ANOTHER disturbing factor about prison congestion in Nigeria is the confirmed presence of underage persons in some of the country’s prisons.
This, for instance, was the case in the five prisons in Lagos, namely: Maximum Security Prison, Medium Prison and Female Prison at Kirikiri; Ikoyi Prison and Badagry Prison. It was a development that the Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Oluwafunmilayo Atilade recently decided to change by visiting prisons in the state and ordering the release of their underage inmates.
Justice Atilade’s intervention was prompted by a petition from one Mrs. Modupe Olubanwo of the Fountain of Life Church Legal Team.And during a visit to the Badagry Prison, Mrs. Olubanwo, the Chief Judge, had directed that 80 under-age inmates in the Prison be freed.
The order was carried out on August 1, 2017. Further to the directive by the Chief Judge, another 62 under-age inmates were freed from both the Kirikiri Female and Medium Prisons.
Justice Atilade also granted freedom to 43 under-age inmates of Ikoyi Prison. The 43 inmates when added to 142 freed from Badagry and Kirikiri Prisons on August 1and 14 respectively brings to 185 the total number of under age children, aged between 12 and 17, freed from prisons custody.
Accompanied on the visit to the prisons by senior judges from the state high court, including head of Decongestion Committee, Justice Oluwatoyin Ipaye, head of the Family Court Division, Justice Yetunde Idowu, officials of the Lagos Ministry of Justice, Office of Public Defender, OPD, members of the Nigerian Bar Association, members of African Women Lawyers Association and other various non-governmental organisations, Justice Atilade said the amnesty granted the inmates was in line with statutory duty to protect the Child Rights and also ensure that the prisons nationwide were not congested.
Chairman of the Prison Decongestion Committee, Justice Oluwatoyin Ipaye, said the issue of under age in prisons was a major concern of the Lagos Judiciary. Ipaye said: “We got alerted on the existence of children in prisons. On August 1, the chief judge released 80 children from Badagry Prison. Again on August 14, under age numbering 62 were freed from Kirikiri Women and Medium Security Prisons. It’s a sad situation that we have children in the prisons. I understand that children break the law as well as adult, however, we should deal with children with a lighter hand. You children are the future leaders of tomorrow, children from zero to 16 years should be in school; if you can’t go to school learn a trade. What is important is that we do not see you here again.”
Emphasizing the nature of the offences for which the young persons were imprisoned, Lagos State Solicitor-General, Mrs. Funlola Odunlami, stated thus: “The Law forbids hawking; tell your parents that they should not send you to hawk. Don’t bow to pressure of friends, if you are sent back here you will be dealt with more harshly than this”.
The release of the under age inmates was predicated on the claim by the Lagos State government that their imprisonment in the first place was unlawful, restating its full support for the protection of children’s rights through the Child Rights Law.
Speaking during an interactive session with relevant stakeholders, including prison officials and officers of the Nigeria Police Force, among others on children welfare matters, the Solicitor-General and Permanent Secretary of Lagos State Ministry of Justice, Mrs. Funmilola Odunlami, explained that the intention of the Child Rights Law is to prescribe appropriate sanctions for children found in conflict with the law and provide appropriate rehabilitation methods rather than issuing imprisonment term.
According to her, there was need to provide appropriate training for Magistrates presiding over matters concerning children in conflict with the law as well as relevant stakeholders, adding that the appropriate court which is Family Court should be allowed to exercise jurisdiction on matters affecting minors. She said: “Legal officers should also know their areas of jurisdictions and limitations as well as law enforcement officers so that appropriate authorities could be contacted when the need arises”.
Odunlami maintained that if appropriate courts are allowed to preside over issues that concern them directly, the incidences of sentencing minors to prisons would drastically reduce.