By Maxwell Adeyemi Adeleye
Though the outbreak started in the Republic of China in December 2019, however, the coronavirus controversy has been a hot subject in Nigeria since February 2020, if not earlier, and it will continue to remain a subject of huge concern, for all the nations of the world in the near future.
While the three tiers of government- Central, States and Local Councils and certain individuals and institutions are making financial and material contributions, and efforts, to help combat the spread of the virus in the Nation of Nigeria, we all believe that it is extremely far from being adequate.
A matter of interest for me is on our Prisons or Correctional Centers as they are now called. We are aware that they are over-crowded and lack adequate medical facilities. It would be horrific if, for example, just one inmate at any of our Correctional Centers was infected by the virus. It would spread so fast, and be so out of control, it is unimaginable.
Unfortunately and realistically, today, there is no way to send the prisoners out without orders from the appropriate authorities; there is no possibility to quarantine large numbers of affected inmates; and there is no possibility of social distancing across our correctional centers. The warders themselves, and their contacts outside, are equally at risk though they have the option of being treated externally.
Of course, one may opine that visits to these centres have temporarily been stopped, however, the warders and other officials move in and out when they resume and end their daily shifts. Despite basic procedures being followed for the proper washing of hands and the use of hand sanitizers, it is so easy for the virus to be carried in, or out of the correctional centres and passed on to the people.
It is in line of the foregoing that prisoners, almost all over the world, are being released at an unprecedented rate. It has not yet happened in Nigeria, but it seems that the Government is seriously working on the same.
The general criteria for the prisoner releases across the world are as follows:
Firstly, the most vulnerable inmates who are:
• The older ones (60 years old and above)
• Those that have pre-existing health issues (such as cancer, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease– as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO. In the US, other eligible sicknesses have been added, to the WHO list, for their own use).
Secondly, those with short remaining sentences, for example due for release within the next 6-9 months to this time.
Others, which could include:
• Inmates who have been granted bail but are unable to comply with the conditions stipulated therein.
• Those who are awaiting their bail applications to be heard since more than ‘X” months.
• Inmates who are awaiting trial/appeal since more than “Y” months.
N.B. (a): In all above cases, the qualifying prisoners should exclude violent offenders such as kidnappers, gun-wedging armed robbers and anyone who kills through guns, iron or poisonous substance, amongst others.
(b): The Correctional services are surely well-placed to fine-tune all above to suit our peculiar situation.
(c): The exercise for all above is to be repeated every 1 to 3 months as other inmates would have qualified in the meanwhile.
More also, while we read, daily, about the number of identified coronavirus infected cases in the country, we know that this information is based on the very limited testing that is being done. The real situation is not known, and we should not become complacent based on the relatively small numbers being announced by relevant authorities. The situation in our prisons is like a time bomb waiting to explode if not strategically curtailed.
We are already late in our decision to release an adequate number of prisoners and it is now imperative that the Ministry of Interior and, wherever required, the Ministry of Justice in conjunction with the officials of the Nigerian Correctional Centers, immediately take the necessary steps.
Let me say very expressly that the Nigerian government acted too late before closing our land, sea and air borders; the results we are seeing today. But to avoid a repeat of that lapse in judgment, I suggest that we act now to decongest our correctional centers before it is too late.
As earlier stated, countries across the world, as suggested by the United Nations and WHO, are already taking steps to decongest their prisons. The government of Iran has released 85,000 prisoners in an emergency bid to stop the spread of covid-19 in the Islamic Nation. The United States government, as reported by the New York Times, has freed over 200, 000 inmates after about 300 tested positive in some detention centres across the country. The British government, according to the BBC has freed over 20, 000 inmates from their prisons. Afghanistan, as published by the BBC, has released 10, 000.
The Sudanese government, as reported by The Punch Newspaper, has released 7, 000 prisoners from their detention centers. The Ethiopian government, as reported by the CNN, has pardoned 4, 000 prisoners while Canada, Germany, Kenya, Ghana and many other countries have also taken actions to decongest their prisons in line with the recommendations of WHO and the United Nations as part of the moves to combat the spread of the covid-19 pandemic across the globe.
May God help the government of Nigeria to think and act rightly!
Maxwell Adeyemi Adeleye is a member of the Nigerian Correctional Care Initiative. He can be reached via email@example.com.