If the revelation by the Comptroller of prisons in Lagos state, Mr. Abayomi Oguntuase , on  PMNEWS Editorial of Tuesday  August 24, 2010 that prisons in the state were congested is something to go by, then a strong appeal is hereby made to the Lagos State Government to act now and fast about this serious issue.

To me this did not come as a surprise, but what baffles me is that up till now, government has not done anything about it.  Recently, Lagos State Government came out with a decision that magistrate’s courts should start sitting on Saturdays.  This decision, though a very good move, can only help to decongest cases in courts and not to decongest prisons. In fact, it only helps to prevent suspects from being detained for more than 24 hours by the police.

Our prison is a place where human beings are held in appalling conditions. Many of the suspects have been awaiting trial for years, shockingly! In few cases, their case files are missing. The resulting health risks to these detainees are immense. Our prisons are overcrowded and not hygienic. Many detainees suffer serious illnesses and are often not treated. Our prisons are always in excess of 120 detainees in cells design for 20 detainees. The appall condition breeds terrible illnesses such as tuberculosis, etc., leading to death in some cases.

Even though the conditions of those on death row are harsh, they are often better than those endured by detainees awaiting trial. Most deaths in custody are caused by the inhuman conditions rather than ill-treatment by warders. Our prison yard is a place where innocent youths often come into contact with hardened criminals who pull them deeper into criminality. The question now is , what led to this development? Corruption. This is a country where politicians create opportunities for corruption.

It has become an accepted practice in Nigeria for everything to go wrong, with nothing happening to those tasked with ensuring that things are done properly. (Read P.M.NEWS of  Monday 10th  of may, 2010. page 4, titled CORRUPTION: THE DANGERS AHEAD, by Dr.Paul Udensi Egbulam).

Congestions in our prisons are caused by the following agencies: Police, DPP (Directorate of Public Prosecution) in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, and the judiciary.

(1) POLICE : When a person heads and controls a deeply corrupt institution, I find it difficult to perceive any logic in the justification of his/her isolation from that corrupt institution over which he/she presides.

Police force is an important arm of government. This country can do without the army, but not without the police force. To ensure improved service delivery, there must be wide-ranging restructuring and reforms especially in the area of officers and men, if police must be salvaged and brought back on track. This is necessary because police force presently is seriously sick and requires a surgical operation. The decadence in the system is deeply rooted. As at now, police rank so low in the estimation of the public that not much is expected of them in terms of honour and integrity.

Some police officers also enforce a pervasive system of  “returns” in which other junior officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command, share of the money extorted from the public through indiscriminate arrests and unlawful detention, and where an individual cannot pay the bribe demanded from them, they are charged to court on trumped up charges, some as grave as armed robbery.

A typical example is case of Imam Mogaji who refused to pay Homicide Dept of Panti State CID a bribe of N00,000. Due to his refusal to pay, he was arraigned at Ebute Metta magistrate’s court on holden charge for murder. He spent nine months in prison custody before he was finally released based on DPP advice. (Read Compass newspaper of Saturday, August 14, 2010. page 42). I believe the people in authority read this news and nothing happened. Can you imagine?

There are so many sharp practices by the policemen as revealed by Akin Oladipo-Agbe, the national president of Civil Rights Liberty Organisation (CRLO) in P.M.NEWS of Thursday 29th of Oct, 2009, page 10.

(2). DPP (Directorate of Public Prosecution): The delay in the issuance of legal advice by DPP contributed significantly to the extremely high rates of individuals in Lagos prisons who have not been formally charged, a situation which can endure for a decade and beyond. It is an insidious but pervasive practice which shields police inefficiency and severely punishes many innocent persons.

Ikeja branch of Bar Association made a remark about the DPP (read Compass newspaper of February 13, 2010 page 7) when the director  was among the lists of nominees for the post of high court judges by the State government. Their comments are as follows: Mrs Olabisi Olasubomi Ogungbesan, DPP in the state and ordinarily ought to qualify for appointment as a judge. However, the following facts should be noted:

(a)    That under her, the office of the DPP is tardy in the issuance of legal advice even where suspects are in prison custody for years.

(b) That she projects a weak and almost colourless personality in her prosecutorial duties in the court. In their opinion they believe that, if placed on the bench, she would be a slow and easily intimidated and wrongfully influenced judge.

I am of the opinion that, a system review exercise is urgently needed at the DPP. The exercise should sanitise the system by detecting and correcting problems and practices that are likely to encourage and facilitate corruption by plugging the extant systemic and institutional loopholes that seem to make corruption a pastime of sort in the ministry of justice.

As a matter of concern, priority and ultimatum should  be explicitly stated in any case referred to DPP; where the suspect(s) are in prison custody, the case file should be reviewed and the legal advice be issued within 50 days. Though 50 days is far too long, this will constitute a vast improvement.

(3) JUDICIARY: The judiciary cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the unconscionable amount of time taken to resolve serious criminal charges, considering the adjournment handed out with reckless abandon.

Despite repeated government pledges to address the problems in the criminal justice system, little progress has been made. The judiciary knows the type of police we have in this country. Police consistently resort to shortcut by taking suspects before a magistrate who remands them indefinitely without formal charges while the police conduct their investigation. The result of this “holden charges” is that individuals can be jailed more or less indefinitely in a legal limbo based on little more than suspicion of criminal activity, not supported by any evidence. This practice continues. It has contributed significantly to the extremely high number of suspects in prison custody.

Another factor that is also responsible is the issue of bail condition. Magistrates or judges are fond of this scandalous practice of reeling out outlandish bail conditions. Bail should not be imposed as to render the process nugatory. A situation where bail is given with a right hand and taken away immediately with left hand ceases to be a judicial and judicious exercise of discretion.

The accused person in this case is presumed guilty until proved innocent.

Some of the magistrates are not deserving of any cloak of respectability or integrity which the government office confers on them. I wonder why in a case of assault or conduct likely to cause breach of the peace, magistrates will be asking for a surety who must be a civil servant of certain level like level 10, 12, 14 , like  verification of surety’s address, which gives the police a chance to demand for at least N10,000. This is another factor that causes prison congestion. Suspects are just taken to prison custody and dumped there pending the verification of the address of the surety.

Another problem is that the surety must be resident in the magisterial district. These are conditions responsible for the corrupt practices in our courts. At times the court clerk or registrar will do the variation for you, if you can pay the amount demanded.

Another problem in the magistrate’s court is that, where the surety meets all the requirement and you refused to pay the court clerk or registrar, it is either the registrar or the clerk that will delay the submission of your papers to the magistrate and allow the magistrate to leave, then you will have to come back the next working day while the suspects will be taken to prison custody, or the court clerk or registrar will go into the chambers and tell the magistrate some negative stories about you, thereafter the magistrate will not approved you as surety;  or at times you are introduced or forced to go and get professional ‘bails man’ who is well known to the clerk and to your surprise, the bail will be approved.

Can anyone tell me that all this nonsense is not with the consent of the magistrates?  There is need to set up an office in every court where complaints can be made either to ICPC or any other responsible senior officer. ICPC should start monitoring all courts, then Nigerians will know what I am talking about.

To decongest our prisons, the following suggestions are hereby recommended:
1.    State Chief Judge should be highly conscientious in carrying out regular visits with a view to ordering the release of those held longer than their alleged crimes could possibly warrant if found guilty in the first place.
2.    To resolve that any detainee held for more than four years without trials should be entitled to an immediate court appearance and benefit from a presumption that he or she should be released.
3.    Any detainee whose hearing is adjourned more than five times should benefit from the presumption of release.
4.    Cases like assault, or conduct likely to cause the breach of the peace, should be given hearing from day one they are brought to court in order to determine whether there are enough facts to proceed with the trials or else the case should be struck out. Some of these types of cases constitute to an abuse of court process by the police.

•Prince writes from Lagos. He can be reached on 08023163949