The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Muhammad has directed all Chief Judges (both at the federal and state levels) to urgently take steps to decongest prisons across the country, in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Justice Muhammad, in a circular issued on Friday, in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC), directed the Chief Judges to ensure that criminal cases were speedily attended to, while they are also required to visit prisons within their jurisdictions.
The CJN, who regretted the large number of awaiting trial inmates in prisons, said: “it has become imperative for your lordships to embark on immediate visit to all custodial/correctional centres within your respective states to identify and release deserving inmates, where that has not been done already.”
In the circular marked: NJC/9-3/:+9/II/662, the CJN added: “I wish to draw your lordships attention to the need to take urgent measures towards the speedy trial of cases and decongestion of custodial centres in the country in view of COVID-19 pandemic.
“Recently, the United Nations called on countries of the world to consciously reduce the population of prison inmates since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.
”From available records, the inmates population at various custodial centres across the country presently stands at about 74,127 out of which 52,226 are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs).
“Most of these custodial centres are presently housing inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and the public in general in view of the present circumstances, hence the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control.
“Considering the above, it has become imperative for your lordships to embark on immediate visit to all custodial/correctional centres within your respective states to identify and release deserving inmates, where that has not been done already.
“During the requested visit, the Chief Judges are enjoined to consider conditional or unconditional release of Awaiting Trial Persons who have spent 6 years or more in custody.
“ATPs who have no confirmed criminal cases against them, aged inmates and terminally ill may be discharged. It is expected that particular attention should be on the aged, those with health issues, low risk offenders, those with no sufficient legal basis to remain in custody, inmates convicted for minor offences with or without option of fines and inmates who have less than 3 years term left to serve having served a substantial term of their service for offences that attract 5 years and above.
“Payment of fines may be made in favour of inmates convicted of lesser offences with option of fine, who are in custody because of their inability to pay such fines.
“The list of deserving inmates as provided by the Correctional Service Formations across the Country with above criteria is hereby attached for your guidance.
”A report on the proposed visits is required to be forwarded to me for compilation and onward transmission to Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat, Federal Ministry of Justice, Abuja.
“There is the need to ensure that your lordships direct lower courts to comply with requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/law in issuing remand warrants in criminal cases especially in cases which are not within their jurisdiction.
“This will regulate the volume of entry of awaiting trial inmates into custodial centres.”