The Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS) recently revealed that as of 31 July 2023, only 31 per cent of the 79 076 inmates in its custody were convicts, while the remaining 69 per cent were awaiting trial. One of the reasons for this is the culture of arbitrary arrests by law enforcement agencies.
To effectively tackle this menace, a non-governmental organisation at the forefront of justice reforms, Hope Behind Bars Africa, has announced a change of strategy which includes positioning volunteer lawyers in police stations nationwide.
Since 2018, the organisation has been offering free legal services for prison inmates and sometimes making provisions for their rehabilitation.
“Many prisoners are very poor and don’t have access to justice. When I spoke to other lawyers,they were interested in doing something but needed a platform. That was why I decided to get Hope Behind Bars Africa off the ground,” the founder, Oluwafunke Adeoye, said in a 2019 interview with Africa Legal.
Describing the organisation’s impact four years later, the human rights lawyer said they have supported 7 000 incarcerated individuals through diverse interventions.
“At the last count, we have represented 420 indigent justice-involved individuals, and built a network of over 200 pro bono attorneys who have logged over 700 000 hours in pro bono cases. Together, these have helped cut time spent on trial by 50 per cent,” she said in a recent interview.
She also cited numerous instances where some of the beneficiaries of their legal aid had no business being in prison to start with.
Commenting on the change in the organisation’s strategy, Adeoye explained that the decision resulted from lessons gleaned over the past five years of engaging with stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
“The strategic plan is moving the organisation from a place of dealing with the symptoms of the problem to addressing both the symptom of the problem and the root cause, in the hopes of finding a lasting solution to the menace,” she said.
Central to the new strategy is the Police Duty Solicitor Scheme (PDSS), an initiative that allows stakeholders in the criminal justice system to intervene by providing legal representation to suspects at the police station immediately upon arrest.
“Indigent suspects interfacing with the police investigating agencies often require immediate legal assistance within the first 48 hours of their arrest. Basically, young lawyers attached to different police stations will be engaged and stationed to selected police stations to serve as duty solicitors,” she explained.
Adeoye noted that PDSS has its bedrock in the provision of both local and international legal instruments, citing Section 36 (5) of the Nigerian Constitution which provides for presumption of innocence.
Although Hope Behind Bars Africa recently won a $75 000 cash prize as part of the 2023 Waislitz Global Citizen Award to its founder, Adeoye explained that part of the new strategy involves developing sustainable ways to manage projects and create alternative streams of funding for the organisation’s projects.
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