Exercise Of The Powers of the CJN and CJ of States: An Avenue For Prison Decongestion By Chidera Nwokeke

Nigeria Prisons have 68,259 inmates – Controller General

Prisons are public correctional institutions established by government where inmates, both suspects and convicts are detained.  It is common knowledge that virtually all the prisons nationwide are overflowing with inmates, both those convicted and those awaiting trials.  As at 25th February, 2019, the Nigerian Prisons had population of 71,711 out of which 51,120 are awaiting trial.  The issue of prison congestion is worrisome, despicable, abject and a burden to all concerned citizens.

Dismally, due to the barefaced lapses in the system, the prison system which is supposed to be reformatory has eventually turned to punitive and hell to inmates, thereby defeating the true essence of sending convicts to prisons.  The implication of this antipode system of prison administration is that the inmates our prisons come out more criminally minded than they were before conviction.

The causes of the congestion of prisons are not implausible or far-fetched. They include the mode of running of prisons in the country,  which is essentially a federal government affair. The slow pace of Justice dispensation in the country which is attributable to long and mischievous adjournment of cases which has led to non dispensation of most cases thereby abandoning the inmates in prisons.  Also,  the slow investigation process by police and holding of charges which is now a norm at Magistrate court.

To every dark tunnel, there is light at its end. The problems of prison congestion has different solutions but this write-up will only discuss two (2).

  1. Exercise of the powers of the Chief Justice and the Chief Judges of States.
  2. Inclusion of the Prison Decongestion Decree No. 18 1993 to the laws of the federation.

The powers of the CJN and CJs  to release persons remanded in the prisons is not alien to us in Nigeria.  By virtue of Section 11 of Prisons Act (Cap 29) LFN,  2004, the Chief Judges of States and Chief Justice of Nigeria are among Prison Visitors ex-officio.  Furthermore,  the Chief Justice and Chief Judges are empowered by Section 1 of Criminal Justice (Release from Custody)  Special Provisions Act,  Cap 79, 1990 hereinafter called (CJRCSP ACT) to order the release of any person, if satisfied that the detention of that person is manifestly unlawful.  However, such prisoners released by the CJN and CJs had not been pardoned but merely released from illegal prison custody noting that such prisoners could be re-arrested and prosecuted by the government.

It is pertinent to note the keyword used in the Section 1 of CJRCSP ACT “RELEASE ” which shows that the draftsmen had a clear intention for this act not to be inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution.  The constitution is clear on Section 175 and 212 of 1999 Constitution which conferred power only on the President and Governors respectively to grant pardon. The BLACKSLAW DICTIONARY 8TH EDITION defined RELEASE as liberation, discharge or setting free from restraint or confinement.

The CJN and CJs can only act within the powers conferred upon them.  Section 1(1) CJRCSP ACT provides where in respect of any person detained in any prison in Nigeria not being a person detained in execution of a sentence of a Court or tribunal duly constituted by law.  It is clear from this section that this power can only be exercised over persons that are not serving any sentence of court.  Hence it can be exercised when the CJN or CJs is satisfied that (a)  Detention of that person was manifestly unlawful or (b)  person detained have been in custody, whether on remand or otherwise for a period longer than the maximum period of imprisonment which the person detained could have served had he been convicted of the offence in respect of which he is detained.

The legal effect of the exercise of this their power include

  1. Preservation of the right to liberty
  2. It does not stop the Court proceedings
  3. It does not stop further re-arrest, because it is just a discharge from illegal detention

Another pivotal way to decongest the prison is that the PRISON DECONGESTION DECREE NO. 18, 1993 should be revisited. It will serve as a useful tool to decongest the prisons.  This decree gave power to the members of the Task Force to visit prisons all over Nigeria, to spot check and release the following categories of prisoners awaiting trials.

  1. Cases of Stealing which have spent above three months in custody
  2. Cases of robbery which have spent above 3 months in custody except armed robbery with violence and cases before the Armed Robbery Tribunal.
  3. Cases of assault which have spent up to 1 month and above in custody
  4. In other categories of offences other than armed robbery, murder and rape.

A succinct and laconic explanation has shown that the CJRCSP ACT conferred express powers on the CJN and CJs to release persons detained in prison.  Also the Prison Decogestion Decree have certain provisions, if brought to our current laws will facilitate and lead to prison Decogestion.  I humbly submit that the CJN and CJs should try and visit the prisons at least once in 2 months to exercise this their powers and the National Assembly should make this decree a Law.

Chidera Nwokeke (500 Level Law Student Of Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki).

 

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