Prisons are public correctional institutions established by government where inmates — both suspects and convicts — are detained.
Concerned citizens observe that over the years, the situation in Nigerian prison cells across the country has become miserable where many inmates who are awaiting trial languish.
They observe that some of the inmates have even spent more years in prison than the actual years required if they had been convicted.
But Justice Ishaq Bello, chairman, Presidential Committee on Prisons Reform, observes that apart from this, inmates with psychiatric problem create more challenges of congestion in the prisons because there are no psychiatric hospitals close to prison formations.
“Some inmates went to the prisons with the sickness but a lot of them developed it in the prisons such as we saw in Delta and Edo States where quite a number of them have developed psychosis in the prisons.
“The prisons authority has to continue to manage these persons and the authority could not help them to get out of the prisons.
“We believe the government that established the committee is responsive enough and it is very anxious to act towards addressing the challenges,’’ he says.
According to Bello, Kaduna State is the 15th state so far covered by the committee and the government is making arrangement towards facilitating the committee’s movement to other states.
“The committee’s movement is dictated by the data provided from the prisons headquarters across the states.
“If there is serious problem of congestion, we get the statistics and then we move to that state, so, is not a question of just having to go out and move all over places,’’ he explains.
The chairman states that the essence of the visit to prisons is to ensure that nobody is unnecessarily detained and to ensure that processes of trial are fast.
He says: “This is programme which simulates a lot of interest globally so much so that some people around the world are indicating interest to visit Nigeria and tap knowledge from the various prison formations’ skills acquisition centres.
“Within Nigeria, there are some individuals who have decided, having seen the genuineness of the programme, that have decided to make personal donations either in terms of money or materials to enhance the programme of skills acquisition within our prisons.”
The chairman also appeals to government to consider the possibility of providing job opportunities to the reformed inmates.
“These inmates, especially those who dedicated their time to learn and master the computers, if they are not gainfully employed they will be more dangerous to the society,’’ he observes.
To decongest the prisons, he announced that no fewer than 5,000 inmates have been released in 15 states visited so far.
“The release involves those with option of fines, age factor, ill-health and by reasons of certain errors in their cases.
“For instance, where somebody has been awaiting trial well beyond the imprisonment terms if he were convicted, you will find out that we have no reason to allow such a person to stay in prison.
“We met a lot of people with psychiatric issues; we were able to release them upon getting satisfied that we could entrust them to the hands of their relations or persons that genuinely indicated interest to take them up.
“For others in such category, for their own safety, the committee allows them to remain in prison cells, especially with the rampant cases of ritual killings and human trafficking,’’ he says.
According to him, the greatest challenge of the committee is its inability to get them out of prisons while the situation is worsened by absence of psychiatric hospitals close to the prison formations.
Bello, therefore, solicits the establishment of well equipped psychiatric hospitals close to prison formations to minimise the challenge.
He observes further that a situation where judges grant orders for remand without bothering to state a return date so much so that the person remains detained in prisons for years is worrisome.
He recalls that on October 2017, the Federal Government constituted a committee to develop a strategy for the deployment of technology for the decongestion of prisons in Nigeria and the implementation of Virtual Automated Case Management System.
According to him, the committee is to advise the government on periodic visits to prison cells for effective monitoring of the programme.
He notes that if other mandates of the committee — to liaise with relevant government agencies on the progress of prison decongestion programme and organise national summit on prisons reform and decongestion in Nigeria are effective — prisons across the country will be reformed for effectiveness.
Lawal writes for News Agency of Nigeria.