A Call for Holistic Solutions
The recent decision by the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, to release 4,068 inmates as a strategic move to decongest Nigeria’s correctional centers is a commendable step. However, this should be viewed as the initiation of a broader program aimed at overhauling the prison system, involving the federal and state governments, as well as the judiciary.
The Minister, speaking at the Medium Security Custodial Centre in Kuje, highlighted the dire situation in correctional facilities, with an approximate population of 80,804 inmates surpassing the intended capacity of about 50,000. The release targeted inmates with fines and compensations not exceeding N1 million, primarily aiding indigents unable to settle their dues, granting them a second chance at freedom.
Overpopulation in correctional facilities is a longstanding issue in Nigeria. Data from 2021 revealed that the combined capacity of correctional centers was 50,083 inmates, yet they held 70,056. The World Prison Brief estimated an official capacity of 50,153 and an actual population, including pretrial detainees, at 81,134, reflecting an alarming occupancy rate of 136.7 per cent.
Various factors contribute to this overpopulation crisis.
Arbitrary arrests by the police, slow-paced justice delivery, shortage of judges, and shoddy investigation of criminal cases result in a high number of individuals awaiting trial or judgment. Approximately 70 per cent of Nigeria’s total prison population consists of inmates serving time without being sentenced.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) also point out issues such as the overuse of prison sentences, a challenging bail system, and reluctance from magistrates to grant bail, even for bailable offenses.
Despite the change in nomenclature from ‘Nigerian Prisons Service’ to Nigerian Correctional Service, overcrowding remains a significant obstacle to achieving international standards for the treatment of prisoners, as outlined by the United Nations in 2015. Many prisons, built decades ago, lack modernization and reconstruction to accommodate the growing detainee population. As a result, the primary objective of positively reforming prisoners is often defeated, with many individuals becoming more deeply entangled in criminal activities during and after their time in prison.
To address these systemic challenges, holistic reforms are imperative:
- Devolution of the Prison System: Allowing states to build and manage prisons, as was the practice in the First Republic, can provide a decentralized approach. Private organizations, under strict regulations and oversight, should be permitted to operate correctional facilities. Several countries, including the United States, England, South Africa, Brazil, and Chile, have successfully implemented various degrees of prison privatization.
- Specialized Courts and Speedy Trials: Establishing specialized courts and expanding existing ones can significantly contribute to swift trials and justice delivery. This would help alleviate the backlog of cases that often lead to prolonged stays in pretrial detention.
- Full Implementation of NCS Act 2019: The NCS Act, which empowers state controllers to reject intakes when facilities are full and mandates the separation of custodial and non-custodial sentencing, should be fully implemented. This will ensure a more streamlined and efficient correctional system.
Minister Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo’s commitment to prison decongestion should be sustained, with a vision to leave a lasting legacy of comprehensive prison reform. The urgency for change is evident, and concerted efforts from all stakeholders are crucial to transforming Nigeria’s correctional system into one that genuinely focuses on rehabilitating inmates and steering them away from a life of crime.