Despite the provisions of section 296 of the 2015 Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) in Akwa Ibom, many accused persons have been languishing in prison custody awaiting trial for over a decade.
This has resulted in prison congestion, increased pressure on staff, and a financial burden on the Federal Government, which has to cover the costs of feeding and medical care for those awaiting trial.
As of March, the number of inmates in Akwa Ibom State stood at 3,047, out of which 2,559 were awaiting trial and 488 had been tried and convicted, according to investigations.
Shockingly, not all of those in the awaiting trial list have committed serious offenses; some are innocent persons who have been wrongly accused or others who have allegedly engaged in minor misdemeanors.
Goodnews Isaiah, a 26-year-old inmate at the Eket Custodial Centre, narrated to the Akwa Ibom State Chief Judge, Justice Ekaette Obot, during her prison inspection, how he was arrested by police operatives on patrol in 2019 while returning from work.
Despite informing the police that he was returning from his job at a bakery in Eket, he was accused of being an armed robber and taken into custody.
While others arrested that night were later released after paying bail, Goodnews remained in custody as no one came to secure his release, and he has been waiting for his day in court since 2019.
Similarly, John Sunday Akpan, who is charged with “unlawful stealing” and is being held at the Ikot Abasi Custodial Centre, narrated to the Chief Judge how he was arrested by his uncle for cutting a bunch of plantain in their family farmland.
He claimed that his uncle, who refused to give him his father’s portion of land, instructed the officers to deal with him severely, and he has been in prison for about three years without being taken to court.
Another inmate, Ephraim Udo, a 29-year-old tricycle rider at the Uyo Custodial Centre, recounted how he was arrested and incarcerated for attempting to marry the daughter of his wife’s mother, who is a policewoman.
He alleged that the mother-in-law ordered his arrest, and he has been in prison for over four years without trial.
These are just a few examples of the many cases of individuals awaiting trial in Akwa Ibom prisons, where justice delivery has been slow.
The Chief Judge of the state, Justice Ekaette Obot, after patiently listening to their stories, released them unconditionally, along with 42 others, using her powers of prerogative of mercy.
Justice Obot, in investigating the cases of the awaiting-trial inmates, expressed dismay at the manner in which accused persons are dumped in prison cells without trials or with missing case files.
She attributed the delay and increase in the number of awaiting trial cases to the slow progress of the police and the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) in fast-tracking case files, noting the frequent instances of “no case files” witnessed in court.
Justice Obot called on the police officers in charge of legal matters and the DPP to ensure diligence in prosecution to avoid disrupting the justice delivery system.
She also warned the police against unnecessary arrests of innocent persons and committing them to custodial centers without thorough investigation, as it constitutes a breach of their constitutional rights.
Clifford Thomas (Esq), the Coordinator of Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community, shed light on the causes of the high number of awaiting trial cases in the state.
He highlighted that magistrates are often unable to exercise jurisdiction over certain crimes, which compels them to order outright remand of suspects in prison.