As a student of criminal law, sentencing and treatment of offenders, I am not oblivious of the challenges confronting our prison system, (correctional service facility) for a long time, but with passage of time, I seem to have been so much used to it to the extent of giving up on any reformation. Equally, there is enough literature on the subject to the extent that it will seem that any further interrogation is needless. However, two events that I experienced recently gingered my interest in revisiting the subject again.
The first of it was the remark by the Honourable Minister for Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, on the move to decongest the prisons, and the second arose out of my experience in striving to secure the bail of some defendants in courts recently. Beyond the foregoing, and probably much more compelling for me to write on this subject, is the new legislative framework just enacted by the Government on the Correctional Service: Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019. As at date, there are about 155 prisons in Nigeria and 83 satellite facilities. The inmates of the prisons in Nigeria consist of those awaiting trial and those already convicted of one crime or the other. As at 14th of October 2019, official population of Nigeria prisons was 74, 081. The decomposition reveals that 72,662 (98%) are males while 1,419 are females. Of the above total figure, 51, 380 are awaiting trial inmates; this constitutes 69% of the population. The sad commentary about the awaiting trial inmates is that because they are yet to be tried and convicted, they are not entitled to any form of reformation. Hence, apart from the inconvenience, to say the least, that they suffer inside the facilities, they cannot be subject of any reform measure.
This undoubtedly is a case of double jeopardy for them. The total capacity of the entire prison facilities in Nigeria as at date is about fifty thousand in totality. According to Dr. Uju Agomoh, the causes of congestion, which I share largely with the writer, range from factors such as high rate of remand; delay in the administration of criminal justice by the Court arising from congestion and lack of resources both material and human; excessive use of imprisonment by the courts; abuse of power of arrest by the police and other law enforcement agencies; poor co-ordination amongst the criminal justice agencies; and inadequate utilization of non-custodial measures.
Therefore, that the Nigerian prison is chronically congested is an understatement and is merely stating the obvious. That the conditions of the inmates are horrifying is definitely no news. That the Nigerian prisons lack everything basic, ranging from food, beds, water, good toilet system and medical facilities is trite. Much more daunting beyond the foregoing is the competence and capacity of the prison officials.
The officials often see themselves more as enforcement officers than correctional officers That the prisons in Nigeria is a center of deformation as opposed to reformation (according to Michael C. Ogwezzy in his paper “From Reformation to Deformation…”) is a statement of fact. In the 1971 Government White Paper, the functions of the prisons, summarily stated, include custody, diagnosis, correction, training and rehabilitation of inmates. Be that as it is, there is hardly any controversy about the output of our prisons in this regard. I am sure that we will all agree, inclusive of the staff of the Prisons (Correctional Service), that the products are nothing but reformed.
That the prisons in Nigeria is a center for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment is a matter of common knowledge. It is common knowledge that our prisons are, actually, training facilities for breeding criminals; the conditions of the Nigerian custodial services engineer the transformation of petty criminals to hardened criminals. I am sure we do not so much need Fisayo Soyombo, The Cable investigative journalist that attempted to unveil these horrors recently, to validate these facts. Prisons are meant to be temporary abode for non-conformist in the society based on the Order of court. It is essentially meant to reform the inmates.
That the realization of this objective, however, has been a continuous challenge since time immemorial has been a subject of numerous enquiries. . It is in the face of all these challenges and the deterioration of the situation, particularly in terms of the condition of the prisons, that it has become incumbent or imperative that something needs to be further done. I am further encouraged to undertake this venture due to the stance of the Honorable Minister of Interior that I know. He has continuously shown the zeal, enthusiasm and determination to address the situation and knowing his aggressive pursuit of objectives, I am optimistic that this effort would not be in vain. In order to decongest the prisons in Nigeria, several efforts have been initiated in the past and up till of recent.
The Federal Government has set up several committees in this regard without any impactful result. The latest of this effort is that initiated by the Minister for Interior in conjunction with the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice. At the state level, the antidote has been the use of state pardon. This certainly has not yielded equally any serious result in the decongestion of the prisons. It is usually like using a bowl to scoop water from the ocean. It was reported in one of the Annual reports on the human rights situation in Nigeria by the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights that the then Military Administrator of Rivers state, Group Captain Sam Ewang, while inaugurating the criminal justice committee, had this to say on the situation of the prison and the use of state pardons: “The present practice of granting pardon to prisoners annually has failed to register the needed impact of prison decongestion. Similarly, the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Prof Musa Yakubu, while commissioning a prison project in Minna, Niger State in May, 1999 opined as follows: “No matter the number of inmates released from the prisons, the problem of prison congestion cannot be resolved.”
Since that time, about two decades ago and up till now, the practice of decongesting our prisons through the grant of state pardon has continued without any impact. It has become an annual ritual. The truth is that as 50 inmates are being released, 500 are coming in. Beyond the above miniature approaches that are traditional, several other suggestions have been proffered over time.
Fast tracking of criminal justice administration is another device adopted. This has not been that impactful due to the various challenges confronting the institution of judiciary itself. It is no news that apart from the challenge of infrastructure, personnel as well as capacity are factors militating against the efficiency of the judiciary. Improvement in the logistic capabilities of the prisons has not added much value to the decongestion process effort. Most of the interventions are too negligible and pedestrian to be noticed. Restorative justice system, through conferencing and apportionment of remedy, has equally been suggested.
According to Braithwaite, “it is a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have the opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm.
With crime, restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. It follows that conversations between those who have been hurt and with those who have inflicted the harm must be central to the process”. I share the opinion that we might have to add this to our buffet of prognosis in the effort to decongest the prisons. It largely operates on the principle of victimology where the victim must not be left in the cold in the dispensation of criminal justice. The use of non-custodial measures has been promoted also, particularly where petty offences are involved. This was actively promoted during the tenure of the last Chief Judge of Lagos State, Hon. Justice Opeyemi Oke, and it is hoped that the effort will be sustained under the new headship of the Lagos State judiciary. The gap in this approach, however, lies in those already kept in prisons. This resolution mechanism needs to be applied or extended to those already in prisons awaiting trial.
This is the only way this can aid significantly the decongestion of the Prisons. Let me, however, state that, apart from the traditional or conventional call for the expansion of prison facilities, including provision of ancillary logistics and the building of the capacity of the personnel, I believe that the solution towards the decongestion of the prisons lies majorly outside the purview of the Ministry of Interior. In respect of the latter issue of capacity that concerns the ministry of interior, prison officials need to be reoriented to know that they are not enforcement officials but change agents or reformers.
• To be continued next week