New facts have emerged that majority of inmates which constitute about 72 percent in prison facilities across Nigeria are awaiting trial persons. The current population of prisoners in Nigeria is put at 68,110 which comprises of 66,774 males and 1336 females. The information which was contained in a fact sheet released by Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) in partnership with the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) also shows that only 21,354 inmates comprising 21,009 males and 345 females have been convicted. The remaining 46,756 comprising 45,765 males and 991 female inmates are still awaiting trial. The fact sheet which is published as part of the Prison Reform Project of the Justice Reform Programme (SJRP) with the Security and support of UK Aid decried the fact that a handful of the ATPs have spent as long as 15years in prison custody waiting for their trials.
The fact sheet however clarified that the ATPS who are referred to as “transient prisoners” are usually remanded in prison custody because the offences they are charged with do not provide for bail or they have been unable to perfect bail as granted by the courts. As a matter of fact, ATPs in many instances overstay the period they would have been sentenced to prison had the trial progressed as expected.
The astronomical rise in number of ATPs shows that as at 1985, the total prison population was 53,786 and out of which 21,515 that is, 40percent were awaiting trial persons. This increased to 27,665 making about 50percent with the total prison population increasing to 55,331. The ATPs percentage continue to increase in year 2000 as it dovetailed to 73percent, which comprises 31,635 even as the total prison population decreased 43,312. Though the figure declined briefly in 2007 to 69percent that is 31,768 persons awaiting trial, but the figure went up again in 2016 where 47,000 which make up 71percent of the 65,871 inmates are awaiting trial.
The progressive rise in the number of ATPs dating back to 1985 was matched by only marginal increases in the number of convicted prisoners. Thus while there are 32,271 convicts in 1985, the figure declined to 27,666 in 1990. The awaiting trial persons’ menace became pronounced following a sharp drop in year 2000 to a paltry 11,687. Up till year 2016, the number of ATPs only grew marginally to 18,817.
The Penal reform fact sheet which is aimed at reforming the Nigerian Prison system via various legal frameworks warned that high proportion of remand prisoners leads to several administrative and practical problems amongst the prison establishment, the police, the judiciary, the prisoners and their families including the society in general.
For the prison establishment, this include overcrowding, high cost of maintenance, increased staff stress and work load, non-qualitative prison regime, poor management and discipline. The judiciary and police also suffer problem with credibility and questions relating to poor trial of suspects.
The report further advised that it is time to declare a national emergency on the crisis confronting Nigerian Prisons, noting that decongestion should be seen as a national priority. Aside from the largely failed effort at prison decongestion, the current model pioneered by PRAWA in partnership with Nigerian Prison Service and the UK Foreign and commonwealth office which aims to situate the decongestion programme within the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACoN) seems to offer great promise especially on sustainability. This derives from the fact that LACoN has the statutory mandate to among others offer indigent accused persons free legal services.
According to the report, the major way of reducing prison numbers is to accept only those persons into detention for whom there is a legal warrant authorizing imprisonment and also speeding up the trial process so that detainees spend less time in pre-trial detention. It further canvasses on issues relating to adaptation of criminal procedure codes so that judges rather than prosecutors make the decision about pre-trial detention.
Experts also advised the reform of police, ministry of justice, the judiciary and sundry stakeholders agencies as well as intra, inter and multi-agency coordination and cooperation as key to actualizing and sustaining the proposed reforms. Broader linkages between the justice sector and other sectors are also crucial in this drive. While global best practices in prison governance is key, it is hoped that effective implementation of the Administration of criminal justice Act 2015 as well as the passage of the Nigerian Prisons and correctional service bill, 2016 by the National Assembly will go a long way in ensuring that the prisons achieve the goals for which they were established, that is, to reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners.