Interior minister Rauf Aregbesola says inmates awaiting trial have constituted a huge nuisance to the effective management and operations of prisons and are a security risk.
Mr Aregbesola said this while speaking at a two-day high-level conference on decongestion and corrections management on Thursday in Abuja.
The interior minister admitted that the awaiting trial inmates had also become a serious security threat in the country. According to him, they instigate riots and disrupt the peace of the prison.
The minister said it was imperative to find solutions to the high number of such inmates, who constituted more than 70 per cent of the inmates in all custodial facilities in the country.
He urged participants at the conference to find ways in which the justice system will handle the problem.
“The worst part is that we cannot begin any work of reformation and rehabilitation on them except they willingly choose to be part of our effort,” Mr Aregbesola pointed out.
He added, “This is because they are still deemed innocent, and we cannot assume they are convicts and therefore begin to treat them like one, no matter how well-intentioned we are.”
Mr Aregbesola said apart from the nuisance value and security risk posed by the awaiting trial inmates, they also constitute a huge drain on government finances.
The minister said quick and timely dispensation of justice would help to address the issue.
“If we eliminate half of the awaiting trial population in our facilities, there may not even be congestion again. This is why it has become imperative for the health of the custodial system to urgently address the challenge of awaiting trial inmates that have swamped our facilities,” he explained.
Mr Aregbesola said there should be judicial reform that would cap the trial period, noting that many inmates have been behind bars for a period longer than the maximum sentence they would have served if convicted.
“This is a miscarriage of justice and makes them bitter, angry and predisposed to violence, especially when they believe they are innocent,” he stressed.
The minister urged stakeholders in the criminal justice sector to develop a roadmap for effectively managing the prison population and pre-trial detention.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Olukayode Ariwoola, described the country’s prisons as dilapidated, saying prison congestion contributes to frequent jailbreaks.
He stated that the criminal justice system must reflect contemporary realities.
“In order to enthrone a seamless dispensation of justice, the issue of congestion and reform has always occupied the front burner of discussion,” said Mr Ariwoola. “This has been since the advent of this democratic dispensation, and we have been waiting with bated breath to see the reform truly happen in our lifetime.”
The chief justice noted that “successive governments have lamented but without any viable action or blueprint to ameliorate the unacceptable and inhumane conditions of our prisons.”
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