main function of bail is to ensure the presence of the accused at the trial and not an acquittal, the court should ensure that detainees who are able to meet up the bail application are granted bail. The positive impact of granting bail in this period of Covid-19 is that it will lead to decongestion of the correctional centers and police cells.

Conclusion

We have been able to make a case for the urgent decongestion of the Nigerian correctional centres and police cells in this period of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is also in keeping with the fundamental rights of persons under detention. More so, we are by this piece calling on the Government to ensure that the Correctional Centres observe safety measures and are equipped with functional facilities for tackling any likely outbreak. In addition, the reform agenda of the correctional centres should be regarded as one of the top priorities of Government.



Chidera Nwokeke
Author: Chidera Nwokeke
Chidera Nwokeke is a Law Graduate from Ebonyi State University, and a student of Nigerian Law School, Lagos Campus. He is academically motivated and has passion for research in several areas of law. He is a member of Amnesty International. He has a keen interest in Public Interest Litigation and Development, Dispute Resolution and Human Rights. He can be reached at nwokekechidera@gmail.com or 08120945787.
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