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Opinion: Is The Decongestion Of Nigerian Correctional Centres A Right Step? By Oluwatosin Olaniran

Oluwatosin Olaniran writes on decongesting Nigerian Prisons amid COVID-19

The deadly Coronavirus disease was first recorded in the Central Chinese City of Wuhan, in China in late 2019 and has now spread to over 210 countries of the world with an increasing figures of 2.4 million confirmed cases and 169,398 fatalities as of April 20, 2020.

Following this background, Nigeria welcomed this invisible visitor around February, 2020 and this unwelcome visitor has been gaining roots and spreading it wings around various parts of the country with an increasing figures in the number of confirmed cases and deaths.

The World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern on 30th January, 2020 having a whole lot of effects on the political, religious, education and socio-economic sectors of several nations of the world.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, the World Health Organization, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control had introduced and advocated several precautionary measures to curtail the rapid spread of the pandemic such as regular washing of hands, using an alcohol based hand sanitizer, social distancing, avoidance of crowded or congested places and personal hygiene etc.

Having recorded several cases in Nigeria, the Federal Government through President Muhammadu Buhari had ordered a 14 days lockdown and restrictions of movements in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja on March 30 and April 13, 2020 respectively in order to contain the spread and trace the contact of those infected. On this line, several states government had adopted this orders in their respective states with the closure of schools, markets, social centres and other crowded areas leaving a certain aspect behind.

Decongestion of Nigeria prisons centres amid COVID-19, has the government taken the right step in the right direction?

There are more than 10 million men, women and children in prisons worldwide and jails are overcrowded in at least 121 countries, according to a 2019 report on Global Prison Trends. Overcrowding means it is not possible in prisons to respect the guidelines around handwashing with soap, individual towels and social distancing.

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The Nigeria Prison Service now the Nigeria Correctional Centre statistics show the country’s Prison held over 72,627 people as of 13th January, 2020. Of these, only 21,890 constituting 30% were convicted prisoners. The remaining 50,737 constituting 70% of the prison population were awaiting trial. The large number of those awaiting trial has overstretched the built-in/carrying capacity of most Nigerian prisons resulting in overcrowding of such persons. This has occasioned a lot of health implications, increased tear and wear of prison facilities and administrative challenges among other based on the foregoing, there is a great need for proactive measures to drastically decongest Nigeria prisons amid COVID-19. In Nigeria, some of the correctional centres are poorly funded and lack basic health care facilities.

Prisons and other places of detentions are enclosed environments where people (including staff) live in close proximity. Every government has a responsibility to increase the level of preparedness, alert and response to identify, manage and care for new cases of COVID-19. Government should prepare to respond to different public health scenarios, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to manage cases and outbreak of COVID-19.

The world health governing body, WHO has warned that prisons around the world should expect huge mortality rates from COVID-19 unless they take immediate action including screening for the disease. All visitors to prisons, along with staff and new admissions should be subject to airport-style temperature testing and health assessment has recommended by the WHO under the new guidelines for COVID-19.

The agency warns that any efforts to control COVID-19 in the wider community will fail unless strict measures to stop the infection, including adequate testing are taken in all places of detentions. Prison setting are both a threat for the transmission of infectious disease and an opportunity for it’s prevention and control.

Prisons are epicentres for infectious disease because of the higher background, prevalence of infection, the higher level of risk factors for infection, the unavoidable close contact in often overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary facilities and the poor access to health-care services relative to that in community settings. Infections can be transmitted between prisoners, staff and visitors between prisons through transfers and staff cross-deployment and to and from the community. As such prisons and other custodial settings are an integral part of the public health response to COVID-19.

Prisons concentrate individuals who are susceptible to infection and those with a higher risk of complications. Coronavirus disease has an increase mortality in older people and in those with chronic disease or immunosuppression. Notably, multimorbodity is normative among people in prison often with earlier on set and populations are ageing in many countries. Inadequate investment in prison, substantial overcrowding in some prison settings and rigid security processes have the potential to delay diagnosis and treatment.

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WHO COVID-19 Guidelines state that limiting access to prisons to non-essential staff and visitors should be considered and everyone should be screened for fever and lower respiratory tract symptoms irrespective of whether or not there are suspected Coronavirus cases in the community.

Carina Ferreira-Borges, WHO’s Coordinator for Prison Health stated “we are talking about a highly vulnerable population in overcrowded conditions and once COVID-19 gets inside prisons, everyone will be contaminated very quickly.” She further added that “there is a huge risk of mortality rate and unprecedented burden on the national health systems of countries that are already overstretched”.

A big solution for us would be to consider the release of those who are low-risk offenders and those who are particularly at risk or have underlying health conditions.

Accordingly, is the government really serious about decongesting crowded places, it should immediately consider for release the following inmates without undermining public health and safety.

1. People in pre-trial detention for low level or non-violent offences or who do not posses a significant freight risk

2. People with higher health risk such as older people above the age of 60, pregnant women and girls, people with disabilities which may place them at higher risk of serious complications of COVID-19 or whose immune system is compromised or have chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, spinal cord disorder and HIV.

Assessment should be determined whether their health can be protected if they remain in detention and take into account factors like time served, gravity of the crime and the risk their release will pose to the public.

3. People convicted of non-violent crimes closed to the end of their sentence.
To effectively meet the challenge of fighting the coronavirus outbreak in places of detention, government should urgently adopt and implement a human and comprehensive crisis plan supported by adequate human and financial resources and which caters for the need of those who leave prisons, those who remain in detention and prison staff. This should be done in consultations and cooperation with relevant stakeholders. Government should also ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fundamental rights of all those who remain in detention are upheld. Any restrictions imposed on detainees should be non-discriminatory, necessary, proportionate, time-limited and transparent. For instance, where restrictions to family visits and other outside contacts appear necessary they should imperatively be mitigated by alternative arrangements such as extended access to phone or video communication.

Meanwhile, those released from detention who need support should be given appropriate access to emergency accommodation and basic services including health care. I strongly urge government at all levels to make use of all available alternative to detention whenever possible an without discrimination. We must all take the bold step to end this pandemic, it is a collective responsibility. We must take that responsibility and stay safe.

• World Health Organization
• Worldometers updates on Coronavirus
• Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention (2020) WHO Interim Guidance
• Article on prisons and custodial settings as part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19 – Lancet Journal
• The Aljazeera News
• African Independent Television Online
• The Nigeria Correctional Service

Oluwatosin Emmanuel Olaniran is a Law Student, Osun State University, Osogbo, Nigeria


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