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The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, has written to the chief judges of states on the ‘urgent’ need to decongest Nigerian prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Muhammad, in a circular dated May 15, said “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,” he wrote.

He drew the attention of the judges 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.”

Mr Muhammad 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.

“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.

“Finally, 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.”

Mr Muhammad’s directive comes weeks after a violent protest by inmates at the Kaduna prison led to the killing of some prisoners by officials.

PREMIUM TIMES reported how the prisoners were demanding their release because of the coronavirus pandemic and also need to ensure other safety measures like regular handwashing are enabled in the prison.

The prison authorities said they are still investigating the incident.

Before the Kaduna prison protest, the attorney-general of the federation, Abubakar Malami, had also spoken on the need to decongest the prisons.

Coronavirus factsheet

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