By Ikeugonna Eleke
In this piece, IKEUGONNA ELEKE who visited some prison facilities in Anambra State reports that the facilities are bursting at their seams with awaiting trial inmates, most of whom have over-stayed the term they would have served if they were jailed.
In 2011, a neighbour to this reporter, Emeka Okeke-Ngwu, was among four persons arrested by the police in Awka, around the old Central Bank of Nigeria building in Zik Avenue. There was a robbery along the stretch of road leading to Eke Awka, a popular market in the town, but Emeka was oblivious of this.
He was an apprentice at a local fast food joint in Amawbia and was walking home after the day's business at about 8 p.m. when he was arrested by some policemen, alongside four others.
Of the five, four were able to contact their relatives who coughed out varying sums to get them released on bail, but Emeka could not. His elder brother, Gerald, who was an automobile mechanic, had lost his phone then and there was no way to contact him.
Emeka was declared missing but his brother insisted on not reporting to the police. He feared that doing such might not help find Emeka, but rather lead to expenses. But what no one knew was that Emeka had been moved from a police cell, charged to court, booked to stand trial and already languishing in Awka Prisons, while awaiting trial.
There are many like Emeka who today are languishing in most prisons across Nigeria today. Some of them still don't know the reason for their continued detention while the ones who do have patiently been awaiting justice to be served on them to no avail.
Most have no hope of going to court, just as they do not also know what the future holds in stock for them as their matter have become a forgotten one as they also do not have legal representation. They just live each day in the prison, hoping that by a stroke of luck, something would happen, and they would be freed.
This reporter, who was allowed access into the prison yard in his capacity as a member of a non-governmental organization, was on a mission to assess the prison in the hope of finding out the number of awaiting trial inmates in it, in comparison with the actual capacity of the prison, and also to ascertain how they lived.
On the notice board, Fides found out that the net capacity of the prison was 326 inmates.
Contrary to the capacity of the prison, the facility houses a total of 1,179 inmates as was indicated on the prison's notice board, just by the duty gate. This is a little over three times the stipulated capacity of the prison, but what was more worrisome is that the number of awaiting trial inmates stood at 1,033 as could be seen on the board. A prison source told this reporter that most times, the figure could be higher, but alleged that the prisons statisticians deliberately posted lower figures for visitors to see, thereby hiding the plight of the inmates.
What the 1,033 total of inmates posted on the board meant was that, save the high number of awaiting trial inmates, the prison would have just 146 convicted inmates, and only then would the dream of the prison as a reformatory centre have been maximally achieved.
Face to face with landlords of prisons
From Onitsha, this reporter visited Aguata Prison in Ekwulobia, Aguata Local Government Area, where he found the case not to be any different. While the capacity of the prison is just 80, the facility had as much as 204 inmates, with a whopping 165 of them being awaiting trial inmates as registered on the board.
In the Awka facility, this reporter's entry into the prison coincided with the visit of the presidential committee on prisons decongestion led by Justice Ishaq Bello.
Asides being filled to its brim like the others, inmates awaiting trial for years are trademarks of Awka Prison. Some have stayed as much as eight years without venturing out to court to stand trial. Inmates like this have simply resigned their fates to the hands of their creator as they languish in jail, despite having not been ascertained to be guilty.
While the prison has a capacity for 238 inmates, it houses a total of 499 inmates as at the time of the visit. This number is a little over twice the capacity. While 427 of the inmates were awaiting trial inmates, only 68 were convicted, while four were on a life sentence.
In the three prisons in Awka, with a net capacity of 644 inmates, it was surprising to note that contrary to that, the three prisons house 1,882 inmates, which is an excess of 1,238 inmates. The case in Anambra may not be different from prisons across the country, and these leave inmates crammed in their cells.
But the Public Relations Officer of the prisons said the authorities tried to separate the inmates with marked cells, such that those among the awaiting trial inmates standing trial for felonious offences did not mingle with those who were in prison for simple offences.
He added that as for the female inmates, there was a prison inside the prison where they were kept, and such areas were a no go area for even male prison wardens.
One similarity in all the prisons visited was that upon accessing the facility, inmates who were crammed in marked cells always struggled to peep from the bars to catch a glimpse of the visitor.
A prison warder told this reporter casually that the reason for this was that it always excited them to see someone from the outside world visiting.
Awka's Prisons visit and the long stay was an opportunity to feel the pulse of the inmates. One of the inmates in Awka Prisons, Apollos Uzoka, complained about the quality and quantity of food.
But this was quashed by a spokesman of Awka Prisons who conducted Fides round the prison facilities during which the inmates were seen in close quarters. They all looked healthy and cheerful; a development the prison official said was an indication of their good feeding and welfare.
Settling down to work, Bello's committee announced that it had the task of considering the release of inmates on three challenges, including age, inability to meet options of fines imposed and cases of ill-health that were beyond the capacity of the welfare departments of the prison to handle. Beyond this, the committee went further to treat cases of inmates who had been in prison for years without going to court because of one problem or the other.
One thing that stood for the inmates is that while most of them had no legal representation, others had their cases before magistrates who simply adjourned them sine die, or discontinued them for lacking the jurisdiction to handle them, while leaving them in prison in perpetuity.
A good example of this is the case of one Chijioke Udo, a 36 year old man who was arrested for kidnapping and was charged to a Magistrate Court in Oraukwu, Anaocha Local government area, but has remained in prison for seven years since after his last visit in court in 2012.
Fides gathered that this was because the Magistrate had adjourned his trial sine die because he did not have jurisdiction over it, and Chijioke had remained in prison since then, being without any legal representation to move a motion in High Court for the continuation of his matter.
A visibly enraged Justice Bello spoke up after documents of about 50 inmates who were said to be mentally unstable were tendered before him to consider their release on the ground of ill-health and wondered where they would go to upon release. He said releasing them was enough to cause them to have Psychosis.
A medical doctor, Dr Uchenna Akor, however told Fides that Psychosis was a condition that affected the way a person's brain processed information, causing one to lose touch with reality.
For the inmates, Akor said trauma could be responsible, but added that doctors could recommend coordinated specialty care (CSC), a team approach to treating schizophrenia when the first symptoms appear.
'It combines medicine and therapy with social services and work and education support,' he explained.
Prisons officials offer explanation to their plight
For the awaiting trial inmates who had no legal representation, Bello insisted that justice must take its full course. He prevailed on the Chief Judge of Anambra State, Justice Ijeoma Onwuamaegbu, who was also at the event, to ensure that lawyers from the state Legal Aid Council were assigned to the inmates to ensure that their matters progressed.
Briefing journalists on his visit, Bello said they had been able to set free seven inmates in Anambra facilities. He however said a very disturbing aspect was the inmates staying up to eight years in prison without going to court, thus injuring their health and exposing them to Psychosis.
He said they were working with the Attorney General, the Chief Judge of Anambra and the Legal Aid Council, to get lawyers and for their matters to leave the Magistrate Courts for High Courts for speedy trial.'
Justice Bello blamed prison officials for the high number of awaiting trial inmates who have been dumped in prison without a return date to the court. He told prisons officials who took inmates to court to always insist that inmates got a return date to court anytime they appeared in court before taking them back.
The Public Relations Officer of the Anambra Prisons Service, Mr Francis Ekezie, speaking for the Comptroller of Prisons, Mr Emmanuel Arukeze, during a visit to his office, said there were three arms of the criminal justice system.
'The police arrest, judiciary commits to jail and the prisons remand the suspect. Nigeria Prisons cannot accept an inmate without a valid warrant. So when you find faults in the system, you cannot just point fingers to the prisons, or the police or the judiciary, it is a holistic thing, and each sector complements the other,' he said.
On why most of the inmates stayed as much as eight years without going to court, Ekezie said their job was to keep the inmates in prison.
'We do not also keep the inmates, except the court issues a valid warrant, and once we have that, our job is to keep them. We are not happy to keep these people too; that is why once the court also orders their release, we release them accordingly. This is because we have a constraint of space in our facilities,' he submitted.
Speaking on why most awaiting trial inmates had remained in prison, even though the prisons authorities knew that the magistrates had adjourned their matter sine die, and that the inmates had no legal representative to move a motion in the High Court for the continuation of their trial, Ekezie said it was mostly the problem some of the awaiting trial inmates had that made them to stay so long.
'This is through Holden charges where a matter is brought before a Magistrate who clearly has no jurisdiction over the matter, and the Magistrate after some time, simply says the matter cannot go on in his or her court because they have no jurisdiction over it, until a motion is brought before a higher court before the hearing can continue.
'Adjournment of case sine die is also another way a magistrate tells you that he is not ready to have a matter continue in his court, and it is now the job of the counsel to the suspect to take the case to a higher court, but unfortunately, most of the suspects do not have legal representation, and it is not our job to provide them legal representation. Our job is to keep them, and to also provide them in court when they are needed,' he said.
On how the inmates are fed, Ekezie said that was no problem as demands from contractors were placed depending on the number of inmates at that particular time. He said the number was usually not steady, but that demands were made depending on the number. He however lamented that the plights of awaiting trial inmates were made worse by the fact that despite their long stay in prison, they never acquired skills or enrolled for any formal education.
'The prison is a reformatory place, but for these awaiting trial inmates, we do not enroll them for any skill or even higher education because it is believed that they can leave any day. If there were convicted, you can check the duration of their stay and guess that they can register and sit for exams, but for awaiting trial, they can go to court one day and be freed, so they are usually not considered for such schemes,' he said.
Police officials offer explanation to their plight
Also speaking on what the police are doing to curtail the number of awaiting trial inmates in prisons, the spokesperson of Anambra State Police Command, SP Haruna Mohammed, absolved the command of blames. He rather stated that the technicalities in the justice sector contribute largely to the slow dispensation of justice, leading to the dumping of suspects in prison to await trial for a very long time.
He listed the various forms of offences which suspects involved in to include; felony, misdemeanor and simple offences. He said simple offences were bailable, and most times never charged to court, but for cases of felony, like rape, murder, kidnapping and robbing with arms and others, the police upon arrest of suspects ensured that they were charged to court.
Investigations however revealed that while lack of legal representation for most inmates caused the delay and long stay of the inmates in court, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria in Anambra State was grossly understaffed.
A source who begged not to be named, said the council in Anambra only had two lawyers in its employ, while hundreds of inmates in various prisons in Anambra were in need of lawyers for their cases to proceed.
But a staff of the Council in Anambra who was identified as the coordinator of the Anambra Office, but refused to be named debunked it.
On what the council had been doing, the Lawyer said he was not authorized to speak about it but said that they were doing a lot.
Fides gathered that another major cog in the wheel of decongesting the prisons of awaiting trial inmates was the seeming non-functionality of the Administration of Criminal Justice Reform Team which a prison source also said had failed in their duty of regularly visiting prisons to help free inmates who were in prison for simple offences that were not worth all the time in court.
A lawyer, Barr Uchenna Aleke, said the problem of high number of awaiting trial inmates and their long stay in prison had remained very worrisome. He said he saw no difference between what was obtainable before the cry for the reform of the criminal justice sector and now. I can say the Nigerian factor may be responsible for this because the ACJR was fashioned after other countries where it worked, even as he wondered why Nigeria's case different.
As the sectors continue to work hard to ensure speedy justice, and also absolve themselves of blame for the rot in the administration of criminal justice, inmates will continue to tell sad stories if they ever make it out of prison sane and in good health like Emeka Okeke Ngwu.
Fides traced Ngwu to Onitsha where he is now a metal fabricator and he said his experience in prison was something he would never forget.
On how he was able to make it out after two months in prison, Ngwu said, 'After a very long stay in prison, I was taken to court one morning, and that was in Amawbia. The magistrate looked at me after my charges were read, and by then I was already crying. I was so lean because I had not been eating well, and had also not been sleeping well in prison, and no one knew where I was.
'I thank God for that Magistrate because she looked at me and insisted that the police authorities should go and look for my relatives to take me on bail. I think that was what they said, and since Gerald's number was not going, the prison officials had to lead me to our compound that morning when you people saw me and that what how I was released,' he narrated.
Until a lasting solution is found, most awaiting trial inmates may continue to languish in prison as they await trial forever, a trial which may never come until a total and workable reform is carried out in the criminal justice sector.
This investigative report was supported by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).