Rauf Aregbesola, the minister of interior, made a very ambitious promise on October 2019 when he promised that Nigerian prisons, now renamed correctional facilities, would be decongested. Aregbesola made the statement soon after President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Nigeria Correctional Services Act on August 14.

Aregbesola’s statement is ambitious because every government in the last 20 years had instituted one prison reform or the other, with little or no results. With the cooperation of the state governors, Aregbesola will be able to decongest the correctional centres by 50% in line with his ambitious promise in 2019.

Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, SAN, and Rauf Aregbesola, minister of interior, have deployed virtual court sitting technology in correctional facilities which is aimed at ensuring speedy dispensation of justice and decongestion of custodial centres in the country. Malami stated this at the launch of the pilot project for the deployment and use of virtual court sitting facilities at the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja on Monday 6th December, 2021.

Aregbesola said 30% of the inmates in custodial centres across the country should be released. The minister said he would meet with state governors to decide on the mass release of the inmates, adding that 90 percent of them are being held for contravening various states’ laws.

Speaking recently at a NAN forum in Abuja, Aregbesola said over 70% of the 75,635 inmates across the country are awaiting trial. The minister added that the decongestion of the 253 custodial centres nationwide was necessary as some of the inmates have no reason to remain in custody. He called on all the stakeholders to work towards a “better-structured criminal justice administration”.

In the editorial of 31st October, 2019 by the Daily Trust Newspaper, it stated that the Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola made a very ambitious promise on Wednesday last week of the kind that often comes back to haunt top officials. To decongest the correctional centres, Aregbesola is set to adopt the non-custodial correctional template to ensure that not everyone convicted goes to correctional facilities. To this end, there are suspended sentences, community service and other non-custodial sentencing that meets international best practices.

Aregbesola as minister of interior will rely on Section 12(8) which reads thus: “Without prejudice to subsection (4), the State Controller of Correctional Service, in conjunction with the Correctional Centre Superintendent, shall have the power to reject more intakes of inmates where it is apparent that the correctional centre in question is filled to capacity.”
He will oversee the law as it makes a strong case for the use of non-custodial sentencing for minor offenders instead of sending them to already overcrowded jails. The problem of prison congestion in the country is huge. The minister will consider the release which involves those with options 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 correctional centre. Correctional centre reforms, constant supervision of the correctional centres by the minister of interior and allocation of funds for provision of infrastructure to cater for the needs of the Nigerian Correctional Service. The dilapidation state of the Nigeria correctional centres demonstrates a condition that cannot guarantee the reformatory process of the inmates.

Aregbesola is set to introduce technology that can be the critical key to unlocking these alternatives to long-term correctional centre sentencing. In a digital world with ankle bracelets and GPS devices, there is no reason to believe that physical imprisonment is the only option for those convicted of nonviolent offenses. People can be subjected to home confinement with ankle bracelets. They can participate in work release programs that allow them to have jobs, visit family, and shop, subject to time or geographic restrictions.

But beyond the name change, the law has many provisions, which I can describe as laudable and cheering. Rauf Aregbesola as minister of interior will coordinate, as a direct response to the overcrowded correctional centres, the law, in its Section 12 (8), which empowers the state controller of correctional service to reject the intake of additional inmates where the facility under his watch is filled to capacity.

The minister of interior will also supervise the Federal Executive Council (FEC) contract of N2.8 billion for the installation of a digital web-based integrated system to aid correctional centres decongestion in Nigeria. The contract is to improve the country’s justice system and decongest its prisons.

The minister of interior will assist stakeholders in the office of the Attorney-General, Nigeria Prisons Service, Nigeria Police as well as selected courts, to monitor in real-time, the progress of pending cases and movement of suspects between the courts and prisons. It will also allow the monitoring of those who have overstayed their prison terms as well as those wrongly imprisoned.

It would allow the AGF’s office and Ministry of Interior to daily monitor correctional centre inmates that should be taken to court and when; identify those that have stayed for the long awaiting trial; those whose cases have peculiar twists or other interventions that may be required; among other factors. The new system will replace the practice of setting up government committees that usually embark on a tour of prisons to hear individual cases and identify inmates who deserve pardon or prerogative of mercy as part of the efforts to decongest the correctional centres.

The system would be operated by retrained staff of the Nigeria correctional centres, while there would be systemic checks to substantiate the input or data of suspects put into the system to avoid compromise and other forms of corruption.

Globally, millions of people each year come face to face with criminal justice system because they are suspected or accused of crime. Many are arrested and detained at police stations or other law enforcement facilites. Some are released while significant proportions are held in custody pending determination of guilt or innocence and unfortunately some are lost in the system.

To decongest the correctional centres, the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria, no doubt needs review of the administration, procedure and policy of the criminal justice sector. Rauf Aregbesola as minister of interior will identify obstacles in the apprehension and prompt prosecution of offenders, set guidelines for sentencing, observe the rights of accused persons as guaranteed by the constitution, formulate practice direction for prosecutors, and a total revamp of criminal trials with a view to enhancing the speedy dispensation of justice.

_________________________
Inwalomhe Donald, media assistant to Rauf Aregbesola, writes from Abuja via [email protected]