Across the globe, penal institutions have embarked on swift decongestion of custodial centres with the intention of curtailing the wide spread of Covid-19.
The Nigerian government has been closely monitoring the developments and listening to various kinds of advice after the Covid-19 outbreak, and taking some preventive measures. However, in line with the best global practices, the Federal Ministry of Interior under the leadership of the Minister, Ogbeni Rauf Adesoji Aregbesola, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Interior, the Controller General, Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) and the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, exceptional decisions to swiftly decongest custodial centres in the midst of the ravaging pandemic have been taken. The focus of the Nigerian government and NCS is rightly on the best response to Covid-19 which will mitigate the suffering of inmates while in custody.
2- Inmates and correctional staff are at risk of contracting Covid-19, thus risk contributing to the spread of the disease within custodial centres across the country. Custodial centres in Nigeria are known to be congested and a recent tweet by the official twitter handle of the Federal Ministry of Interior (March, 2020) revealed shocking details of inmates in custodial centres across the country. It is stated that Nigeria has a total of 244 custodial centres, 139 of which are main custodial centres and 85 as satellite centres with a total of 74,127 inmates, among which 1,450 are females, 21,901 convicted and 52,226 Awaiting Trial Inmates. However, according to the NCS through its Public Relations Officer, DCC Austin Njoku, 3,571 inmates which include convicts as well as Awaiting Trial Inmates were released by various state Chief Judges. A breakdown of the release reveals that 2,740 are convicts and 1,011 are Awaiting Trial Inmates. It further reveals that the process of custodial centre decongestion is ongoing.
3- The process of decongestion was done with a lot of scrutiny and also ensuring that national security is not compromised as priority was given to the elderly, terminally ill inmates, low risk offenders and other categories of inmates who had less than three years left to the expiration of their incarceration term. What is worrisome is that some inmates who were granted pardon can possibly return to crime as some may have not fully undergone rehabilitation process, while some may be recidivist (repeated offenders). Thus, the good gesture by the Nigerian government is in line with the best international practices by penal institutions across the globe. Some inmates swiftly regained freedom but the possibility of abstaining from crime-related activities is not guaranteed.
4- One question now is if NCS has embarked on post-release supervision for all the categories of the released inmates. Although the said supervision may have no discernible impact on reoffending, it is imperative that the NCS should do so. Failure to do so implies that released inmates could be idle, jobless and the option left is to establish existing relationship with yet -to- be-known and apprehended criminals to commit more crimes. Thus, national security could face a threat or be compromised in the process. Furthermore, inmates should be released under restrictive measures with possible implementation of post-release supervision of the correctional officials. This may have immense value on inmates and reduce possibility of re-offending among convicted inmates. The above strategy can assist in diverting the minds of released inmates from crime-related activities.
5- Also, it is unknown if the NCS has made available menial jobs for the released inmates which can serve as after care services or the released inmates are left wondering around with no means of livelihood. With the current state of insecurity in the country due to nefarious acts of banditry, kidnapping, among others, which is seen as profitable currently in the country, released inmates (recidivist) who may have committed part one crimes (e.g Murder) and other categories of released inmates that swiftly regained freedom simply because they had less than three years to the termination of their jail term, which ordinarily would have stayed longer in custody and may guarantee a complete rehabilitation process and their imminent release from custodial centres, may not be a threat to national security.
6- For instance, instead of releasing inmates who may have committed serious crimes despite having less than three years to the expiration of their incarceration term, such inmates can be transferred to other custodial centres within the country with an objective of preserving national security. For example, the NCS report in Jigawa State Command reveals that Hadejia custodial centre has an official capacity of 640, with a final lock-up of 229 as at 14/03/2020, with 227 males and 2 females. Thus, this suggests that the facility is under-utilised. Instead of releasing some inmates that may be a threat to existing national security, such inmates can be transferred to such facility mentioned above.
7- Furthermore, the suspension of family visits since March 2020 due to the pandemic may have placed inmates on immense strain which can trigger possible jail break in custodial centres perpetrated by some deviant inmates. The attempted jail break in Kaduna custodial centre which led to the death of four inmates is rumoured to have been caused by some selected condemned inmates who were unhappy that the said custodial centre was decongested due to possible spread of Covid-19, while other categories of convicted inmates were anxious to get such a pardon. What would have happened if the inmates had succeeded in forcefully regaining freedom? A possible threat to national security is imminent.
8- Thus, for the benefit of doubt, I wish to formally state that I am not against the decongestion of custodial centres due to the possible spread of Covid-19; my emphasis was based on the implementation of post-release supervision by the NCS which can distract, discourage or deter released inmates from aligning with criminals for the perpetration of crime. For this reason, national security can be preserved.
9- Thus, I strongly recommend that additional efforts be made in ensuring that released inmates be placed on community supervision and that the NCS should ensure that the strategy is well implemented. This can further assist the NCS in diverting the mind of released inmates from crime-related activities, and can address the problem of idleness upon regaining freedom and recidivism amongst all categories of released inmates. The above strategy can also reduce high rate of crime and incarceration in the country.
10-Finally, I wish to congratulate the Minister on the recent commissioning of newly procured operational vehicles for the NCS.
Dr. Sadiq Ewaoda Amali, Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Federal University Dutse, Jigawa State.