INTERVIEW: Why I’m Fighting For Prison Inmates–Lawyer
Barrister Henry Tawo Ebu is the Executive Director of the Trustees of Prisons and Civil Rights Development Foundation. The NGO was set up to help prison inmates get freedom, and empower them with skills so that they can go on with their lives after prison.
He spoke about his experience fighting for inmates.
What Motivated You To Start The NGO?
There was an issue in 2010, that brought about a communal conflict between my community in Cross River State and the neighbouring community. It was about land rights and then it became a full-blown communal war. After the communal war, the federal government had to intervene and reduce the losses of people.
Some people were arrested. Unfortunately, about 16 people were arrested from my community and my youngest sister was the only female person that was arrested. I had to follow up on the arrest of my sister.
I had to find a way of getting her out of detention and approach the prison authorities. I eventually thought that the best way to deal was to go to court. But it wasn’t an easy task.
Over three months, I was running this course, going to the prison to see my sister, trying to see how she would get out of prison and all of that. But something struck me. During various visits to her, she disclosed to me her experiences for the short time she had stayed. Some of the things she has experienced with the prison authorities.
I discovered that some people who were close to her during the detention days were also approaching me because I was a lawyer, and then they were also telling me their experiences. Unfortunately, out of the 15 people that I interacted with, about six were detained for six months and the others one year, without trial.
I realized that some people were probably very validly being detained, but they didn’t have legal representation.
And then it struck my mind as a lawyer, and I felt that there would be a need for us to assist people, especially those who cannot hire legal services for their issues when they are being detained. This led me to register the NGO in 2018 but it did not become operational immediately. I’m not alone on the board of trustees. There are five other people on the board of trustees and also a few interested lawyers.
Since You Started Operation, What Has Being Your Experience?
Well during various visits to prisons, I discovered that a lot of prisoners do not have the opportunity, the ability to hire lawyers to represent them. I also realized that it is also important for us to look at issues where those who are detained, why are they detained? If they are validly detained, should they be imprisoned for more than 48 hours as required by the law?
Of course, the law says that once you detain somebody, once somebody is arrested, within 24 hours to 48 hours, you must charge the person to court. If the person is not charged in court, you should be able to explain to the appropriate authority the reason why the person is not being charged.
Is the person still being investigated? Have you not completed the investigations? If you have, you need to formally charge that person to court. Presently, both the Ministry of Criminal Justice Act and all acts relating to arrest and detention allow detainees to be represented by a lawyer.
I also discovered that some people were held based on the statement given without the presence of legal representatives and this is against the law. If you interview anybody upon arrest and the person does not have a lawyer present, you don’t have any right to take statements from the person until the person is represented by a lawyer.
What Are Some Of The Ugly Things You Have Seen Since The NGO Was Established?
About two years ago, a woman walked up to our office because she saw our signage on the door. She told us about her son who has been detained in prison for about three years.
She explained to us that the son was properly charged by the Nigerian police. But over time, the prosecution isn’t coming to court very regularly. When I asked some questions, she couldn’t reply because she was unaware. So, we made enquiries, went to the appropriate court, got information about the charge sheet, and the suit number, and then we approached the court.
We approached the court that if the prosecution isn’t doing something about the person who has been detained, the court should discharge him.
Of course, we went to court up to three times. The judge noticed that even though the police were served with a hearing notice, they were not in court for the times we were summoned.
And then the judge looked at his record and discovered that over ten adjournments, you know, the police have represented the authority just three times. And for the subsequent times, they haven’t been in court.
Well, using the relevant law that if the prosecutor isn’t interested in a case, the person should be discharged, the man was discharged, and today he’s free.
Then recently, we visited the Keffi prison. We wrote to the authorities that this is what we do, this is our NGO. They welcomed us, and then they gave us the opportunity of interviewing about 20 or 30 inmates.
We asked them the reasons why they had been detained. We asked what led to their arrest, and they explained their various offences.
Some of them said it was a police raid. Some of them acknowledged they were guilty of committing one crime or the other. We took note of that. For those who have not been charged, we also took note of that. And then eventually we visited the various courts, trying to find out information about their cases.
So, in all of this, we discovered that the prosecution wasn’t serious in some cases. So we made the necessary applications to court, and then some of them were discharged.
If I said discharged, I’m not saying they didn’t commit the crime. But the court just felt that if there is no effort on the part of the prosecution, they shouldn’t keep those detainees for as long as the law does not require, they were discharged.
Sometimes the court, in hearing those matters at the first instance, there will be conditions for bail. But because those who do not have access to lawyers do not have access to their relatives, at the time they were charged, the court will naturally remand them after giving them conditions for bail.
But most times the prison does not follow up. So, these are part of the challenges. For some people, there are conditions for bail that have to do with sureties and all of that.
Some courts can even convict them and then maybe there will be fines of five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, and then nobody is available for them at that time.
They will be detained if the court has ordered them to be convicted. So, for such offences, at that time, they may not have ten thousand, they may not have twenty thousand, they may not have someone who stands for them as sureties.
They’ve just been detained and they’re just there. So, these are some of the situations we’ve had. However, we have been able to release more than ten persons.
What Are The Challenges You Have Encountered?
If you talk about challenges, we have financial challenges, that have to do with transportation to the court, prisons and all that. But one of the major challenges we face is having the proper agreements with the authorities that would have charged detainees. But the courts have been cooperative.
What Reforms Do You Suggest The Government Should Implement?
I must say that the government is not sleeping on some of these things, because every year, like in FCT, the Chief Justice of the FCT will visit the prisons. This thing also happens in states, governors of the state and chief Justice of various states, visit the prisons twice or once a year to know who requires this prerogative of mercy, who would have served their sentences, or who just needs to be discharged from prison.
But it is never enough. So this visit should be regular and not once or twice a year. The government should be able to constitute certain committees and give them some sort of discretion to visit prisons more regularly, visit police stations more regularly, visit the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, detention stations, and Department of State Services, DSS detentions as well because most times people have been detained longer than necessary.