The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, has written to the chief judges of states on the 'urgent' need to decongest Nigerian prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Muhammad, in a circular dated May 15, said: "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 (ATPs).
"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 wrote.
He drew the attention of the judges to "the need to take urgent measures towards the speedy trial of cases and decongestion of custodial centres in the country in view of COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the United Nations called 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.
Muhammad said: "It has become imperative for Your Lordships 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.
"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 five 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.
"A report on the proposed visits is required to be forwarded to me for compilation and onward transmission to Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat, Federal Ministry Of Justice, Abuja.
"Finally, there is the need to ensure that Your Lordships direct lower courts to comply with requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law in issuing remand warrants in criminal cases, especially in cases which are not within their jurisdiction. This will regulate the volume of entry of awaiting trial inmates into custodial centres.
Muhammad's directive comes weeks after a violent protest by inmates at the Kaduna Prison led to the killing of some prisoners by officials.
The prison authorities said they are still investigating the incident.
Before the Kaduna Prison protest, the attorney-general of the federation, Abubakar Malami, had also spoken on the need to decongest the prisons.