COVID-19: Lawyers Alert to drag govt to court over poor, slow pace of prison decongestion

By Olawale Oyegbade, The Nigerian Voice, S/W Bureau Chief

A Civil Society organization in Nigeria, Lawyers Alert has threatened to institute legal action over the poor and slow pace of the implementation of Federal Government's policy on decongestion of prisons in the country as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID19 among the inmates.

Lawyers Alert in a press statement signed by its Director, Legal Mr Bamidele Jacobs expressed concern over the manner Federal and State government are going about the implementation.

Bamidele who is also the Head of its Prisons Decongestion Monitoring Team noted that the Federal Government’s list of initial 2,600 prisoners released did not follow its own guidelines as some beneficiaries were products of political considerations.

"Any further lack of progress by all concerned within 7 days will compel our monitors and members across the 36 states of the federation to institute actions in courts with a view to having inmates, who have met the guidelines freed as set by the federal government", Bamidele said.

As part of moves to prevent the spread of COVID19 into the correctional centers in the country and to ensure social distancing among the inmates in the congested facilities, President Muhammodu Buhari approved the decongestion of Nigeria Correctional Service Centres and asked state governors to do the same.

This prompted civil society groups including Lawyers Alert to set up monitoring teams to ensure that the policy was implemented objectively and achieve the desire goal.

Lawyers Alert noted that the categories of inmates to benefit from the exercise include those convicted for or standing trail for minor or petty offences, inmates whose terms are almost over and those on holding charge and that this categories are over 75% of inmates in Nigeria prisons.

"Our monitors are engaging the various state governments through the Attorney Generals. In show of transparency, some state governments have invited Lawyers Alert to join teams set up to decongest the prisons as an observer.

Lawyers Alert noted that the federal government pace concerning the implementation of the policy did not match the urgency of the situation.

Bamidele frowned that it took the Federal Attorney General almost three weeks to communicate state Attorneys General of the directive to decongest prisons.

Lawyers Alert also expressed worry that state governments are moving at an unbelievably slow pace, saying about 15 out of the 36 states releases the prisoners, 8 weeks after the initiative was announced.

According to the statement: "The releases of those inmates, though commendable, still leave a lot to be desired. Indeed, what has been achieved so far can be described as an appearance of addressing the issue and certainly not any genuine effort towards solving the problem."

"In a country with over 52, 000 Awaiting Trial Inmates (ATIs) in centres across the country, and with a number of total inmates that is about three times their original capacity, the need to genuinely and drastically decongest our custodial centres cannot be overemphasized, given COVID-19 pandemic."

"State governments appear to be making a caricature of the whole exercise in view of the numbers released. Ebonyi state, for example released 33, Zamfara state 18 and Osun State 34."

"This can hardly be said to be decongestion, where about 52,000 are innocently in jail, awaiting trial, with 70% of these being for petty offenses."

"Lawyers Alert is concerned that the noble act of decongesting prisons owing to COVID-19 is gradually losing its objective and maybe seen as scoring political points. Sadly, the deadly Coronavirus is literally shutting down activities all over the world, with numbers steadily rising in Nigeria."

"Lawyers Alert monitoring team is sufficiently concerned and worried by the inordinate delays in complying with the policy of the federal government, the very low numbers of inmates being released by the states, the continued detention of person incarcerated for petty offences, the of the process and by the failure to comply with the federal government’s directives and guidelines wholesomely."

"The above constitute abuse of the rights to health and life of the inmates who fall into the guidelines as set, but are still being held."

"Lawyers Alert believes that this is the proper and reasonable thing to do given that this pandemic invariably compromises the right to health and life of the inmates. It should be noted that most of these inmates are awaiting trial. Awaiting trial means they are yet to be convicted, and by our laws such ones are presumed innocent."

Bamidele assured that Lawyers Alert will continue to promote human rights and provision of free legal services to vulnerable groups and indigent persons.