President Muhammadu Buhari is a statesman. He is not a professional politician. He is a professional in politics. When he rose to improve the welfare of workers by agreeing to pay N30,000 as minimum wage, despite the lean purse, a lot of opposition opponents insinuated that he was playing politics with it. The President signed the bill for the minimum wage increase long after he won the election without prevarication, when he had every opportunity to renege or modify the proposals, since he had won the election, as the professional politicians would have done. Same fate befell the June 12 Democracy Day declaration, which was proposed before elections, but was signed into law, without stories, after the election was won. In any case, would he have played chemistry or biology in a democracy? We pray that any politician who promises anything to Nigerians should keep to it even after he has secured the mandate of Nigerians.
The latest of those great milestones by President Buhari, in our journey to becoming a first world country, is the signing into law of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 11 years after it was first introduced to the National Assembly, which has essentially transformed our hitherto prisons to schools and the prisoners to students. It appears that on this Act, even the greatest critics of the President have conceded that he has done well. Hear the words of Mike Ozekhomhe SAN, a known critic of this government, who is even part of the legal team trying to unseat the President through the courts. He said, “that is the right way to go. That is one thing I think has come from Buhari’s government. It is like saying that every dark sky must have a silver lining because a prison is supposed to be correctional, a prison is supposed to be reformatory. It is not supposed to harden criminals”. He enjoined the government to take a cue from what obtained in other climes and make Nigerian prisons the ideal correctional home where prisoners are made better citizens.
When I visited the Enugu Prisons sometime in April 30, 2018, on a missionary trip, it was obvious to me that our prisoners were not treated as human beings. They were treated more as property rather than persons. The first thing that greeted me was the song of some of the inmates soliciting assistance. The song states thus, “please help us who are thieves in this prison.” I was shocked. So, these men have perpetually condemned themselves as irredeemable thieves and have adopted this as their names forever. God forbid! When I went into the condemned prisoners chapel to preach the gospel and before I climbed the pulpit, after hearing their stories, I broke down uncontrollably. Some of them have been on death row for more than 25 years waiting every day to be executed. What a psychological trauma that could be. The prisoners thought, when they saw my tears, that I came under a heavy spiritual unction for the preaching and luckily that helped prepare their minds to receive the gospel. At the end of the day, about 22 condemned inmates gave their lives to Christ. The same fit occurred in the non-condemned prisoners chapel where about 44 inmates gave their lives to Christ. We managed to feed them and handed Bibles to them.
Some of the gory stories included the overcrowding of the cells which made them sleep in turns with some inmates having to stand for hours waiting for their turns to sleep. Very poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, which were exacerbated by bed-bug infested mattresses. Lack of space for any meaningful exercise or academic improvement. Deaths and diseases were rampant in the prison. Female inmates almost serving under same harsh conditions without adequate provisions for their medical peculiarities and for some innocent children caught in – between, bearing the consequences of the wrong choices of their delinquent parents. Whoever went to Nigerian Prisons then acquired the mentality of a condemned criminal irrespective of the sentence by the court. Little wonder, they came out from the prison more hardened without any skill, vocation, confidence, self-esteem and with the tag of an ex-convict, without any hope of being employed or reintegrated back to the society forever. Most of them resort back to crimes until they are killed and end up in unmarked graves.
Thank goodness, with the signing into law of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, all these gory stories are about to change forever. The objectives of this Act as enunciated in Section 2 are to: (a) be in compliance with international human rights standards and good correctional practices; (b) provide enabling platform for implementation of non-custodial measures; (c) enhance the focus on corrections and promotion of reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders; and (d) establish institutional, systemic and sustainable mechanisms to address the high number of persons awaiting trial.
It is obvious that correction is now the primary purpose of the correctional service and this is done through initiating behaviour modification in inmates through the provision of medical, psychological, spiritual and counselling services for all offenders, including violent extremists and providing safe, secure and humane custody of inmates while protecting their fundamental human rights. Section 9 (1)(b) specifically provides that in every building so declared as a custodial centre, sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, with consideration given, among other things, to adequate floor space, water and sanitation amenities, lighting and ventilation. To underscore the seriousness of this humane initiative, any Correctional Superintendent who admits more inmates than the capacity of the correctional facility is sanctioned under the new Act. This effectively puts paid to the issue of overcrowding of the prisons where inmates would have to stand for hours waiting for their turns to sleep.
In furtherance of the protection of the fundamental rights of the inmates, the correctional centre is under a duty to take adequate measures and steps to ensure the prevention of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment against inmates, prevention of sexual and non-sexual violence and bullying; ensure that inmates are not held in slavery or servitude. This is in line with international best practices. Moreover, the practice of an inmate on death row waiting in perpetuity to be executed with its attendant psychiatric and psychological impact on the inmate seems to be over as the Act has empowered the Chief Judge to commute the sentence of death to life imprisonment if the execution of the inmate is not carried out before 10 years after the inmate has exhausted all legal procedures for appeal. Efforts were made also to ensure that the awaiting trial inmates are speedily tried and their fate determined in accordance with extant laws.
Another unique feature of this Act is the provision of enabling platform for implementation of non-custodial measures. Non- Custodial Service is an aspect of the Nigerian Correctional Service that serves as an alternative to going to a custodial centre (prison). The measures include: (a) community service; (b) probation; (c) parole; (d) restorative justice measures; and (e) any other Non – Custodial Measures assigned to the Correctional Service by a court of competent jurisdiction. All these measures are aimed at reducing the overcrowding of our prisons, increasing the productivity of the inmates and their usefulness to the society through community service and ensuring that the victims and offenders are reconciled through mediation for the peaceful coexistence of all in their communities.
Towards enhancing the focus on corrections and promotion of reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, the Correctional Service, under the new Act, provides opportunities for education, vocational training, as well as training in modern farming techniques and animal husbandry for inmates. To achieve this, the Correctional Service shall establish and run in designated custodial centres, industrial centres equipped with modern facilities for the enhancement of vocational skills training for inmates aimed at facilitating their reintegration into society. It is heartwarming to note that the inmates are to earn a living from one third of the funds generated from these schemes to aid their rehabilitation. This quest for education also provides for the establishment of crèche for the proper upbringing of the children of the inmates below 18 months. The establishment of Borstal Institutions for the education and reformation of delinquent children under 18 years.
The opportunity for education and empowerment is one of the most important aspects of this new Act. It is true that criminologically, the philosophy behind punishment is not in the pleasure of any country to inflict injuries on its citizens, but it is for deterrence. However, a hopeless man who is already on the floor and is unemployed and unemployable due to lack of skills and stigma, will resort back to crime no matter the deterrence. But empowering him through the deployment of educational and vocational skills training programmes, and facilitating incentives and income generation through custodial centres, farms and industries can change him because he can have the hope of making it again in life. Nelson Mandela rightly said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The stigma of an ex-convict not allowed to be employed after being discharged from the prison has been removed by this Act by empowering the Correctional Service, through the Board, to issue certificate of good behaviour to inmates, who conducted themselves properly while serving their custodial sentence and acquired skills through formal and informal education.
This certificate frees them from any kind of discrimination on grounds of their custodial sentence.
The success of the application of this Act is the duty of everybody under this Act. The Executive, Legislature, Judiciary, Non-Governmental Organisations, Reputable Members of the Society and Voluntary Visitors as the Correctional Service may deem fit.
One of the tragedies of the Nigerian economy since the discovery of oil and its boom is that it is based on consumption not productivity. Everybody is waiting to share the national cake and not many people are interested in baking it. This makes the economy very wasteful. The country not only wastes its material resources, it wastes its human resources. A situation where prisoners, majority being youths, are held for years, sometimes awaiting trial, sometimes on death row, while being left idle, is entirely wasteful. There is no reason the government should be spending billions feeding prisoners, while keeping them idle and allowing their idle minds to be the devil’s workshop. They should be able to produce what they eat and eat what they produce with surplus to sell to boost their earning power and speed up their rehabilitation. This is the whole essence of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act. We opine that in addition to making the inmates productive through farming, working in industries, community service etc, there should be room for sports and entertainment. Every correctional centre should have a football pitch, movie and a musical centre. Every inmate should be encouraged to learn how to operate one musical instrument and one sporting activity, including a vocation before leaving the correctional centre. Vocations often speak to the body needs, while entertainment speaks to the soul needs. The two go hand-in-hand in changing an offender into a new man. This productivity drive should be replicated in all aspects of our economy.