The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, on Friday, ordered the Chief Judges of the judiciaries of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory to take urgent steps towards ensuring speedy trial in criminal cases and prison decongestion.
He urged them to, for instance, “consider conditional or unconditional release of Awaiting Trial Persons who have spent 6 years or more in custody.”
The CJN, in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council, gave this directive in a memo with reference number, NJC/CIR/HOC/II/662, and dated May 15, 2020.
The memo addressed to the Chief Judges of the various states and the FCT was posted on the NJC’s website on Friday.
He said his directive was in line with the call by the United Nations 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” during the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic.
The CJN expressed worry over the overwhelming proportion of awaiting trial inmates in the various prisons across the country.
He noted that of the 74,127 persons held in the prisons, 52,226 of them were awaiting trial.
He stated, “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.
“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, therefore, asked the Chief Judges “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.”
He urged them to consider releasing inmates who had spent six years or more awaiting trial in prison.
He also urged the Chief Judges to consider discharging awaiting trial persons who had no confirmed criminal cases against them, the aged, and terminally ill.
He stated, “During the requested visit, the Chief Judges are enjoined to consider conditional or unconditional release of Awaiting Trial Persons who have spent six 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 three 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.”