As at January 2013, there were 52,904 prisoners in Nigeria, with only 16,103 as convicts. The remaining 60% are awaiting trial prisoners, who are awaiting decision on their matters, or for their trial to commence.
This is no news in Nigeria. The news is that; some of these awaiting trial prisoners spend as much as 11 years awaiting trial. Most exhaust the time they would have spent if found guilty, awaiting trial.
More alarming is that even when they are released for want of evidence after several years, no compensation is made or paid out.
Lawyers Alert owing to the above situation made efforts at resolving this using Benue State as a pilot, particularly the Makurdi Federal Prisons.
Our first attempt was to visit the prison and carry out a census of all awaiting trial inmates that were unrepresented by Lawyers and/or could not afford Lawyers. 70% of the inmates were awaiting trial prisoners and about 518 had no Lawyers representing them after spending average of 2 years awaiting trial.
We thereafter began offering free legal assistance to these prisoners, securing bail for about 113 in a year.
While this was a feat, we knew our efforts still fell very short, it was a vicious cycle, as we took prisoners out, more came in, and Lawyers Alert was easily overwhelmed.
This method was not sustainable and certainly cannot resolve the issue, was the realization.
It was at this point, we carried out a study on what exactly are the issues. For the purpose of this write up, we will not go into the reasons, except to say that the reasons exhibited a cardinal lesson.
Lesson is, there cannot be a sustainable, lasting, and result oriented resolution of awaiting trial prisoners in Nigeria without the involvement of all the sectors of the Criminal Justice Sector.
These sectors are the Police, who make the arrest, the Solicitor-General office, that proffer the charges and prosecute, the Courts that conduct trial and the Prison that keeps the inmates. Healthy additions are the Justice Sector NGOs.
A viable solution would mean, these sectors coming together to discuss the situation and find a holistic approach.
This Lawyers Alert did for Benue State with the kind Assistance of the Norwegian Human Rights Fund.
The stakeholders came together to discuss prisoners rights and how it is violated at every point. (We had posted a detailed report, see the archives).
The Criminal Justice Sector Agencies in Benue thereafter began a process of networking and working harmoniously to ensure prisoners were not unduly kept in detention in prison while awaiting trial.
In less than three months they had achieved the success we registered in over a year of giving just Legal Assistance.
The agencies discussed together in Bimonthly meetings and assistance rendered where necessary. For example when the Solicitor General complained of lack of power (electricity) so as to generate prompt Legal Advice, Lawyers Alert donated a Generator to alleviate the problem. This was made possible by networking and sharing of challenges.
When the Prisons complained of lack of vehicles in conveying prisoners to Court, Lawyers Alert under the Access to Justice Programme of the British Council (we were the focal organization in Benue) facilitated the delivery of Buses to the Makurdi Federal Prisons.
It is worthy to note that years after the inception of these inter- sectoral meetings, the Chief Judge of the State, impressed by it, created a formal institution named State Justice Reform Committee that now includes all stakeholders.
Today Makurdi Federal Prison is the only Prison in Nigeria with the least percentage of awaiting trial prisoners in proportion percentage with convicts.
We believe this model can be replicated in other jurisdictions.
Unfortunately, most States Justice Sector, including the Federal Ministry of Justice is so taken in by the lone, though commendable effort of legal assistance. This will not solve the situation unfortunately.
Prisoners rights are human rights after all