As the clamour for social distancing, being a major precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus disease, intensifies, TUNDE AJAJA examines the need to quickly decongest correctional centres and internally displaced persons’ camps
In recent history, there seems not to be any disease outbreak that has shaken the world like the unusual coronavirus pandemic, which was first recorded in Wuhan, Hubei province of China, on December 31, 2019.
In fact, the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said on Tuesday that COVID-19 is the “worst crisis” to face the world since World War II, threatening people in every country.
Since its outbreak in China, the spread has been unprecedented, with the number of cases rising almost every minute. As of Friday afternoon, the number of cases had risen to 1,040,000 covering 204 countries and territories, while only 220,017 persons had recovered and 54,294 deaths recorded.
Nigeria has not been immune either. Between February 27, when the index case was recorded, and Friday, the number of cases in Nigeria had risen to 190, with 20 discharged and two deaths recorded.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent the disease, but chief among the several preventive measures people are advised to strictly adhere to is social distancing, especially staying one to three metres away from others, given that the disease spreads primarily through droplets of saliva, discharge from the nose or droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
But beyond the lockdown in some states, two severely overcrowded areas that the Nigerian government should pay attention to are the correctional centres (formerly prisons) and the cramped internally displaced persons’ camps in the country. These are two places where social distancing is nearly impossible.
Instructively, the attempted jailbreak at the Kaduna Correctional Centre on Tuesday became a classic example. The protesting inmates demanded that they should be released so as not to contract the dreaded virus, leading to unrest in the facility.
It took the quick intervention of soldiers, police and NSCDC officials to quell the distilling unrest by the protesting inmates. No fewer than 10 members of staff were injured. And as of Wednesday, the number of cases in Kaduna stood at three.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had said about a week ago that countries should examine ways to release prison inmates, particularly those vulnerable to COVID-19, especially older detainees, those who are sick as well as low-risk offenders. She pointed out that congested detention facilities in many countries are making detainees and staff particularly vulnerable to catching the deadly virus.
Before the pandemic, there had always been serious concerns on the need to decongest the about 244 correctional centres in the country and the need to make life more comfortable for the IDPs.
For example, Iran has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners, mostly non-violent offenders serving short prison sentences as part of its emergency measures to contain the spread. Authorities in Sudan have ordered the release of thousands of prisoners to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in the country’s prisons.
In the United States, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department reduced its inmate population by 600 about two weeks ago; in New York, officials are already identifying individuals for release, in California, authorities are planning to release 3,500 inmates, while more than 200 inmates have been released from Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio, all because of the pandemic
Already, in the United States, about 390 inmates and prison staff members across different states have tested positive for the virus.
In Nigeria, the correctional centres are excessively congested. The 244 custodial centres have a capacity of about 50,153, but there are 74,127 inmates, out of which 52,226 (about 70 per cent) are awaiting trial while 21,901 (about 30 per cent) had been convicted.
The United States had in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Nigeria in 2019 said about Nigerian correctional centres, “Disease remained pervasive in cramped, poorly ventilated prison facilities, which had chronic shortages of medical supplies. Inadequate medical treatment caused many prisoners to die from treatable illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Although authorities attempted to isolate persons with communicable diseases, facilities often lacked adequate space and inmates with these illnesses lived with the general prison population.”
While the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu had directed that all minor offenders in custody be released, the Federal Government announced its plans to release some inmates.
Speaking at the Presidential Taskforce briefing on the virus, Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said government was working with the NCS to determine those to be released and measures to ensure that they don’t jeopardise the security of the country.
While government had always promised to do this, the implementation has been the challenge. The Nigerian Correctional Service had, however, said proactive, preventive and precautionary measures against Covid-19 were already in place in custodial centres.
A similar congestion is what obtains at the IDPs camps, sparking fears that there could a calamity if the virus spreads to the camp.
But, a renowned virologist, Prof Oyewale Tomori, says it is expedient to decongest the correctional facilities, not just because of COVID-19 but for justice and humanitarian reasons, noting that the centres are congested and with people, many of whom should not be there in the first place.
He added, “Given these situations, I agree with the UN that we should examine ways to release those who do not deserve to be there, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic period. This move will prevent the correctional facilities from becoming the fervent pasture for the breeding of COVID-19 disease.”
However, he warned that it must not be a blanket release. “Both the police and the judicial officers should thoroughly review each case and take appropriate decision to release or not,” he added.
“Each person meeting the condition for release should however undergo the test for COVID-19. Those found negative should be released forthwith, while positive cases should be under observation for the mandatory period and if found not to develop the disease and become COVID-19 negative, should be released. In that way, we will not be exposing our communities to COVID-19 disease.”
Also speaking on the IDPs, he stated that the ideal thing is that displaced persons should be re-integrated with their families and communities as rapidly as possible, if security condition permits. However, he added, “Where circumstances make it impossible to reintegrate the people, efforts should be made to increase and improve facilities at the IDPs with the objective of significantly reducing the congestion at the various locations. In addition, we need to improve on the health care services provided to residents of the camps.”
To a former President of the Nigerian Medical Association, Prof Mike Ogirima, overcrowding should be avoided as much as possible to reduce the spread of the virus.
“So, be it in the prisons or the IDPs camps, overcrowding should be reduced in whatever way possible because a carrier of the virus may not even show symptoms,” he said. “If a carrier enters an overcrowded area like the prisons, that is danger.”
Ogirima, however, cautioned that government should not hurriedly decongest the correctional centres without doing the necessary things. “We must treat the cases on merit but ultimately, we need to decongest the centres,” he said.
“For IDPs camps, government should do everything possible to decongest them or resettle the displaced persons in their homes if all necessary things, like security, availability of water, good sanitation and health care system, have been put in place.”
A former Secretary-General of the National Association of Resident Doctors, Dr Aniekan Utuk, also believes there is an urgent need to decongest the correctional centres in the wake of the ravaging coronavirus.
He said, “Of course, there is need to do that because person-to-person transmission is a serious one. If that place is decongested, it will help in preventing the spread of the virus. With the way those prisons are overcrowded, there is no way you can have social distancing. If the virus gets into those centres, it will be a serious problem and stopping the spread will be very difficult.”
On the need to also decongest the IDPs camps, Aniekan advised the government to open more camps if the original homes of such persons aren’t safe enough for their resettlement. “There are vacant lands and government can afford to do that for its citizens.”
A co-convener of the Bring Back Our Girls group, Mrs Aisha Yesufu, described the congestion at the camps and correctional centres as scary.
She said, “The thought of having the virus in either of the two places is frightening, so we have to put everything in place to safeguard them. The first thing is that everything possible should be done to ensure that the prisons and IDPs camps are protected from the virus so it doesn’t get there at all.
“Also, this is not the time to send the IDPs back to their communities because the terrorists have increased their activities. But, expanding the camps is an option, like setting up temporary tents like the isolation centres so there can be social distancing. There are unused places that can be converted for their use.”
“And for the correctional centres, there is need to review minor cases so we can decongest the centres. Some persons are there because they can’t pay N5,000 to N10,000. Such persons should be released and they can be going for their cases from home. We really need to decongest the centres.”
She added that there should also be enlightenment in those places so that people could be aware of the severity of the problem and take personal precautions, while noting that the government should provide them with protective equipment.
A former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Monday Ubani, also cautioned that if the virus got into the congested correctional centres, the transmission would be disastrous.
He said, “We don’t have the capacity for community infection and it will be catastrophic for anyone there to be infected because of the congestion.
“We have been hearing the planned decongestion, right from the previous government, but if you don’t have an Attorney-General that is up and doing, those things would remain mere pronouncements. So, if they are really serious about the decongestion, this is the time to do it.
“If any serious government wants to decongest the prisons, they would find out the status of the cases against the inmates to know their offences and know whether the offences are real or conjectured. And I say that because sometimes police could fabricate offences when you don’t settle them. From there, your file might go missing and that person could remain there for 20 years.”
Also, a public affairs commentator and legal practitioner, Mr Liborous Oshoma, said government had always promised it would decongest the correctional centres but that nothing had been done. He noted that the task might be difficult to achieve now because courts had closed.
He said, “Sadly, we are stuck because the courts are not sitting and most of the cases are awaiting trial. Therefore, you can’t open the door and say the inmates should go home. Heaven help us if one case is detected in any of the correctional centres. It will be pathetic.
“Some have been awaiting trial for years and we keep saying that the wheels of justice grinds slowly, forgetting that justice delayed is justice denied. So, there is no doubt that we have to decongest the correctional centres.
“Once in a while, you find that the Chief Judge of the state would visit the facilities to review cases. I think we should go beyond that. There are some offenders that shouldn’t be remanded in prison so we don’t even have this challenge at all.
“While the world is looking for ways to decongest we are exploring all avenues to overpopulate ours. There needs to be a holistic approach by the NCS, the judiciary, the executive and the police to address this.”