Saluspopuliest suprema lex (the welfare of the people is the supreme law) – Marcus Tullius Cicero

When a thing is used for only one purpose, its usefulness for other purposes may soon be forgotten. This is the only illustration that can help make sense of my opponent’s stance in today’s debate. We know for sure that societies make rules and regulations to regulate human conduct. We also know that the breach of any of such rules and regulations attracts predetermined punishment. With such basic knowledge of system of laws, one may be hasty to conclude that the arms of the law are solely designed for apprehending and punishing offenders. However, if we are to lead our minds aright, the reality will dawn on us that law could be a mean to other ends.
Since the country witnessed its first COVID-19 case on February 27th, the pandemic has been spreading like wildfire in Nigeria. Like a painful memory that refuses to go away, it continues to hurt and hurt. Like the apocalypse, it seems unwilling to spare any class or group. What started as a sneeze in the little town of Wuhan, China has metamorphosed into a terrible cold driving sleep from the eyes of the whole world. That a serious challenge requires a serious action is an irrefutable fact. In realization of this reality, the government of Nigeria, at both federal and state tiers, has enforced a series of orders in a bid to curtail the piercing proboscis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, we debate whether one of such orders – the decongestion of prisons – is justified.

My lords, the justification for the decongestion of prisons to combat the spread of COVID-19 pandemic is not farfetched. The World Health Organization has noted that the risk of getting infected with corona virus heightens in densely populated areas. Tragically, the mention of the word ‘prison’ to the ears of an average Nigerian paints an imagery of a den cramped with piles of human bodies. That the virus will spread faster in such an environment is not safe to deny; and it is that knowledge that justifies the government’s action of decongesting prisons.

Counsel on the other side may be quick to play noble and in his overzealousness for the law hit the gavel and decide that the few thousands criminals in the country be made to face the consequences of their criminal actions. He may even go religious, citing such scriptural quotes as “whatever you sow you reap”. My lords, do not be swayed by his words for they are only urging towards the apocalypse of this country. As the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, stated in a report made by The Punch Newspaper on March 22nd, the various decongestion procedures put in place are designed to protect not only the prison inmates but also the prison workers and their innocent families.

Contrary to what the opposition might want this court to believe, the ends of the criminal justice system are equally being served through the decongestion of prisons. When we mention ‘decongestion of prisons’, we do not speak only of the government action of depopulating prisons by setting petty offenders at liberty. That is just one part of the process; the other part involves the granting of bail to petty offenders as substitute punishment for serving jail term. My lords, that both of these processes are legal even in ordinary circumstances is known to every learned mind. How then should they be deemed unjustifiable when their implementation has now become a matter of necessity?

My lords, before I rest my case, I should remind you of the words of a consul of ancient Rome, Marcus Tillius Cicero, who once said that the welfare of the people is the supreme law. Or to put it differently, a law that counteracts a nation’s security, and the health and safety of its citizens has lost its essence and can never serve its purpose. To decongest prisons towards the prevention of the spread of corona virus is to promote the health and safety of the citizens of Nigeria; and that is justifiable.

Not at all!

To profess fairly, and practice foully in reverse of one’s profession, is the very precept and example of human corruption and depravity. – Able Brewster.

My lords, starting off today’s argument with the mind-set of painting the release of prisoners as absolutely bad is unfortunately not on my to-do list. Contrary to what many may have been led to think, my job here today is not to charge against the government for this machiavellian action, but to point out how such action, no matter how glorified, is only meant to score some political points and how, though noble, it doesn’t achieve the set out purposes.

In projecting my stance today, I shall be leading this courtroom on a tripartite journey. First, to examine if whether when the prisoners are released they are anyway safer on the streets of Nigeria. Second, to point out the greater probability of getting into crime if they are released in this present economic quagmire. And third, to make you understand that the prisoners can still be kept safely behind bars without the risk of contracting the virus.

My lords, assuming that the prisoners were released today, where do they get back to? Obviously, into the various communities still battling with regulating the movement of persons and goods spreading the virus. The society still unable to reach the expected daily test benchmark to even determine the true number of people who have had the virus as against the vast number of people who are yet to contract it. To speak the truth, we would only be deceiving ourselves if we pretend that the slums of Lagos or the shantytowns of Warri are anyway more occupying and healthier than the prisons. Asides the fact that there is a greater risk dashing out to a place where no one knows who has the virus, it doesn’t seem like a wise choice to release the prisoners into the society where keeping safe on the streets by the masses is widely ensured by some drops of Anointing Oil and some constant whisperings of Insha Allah.

Secondly, there is a greater probability of getting into crime if they are released in this present economic quagmire. My Lords, one thing that came with this global pandemic is economic difficulties for a whole lot of people. Nigeria, being as unprepared as ever, never saved for the raining day. Right now, more than 60 percent of the population who work in the informal sector and strive to survive on their meagre daily earnings have been plunged into hunger and neglect by the government. Though unappealing, many have used the present economic hardship and suffocating hunger as excuses to rob their neighbours of the little they have. In fact, many would rather they go to their places of work and be killed by the virus than watch helplessly as hunger slowly lays its cold hands on them and their loved ones. My lords, it is this kind of economic situation that the opposing counsel advocates that the prisoners be released into. Need I mention that these people, having spent years behind bars, have lost touch with economic realities, and would need a great deal of support from the government and people around them to find their footings in the society. Releasing them in the absence of a motivating factor and a good economic system is like giving them a vacation ticket to the outside world for a few months only to return when their power to avoid falling on the bad side of the law has waned.

Thirdly, the prisoners can still be kept behind bars without the risk of contracting the virus. My lords, I do not think we need a doctorate degree in virology before we fully grasp the nature of the virus. Though it thrives on the social nature of humans, the virus doesn’t jump on whomever it wishes like the pregnancy of Mary motivated by the Holy Spirit. It is transferred from contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface. Luckily, Nigeria has not recorded any case of infection in the prison yards, thus, what needs to be done is to activate preventive measures and put a stop to visitation for now, while also ensuring that the prison warders are properly cared for and placed on permanent duties to avoid contact with infected persons or contaminated surfaces. My lords, there are no two ways about it, if the prisoners are released, they are at greater risk. Why then should we not avail ourselves of other means to prevent the infections within the prison yards.

Counsel on the other side may try to cloud today’s argument with the paraphernalia of justice or the point of the welfare of the people, and opine that it is only just to release the prisoners, and that it is a matter of the people’s welfare to ensure that they don’t die in prisons. Quite interesting, but my point has never been against justice or the people’s welfare, but on ensuring that if whatever is worth doing is not going to be done well, then it should be abandoned or another means should be found.

Finally, with surplus respect to the citizens behind bars, good as their release may seem, pleasant, as the opposing counsel may have painted it, the reality is that, for this period, it poses greater health and economic risks to them than remaining behind bars. My lords, if justice is to be done, then it should be done when the beneficiaries would be free to bask in its lasting euphoria. Likewise, if the people’s welfare is going to be the supreme law, then it should be at a point when we do not have to dangle some carrots while some uncontrolled factors bang the sticks. We just can’t act hypocritically and expect our decisions to coloured as wise.