President Muhammadu Buhari has signed into law a Bill which changed the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS) to Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS). According to the law, the Correctional Service is made up of Custodial and Non-Custodial Service. The new law also gave lifeline to condemned inmates who have exhausted all grounds of appeal from the lower court to the apex court and have their condemnations upheld after spending 10 years in confinement. Specifically, Section 12 (2c) of the Act provides that “Where an inmate sentenced to death has exhausted all legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years has elapsed without execution of the sentence, the Chief Judge may commute the sentence of death to life imprisonment.” Also Section 12 (8) of the Act empowers the state Controller of the Service to reject more intakes of inmates where it is apparent that the correctional centre in question is filled to capacity.” According to the new law, the Custodial Service will deal with High Risk offenders so they can be reformed before being reintegrated into the society. The Non-custodial service would provide rehabilitation for persons who commit lesser offences in reformatory and rehabilitation homes, vocational centres and correctional homes. In some cases, some of the offenders may be compelled to render community services as remediation for offences committed from their homes. The new law repeals the old Nigeria Prisons Act which has been in existence since the colonial times. There is no doubt that our prison system is in need of reforms because the law under which it was set up made the prison a place of deterrent and punishment for convicts. The long time spent in prison by awaiting trial inmates would have also warranted the move by the government to reform the prison system.
We commend the government for its plan to make the prisons correctional centres. We also urge it and other stakeholders to ensure that the exercise succeeds. It is good that the reforms would take into account the need to separate the genders, and also the under-aged from adult prisoners. Presently, only three states render borstal and related services for the under-aged. Now, every state would have one at least. It is under the Non-custodial service that some of the most interesting reforms would be introduced. Apart from providing for the administration of measures such as community services, probation, parole, the restorative justice system captured under the new arrangement would allow for Victim-Offender mediation. In the filing of cases under the new dispensation, instead of the old Offender vs. State approach, it would now be a Victim vs. Offender vs. State approach to maximize the opportunities for mediation out of court. Secondly, it will underscore the presumption of innocence until conviction is secured. To fully effect these changes in the prison system, there is need for the amendment of not only the Prison Act as it presently constituted, but also the Constitution. For example, 68 items are listed in the Exclusive List under Part 1 in the Second Schedule of the 1999 Constitution. These items would require an Act of the National Assembly to amend. The government should ensure adequate funding, training and capacity building for prison officials. For the reforms to succeed, the Federal Government must also work together with the state and local governments.
The prisons as presently constituted cannot be regarded as correctional centres. They are grossly inadequate and overcrowded. For Nigerian prisons to be correctional centres as envisaged in the reforms, the prison officials must change their attitude to work. They must be physically and psychological prepared for the work.