The herding of male and female suspects into a detention cell or prison is one more example of the callousness and human rights violation perpetrated by the police and other law enforcement agencies in the country.
Undoubtedly, it is an action not associated with decent societies as it violates the United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners and offenders.
Regrettably, Nigeria seems to be descending into this immoral abyss without the authorities realising it or aware of its dangers. The UN specifically states that women must be kept in separate quarters from men; and girls in separate quarters from boys. There is an urgent need to educate and train security agents on gender-specific rights of those in detention.
Some women arrested by task force officials in a few states for violating the use of road lanes are allegedly dumped in Black Maria carrying male suspects. While the powers-that-be might be ignorant of this debauchery, it has attracted the attention of the United States of America such that it formed part of its 2012 country (Nigeria) Report on Human Rights. Released by the US Department of State recently, the report states, “The rape of women in detention by policemen remained a problem.” It emphasised, “Authorities sometimes held female and male prisoners together, especially in rural areas, and prisons had no facilities to care for pregnant women and nursing mothers.”
In Abraka, Delta State, one woman suffered this indignity in March this year, when she was detained in the same cell with male suspects, following a brawl she had with a neighbour. She cried for help as she was being raped by male suspects, but the policemen who were supposed to redeem her from the asphyxiating grip of these sex perverts were apathetic to her plight. However, it is relieving that the victim is conscious of her rights and dignity; and, through her counsel, took the matter to court.
She also petitioned the Assistant Inspector-General of Police, Zone 5, Benin, Hamisu Argungu. The two suspects are now facing trial at an Abraka Magistrate’s Court, while the 11 police officers on duty at the police station faced Orderly Room trial.
As a matter of fact, there are 787 females awaiting trial in the nation’s prisons, just as 212 convicts are women. The country has only two female prisons, while 12 maximum and 83 satellite prisons cater for men. Given the increasing level of depravity in the society and the experience of the Abraka woman, some of the 787 female inmates may have been victims of sexual abuse. Strange cases of pregnancy in prisons have repeatedly occurred without any rational explanation from prison authorities. Imprisoned mothers who give birth to, and raise, babies under degrading conditions of torture, overcrowding, shortage of food and medical facilities, enlarge the already huge imperilled segment of our population.
It is for this reason that the act of mercy the Chief Judge of Lagos, Ayotunde Philips, showed to Comfort James, a nursing mother who gave birth to a son in Kirikiri Prison while awaiting trial, should be applauded. The suspect was freed along with 95 others suspects last Tuesday. Based on a court order, she was remanded in prison custody on March 15, 2011, following a jewellery theft charge.
Rape has become a growing social phenomenon, especially in the cities. Some young rapists even go to the extreme of making a video of their escapades and posting them on the internet.
A female student in Abia State suffered this nightmare two years ago. Also, there have been cases of robbers raping women in the presence of their husbands or taking them away along with their loot. But more frightening is the health hazards such sexually harassed female detainees pose to the wider society when freed. Certainly, they become agents for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, gonorrhoea and syphilis. Other contagious ailments such as tuberculosis and cholera easily spread.
Indeed, there are many Comforts – nursing mothers in our prisons – who deserve mercy. The CJs of other states should emulate what Philips has done in Lagos, in exercise of the powers conferred on them under Section 1(1) of the Criminal Justice Administration Release from Custody.
It is in this context that the Senate joint committees on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, Interior and Police Affairs chaired by Senator Umaru Dahiru, which recently probed the decongestion of prisons contracts, should get the relevant agencies of the Federal Government to account for the N8.7 billion spent for this purpose.
In the quest for justice and the rule of law, our law enforcement agencies become over-zealous and the respect of human dignity is overlooked.
There must be alternative sanctions in place for minor offences. Corralling hapless women and men into detention for misdemeanours or offences that ought to be sorted out within hours at front desks of police and other law enforcement agencies, therefore, should stop.