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Custodial centres reject prisoners, lawyers demand reforms

Lawyers are calling for criminal justice reforms as custodial centres in Lagos State reject prisoners due to congestion of the centres. ONOZURE DANIA writes

On October 16, 2023, a lawyer at the Lagos State High Court in Ikeja lamented that an inmate who had just been arraigned was rejected by warders of a custodial centre due to overcrowding.

Some prosecutors also stated that for more than three weeks, some courts have not been taking up fresh cases for arraignment, as the custodial centres have been rejecting inmates. They also spoke about a directive from the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, that the Magistrates’ courts should stop arraigning suspects till further notice.

A circular dated October 18, 2023, signed by the Chief Magistrate Mrs Joy Ugbomoiko, stated that she had been further directed to inform the magistrates to stop accepting overnight cases from any police station formation or command except the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission cases until directed otherwise.

“No magistrate shall order any police to detain a defendant at the station,” the circular stated.

Earlier this year, former President Muhammadu Buhari assented to a Bill to move custodial centres from the Exclusive legislative list to the Concurrent legislative list.

Over the years, security and administration of custodial centres have generated debate particularly since the breach of security at the Kuje Maximum Custodial Centre in July 2022.

Issues of dilapidated structures, congestion, the high number of inmates awaiting trial, and other related matters, have been of concern to many.

For decades, custodial centres have witnessed a steady rise in population.

According to the NCoS website, the total inmate population total as of October 23, 2023, is 81,550. The total number of convicted inmates, based on information from the website, is 25,464 while the total number of awaiting trial inmates is 56,086.

Some highlighted the factors responsible for the overcrowding of the custodial centres to include delays in the administration of justice, overuse of prison sentences by judges, over-criminalisation, and lack of adequate resources to build new custodial centres.

Sections 264 to 266 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Lagos State 2015, provides for the process of remand by the magistrates’ court upon application by the police in offences that cannot be tried by the magistrates’.

Speaking on the issue, the Executive Director of Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, Dr Uju Agomoh, stated that many persons in custodial centres should not be there. She said this included petty and minor offenders who should be given non-custodial sentences.

Agomoh, also a lawyer, asked, “Why keep these people in custody while the Federal Government feeds them instead of them being asked to work and pay the fine?”

She harped on the need “to call on the Lagos State chief judge to conduct a jail delivery exercise and to direct the court to apply imprisonment as a last resort. Other criminal justice agencies also need to assist in addressing this problem.

“Imprisonment should be only for those offenders that are high risk and those that need to be taken away from society for a while for their reformation and rehabilitation.

“Overcrowded custodial centres are counterproductive. It is difficult for proper reformation and rehabilitation to take place under such environments.”

Stating that the rejection of inmates falls within the provisions of section 12(4-12) of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act 2019, Agomoh said, “The provisions of Section 12, subsection 4 to 12, state that where the custodial centre has exceeded its capacity, the state controller shall within a period not exceeding one week, notify the (a) Chief Judge of the state (b) Attorney General of the state (c) Prerogative of Mercy Committee (d) state Criminal Justice Committee and (e) any other relevant body.

“Subsection 5 states that with regard to the Federal Capital Territory, the controller shall notify the Attorney General of the Federation and Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory. Subsection 6 says the Controller General of the correctional service shall notify the Attorney General of the Federation and the Chief Justice of Nigeria about the correctional centres in the country.

“Subsection 7 states that upon receipt of the notification referred to in subsection (4) the notified body shall within a period not exceeding three months take necessary steps to rectify overcrowding. Subsection 8 states that without prejudice to subsection (4) the state controller or correctional service in conjunction with the superintendent shall have the power to reject more intakes of inmates where it is apparent that the correctional centre in question is filled to capacity.”

Another lawyer, Festus Ogun, on the recent development of rejection of prospective inmates, stated, “There is a crisis in the judicial sector now and the governor has to declare a state of emergency in the criminal justice sector.”

Ogun added that it is the Federal Government that maintains the Ikoyi and Kirikiri prisons. “It is operated by the Federal Government but you see a situation where Magistrates’ courts and the state High courts belonging to the state government have their inmates kept in this facility is invariably making the facility overtly congested, “Ogun stated.

Ogun questioned, “What will be the fate of a person who has been granted bail but he is unable to perfect his bail? Will he be taken back to the police station when the prison is rejecting prospective inmates or prospective pretrial detainees because there are no spaces in the prison?

“There is a serious danger that I foresee because if they take the people back to the police station what happens to those that are newly arrested? Do our police stations have the facilities to accommodate all of them?”

Speaking on the solution to solve the congested custodial centres, the lawyer said, “I think this is the opportunity that the state government has to fix it, set up, or create its custodial service to accommodate its own prosecutorial detainees and inmates.

“I think the governor has to quickly step in. Let the lawmakers in the state House of Assembly quickly create a law that will make provision for detention centres or custodial service where the inmates will be kept in the interest of the rule of law and human rights and in the interest of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.”

Also speaking on the rejection of inmates due to prison congestion is another lawyer, Adeyemi Abidjo, who argued,” First and foremost I think this issue has to do with the Administration of Criminal Justice system and of course in Nigeria we cannot claim not to have sufficient provisions of the law.

“In fact, in recent times we’ve had to review our laws to conform to best practices of this time and age.”

The real challenge, according to Abidjo, also stems from the police. What’s the attitude of the police in managing crime in society and of course the court system too, I mean the judiciary?

“Even cases that are very civil, that are not even criminal, they bring such cases to the court.

“Unfortunately, the court system too, does not do so much of verification where some of these things stem from and then they keep giving orders to detain people in prison. And over time, and this is not even new. We all know for a fact that the prisons that we have were built for a particular number of people or persons, so to speak,” he said.

Abidjo stressed, “I think this resolution mechanism should be put in place even at the police station. So that issues that are not even necessarily criminal should not get even to the court in the first place.

“At the court level, detention orders have been indiscriminately, been on the rise, especially in the magistrates’. And I think that is the reason behind the recent CJ’s directive which I haven’t read but I have heard that there is a directive to the effect that there shouldn’t be further detention orders taking people back to the prisons.

“We need to do more sensitisation. Even as lawyers, we hold a duty to sensitise the populace and especially the police.The system has been so bastardised that it is from that point that you have the biggest number of people who are detained in prison.”