This Day (Lagos)

6 July 2004

Nigeria: The Challenges of Prison Reform

opinion

Lagos — With Awaiting Trial Inmates in Nigerian Prisons said to account for between 55-75% of the prison population, Maryam Uwais looks at the prisons of tomorrow from the civil society perspective. She proffers suggestions on how the weaknesses in the criminal justice system can be strengthened, even within current constraints.

The major concerns that arise from the sorry state of the Nigerian Prisons Service and make a mockery of the enormous resources made available in efforts to ameliorate the suffering of inmates in our prisons today, include congestion in most prisons (caused by the teeming numbers of awaiting trial inmates) and the appalling neglect experienced by the officers and men of the Service itself.

Generally, the congestion in our detention centres could be directly attributed to the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in the country, with the attendant rise in crime and general insecurity. Governments, at all levels, have the primary role to play in the area of enhancing the standards of living available to its citizenry; to cater for the welfare of the more vulnerable, ensure food security, qualitative education, opportunities for employment, basic infrastructure, affordable housing, healthcare, etc.

Furthermore, the neglect suffered by the entire administration of justice system over the years, leading to incoherence between the principal actors responsible for the swift and efficient dispensation of criminal justice, is another key factor that has contributed to the ever increasing numbers of awaiting trials in our cells. As at early September 2003, the number of awaiting trial inmates hovered between 55% and 75% of the total population of all those incarcerated in our prisons, many of which have spent well over 6 years, in custody, without their trials having ever been concluded. The statistics, to bring the issues forth in our consciousness, are that as of that date, there were 40,082 inmates in all of the prisons, out of which more than half (23,336) were awaiting trial. Majority of them are armed robbery and robbery suspects (almost 10,000), followed by murder and manslaughter (4,322), stealing/fraud (almost 4,000), rape (775), drugs, arson, etc. Many of the inmates may not have been taken to court more than a couple of times, but in a few States, we have discovered inmates who have had their matters adjourned several times (and even up to 83 times in a pathetic instance) since their date of detention. It is, truly, a dismal, complex and absolutely unwarranted situation!

I do not believe it necessary to bore you by delving into the many issues that have been itemized, time and time again, as the perceived problems and the recommended solutions for revamping our Nigerian Prisons Service. I shall merely attempt to suggest how some of the weaknesses in the system could be strengthened and the identified concerns addressed, somewhat, even within our current constraints.

The Structures There is no legitimate reason, bearing our current experiences in mind, why our detention centres (which include prisons, borstal institutions, remand homes and police cells) could not be constructed (or reconstructed) in such a manner as to afford its inmates sufficient ventilation, space and light. Many of the existing structures, with hardly any ventilation or space, are several decades old. In the recent past, attempts have been made at erecting new structures, although many of the buildings have been abandoned due to lack of funds. Indeed, there are no prison facilities available in Bayelsa State, to-date. Many others remain underutilized, especially up North. Perhaps it is time for the Prison authorities to consider transferring long term convicts to prisons that are less populated, as the problems of congestion could be tackled somewhat in a short term manner, by the redistribution of its long term convicted inmates from the densely populated, to those with less inmates.

Our detention centres also need to be classified on the basis of defined criteria such as nature of suspected offence, age, gender, criminal records, training needs, etc, if only to minimize the obvious risks associated with the mingling of all categories of offenders, irrespective of these considerations. In jurisdictions where more than one prison exist, we should consider establishing the larger prison as 'awaiting trial' prisons (or by whichever appellation), while the relatively more compact could comprise of convicted offenders, alone. Indeed, in jurisdictions where the crime patterns are very high, the prison with the largest capacity could be designated a maximum security prison. Even within these considerations, (suspected) perpetrators of heinous crimes should be separated from first and minor offenders, while of, course, the female and male classifications should be retained. In the female sections of the prisons, provision must be made for prenatal and postnatal care for mothers, as also basic necessities for the babies born by female detainees during incarceration.

Borstal institutions should be constructed in each geo-political zone, as the existing four, located in Ilorin, Abeokuta, Kaduna and Enugu, are grossly inadequate and ill-equipped for our present needs. Remand homes should be also be built, equipped and manned by competent, empathetic personnel in every State, for suspected juvenile offenders. Facilities must be maintained as a deliberate policy. After this is achieved, the training needs (in terms of vocational and skill acquisition, etc) and security requirements could be tailored around these adjustments, making them easier to design and implement.

If these measures are taken, awaiting trial inmates could also avail themselves of the opportunities that are currently available to convicts alone, even though we are well aware that many of the awaiting trial detainees remain incarcerated for much longer than most convicts. These opportunities include skill acquisition, vocational training, educational materials, basic comforts like mattresses, blankets and even open up (from the cells) periods for some exercise and fresh air. For these reasons, amongst others, the Prisons Act needs to be amended to reflect modern human rights norms, in addition to permitting this category of inmates to also enjoy the benefits (in terms of being remunerated) derivable there from.

The health services unit currently operates four 25-bed prison hospitals at Kaduna, Lagos, Ilesha and Bauchi complete with ancillary facilities such as theatre, x-ray and laboratory for the utilisation of inmates and prison staff, while a 2 to 4 bed sick bay exists in most prison locations, nationwide, to cater for an almost 50,000 inmate population. Comprehensive clinics should be established and equipped in every prison to take care of the medical needs of the detainees, while a ward/section of a teaching hospital in every State capital could be reserved for inmates where there are no prison hospitals located, even because of the numbers of the sick and the dying due to the epidemics that ravage these prisons, often. It goes without saying that these designated areas could then be adequately secured, accordingly. Mention must also be made of the need for pipe borne water in all our prisons, being a prerequisite for ensuring hygiene and preventing the spread of communicable diseases amongst the inmates.

Constitutional Amendment Mention should be made also of the need for State Governments to actively get involved in the ongoing efforts to revamp our prisons, regardless of the fact that responsibility for their upkeep constitutionally lies at federal level. Feeding, training, sanitation, security, rehabilitation, education, healthcare and welfare needs are best appreciated and tackled at this echelon of governance. It is, indeed, time we reviewed our Constitution with a view to resolving this incongruous situation, by ensuring that the item of 'prisons' is listed on the Concurrent legislative list, rather than the Exclusive List, as obtains presently. If this is done, minimum standards could be maintained at Federal level, while the States would still be able to take some positive initiatives that would impact directly on the prisons within their jurisdictions.

Attitudinal and Policy Change The problems endemic in the prisons system cannot be resolved without addressing the surrounding issues related to justice sector administration. Our judges and magistrates need to begin to focus and utilize the sections of our law that provide for non-custodial measures, instead of resorting to imprisonment even for lesser offences. The options of suspended sentences or even community service should be utilized more frequently by our magistrates, for minor offenders. The 'holden charge' cannot continue to be used as an excuse to detain suspected offenders, by magistrates that have no jurisdiction to actually try these offenders, thereby giving the police license to continue their investigations forever. Indeed, it would appear that training in the critical area of investigation for the police needs to be reiterated and specifically addressed, for its officers nowadays seem to have adopted the lackadaisical approach of 'arrest, first, investigate later', thereby adding to the growing numbers of detainees in our cells.

Fragmentation and incoherence between the principal actors in the system of administration of justice having been identified as the cause for most unnecessary incarcerations, Criminal Justice Committees (CJC) were established by Law, at State level, comprising the Chief Judge, Commissioner of Police, the Attorney General of the State and other officials, primarily to decongest the prisons on a regular basis. It was intended that such bodies would create the needed synergy to resolve the conundrum of prison congestion. The reality, however, is that although many of these bodies do exist, they exist only on paper, and those that do make the effort to conduct prison visits regularly, do not have the power to release many of the detainees, where they are charged with capital offences. The predicament of awaiting trials in large numbers therefore still persists, despite the well-meaning efforts of those who actually do conduct the prison visits regularly. Moreover, the Law creating the CJC's specifically empowers only the heads of court to release deserving inmates, so it is proposed that an amendment be effected that would permit the Chief Judge to delegate his powers to any of the judges of the High Court to also participate in the task of decongesting the prisons.

Distressingly, too many of the awaiting trial detainees are charged with armed robbery and murder, and their circumstances are compounded with the fact that their files are said to be missing. Judges are therefore reluctant to 'unleash' them on the unsuspecting public by releasing them without a trial having ever been conducted. Our judicial officers seem to have forgotten that our Constitution provides that all are innocent until proven guilty. Government must be bold enough to effect the release of those suspects whose files are lost, without delay, as continuing to detain them amounts to condemning them to a lifetime of detention, when in actual fact, they may have committed no crime, in the first place. Adequate preparation must, however, first be made to empower them and monitor their activities upon release, before such steps are taken, if only to ensure that they do not fall into evil ways, which hardship may well lead them into. The State Ministries of Justice and Police Commands should therefore be given the necessary wherewithal to keep tabs on those released, at least for a specified duration. In addition, a survey must be conducted to determine those prisoners who have already served their maximum terms prescribed in the Law for the offences they are charged with while awaiting trial, with a view to releasing them, also.

The Nigerian Bar Association should also give serious consideration to having lawyers, as prosecutors, attached to police stations, prisons and courts, to create the required synergy for speedily perusing the case files that are available and trying those offenders whose cases merit such. This could be arranged at the State chapter levels, after the required fiats have been obtained, even temporarily and at least until the proportions of awaiting trial suspects become more manageable in each jurisdiction. Too many of the legal profession remain aloof to these problems and it is the responsibility of the Nigerian Bar Association to address these pressing concerns by making it compulsory for its members to take up a minimum number of pro bono matters, at regular intervals, as a caring, responsive body. Monitoring teams, comprising members of the Nigerian Medical Association, religious bodies, the Legal Aid Council, The Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, civil society groups and the National Human Rights Commission should be formed in every State to verify and ensure basic necessities in these prison settings, such as the nutritional value and quantity of food, hygiene and sanitation, the health and welfare of inmates and compliance with the Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of Prisoners.

Police and other law enforcement agencies should be better trained and equipped, as much of their identified lapses are, in truth, matters that lie beyond their control. Consequently, sufficient funds should be provided for those investigating police officers who have been transferred out of their stations, to return for the purpose of testifying in court, when the trials are ongoing. Mention must be made of the efforts by the National Judicial Institute for each State High Court to make allowances in their budgets for expenses incurred by witnesses in trials, as used to be the position in the past. Other sundry essentials that could be considered include the possibility of sanctioning of counsel who seek unnecessary adjournments, in criminal matters, thereby causing undue delays. Judges should also become more proactive in proceedings before them, as situations where counsel seek for adjournments for over a determined number of times for flimsy reasons should enable the judge to discharge the accused persons, without necessarily acquitting them.

Perhaps, another issue that may be considered is for the State Governments to construct High Courts and Magistrate Courts within the vicinity of the prisons, themselves, to address the concerns associated with transporting awaiting trial prisoners to and fro these detention centres, especially in areas where there is traffic congestion, where the roads are badly constructed or virtually non-existent. There is no gainsaying the fact that the support of the police, if these measures are taken, is critical in ensuring that trials are speedily conducted, thereat.

Relevant staff should be recruited for our prisons, which category of persons include psychologists, psychiatrists, surgeons, clinical psychologists, counselors, educationists, trained social workers, if only that appropriate specialized personnel may man our correctional Institutions and ensure that they are run professionally. For instance, there is no legitimate reason why verified mentally ill inmates should continue to remain in confinement, as the appropriate place for such ill-fated persons is the Psychiatric Hospitals. Unfortunately, too many are incarcerated in many of our prisons, sentenced to a lifetime of suffering, forgotten and abandoned by the world. Where competent staff are retained by these Institutions, they would be alerted to the early warning signals emanating from those in need of special care and treatment, and handled, accordingly.

An important concern that Government should focus on also is that of the rehabilitation and reintegration of the released convict. Funds and tools of trade should be made available to the convict upon release, as a matter of deliberate policy. State governments should explore avenues for establishing a revolving fund for discharged inmates, with seed donations from public-spirited individuals and organizations, as well as money obtained from the sale of produce from farms, or items made or produced by the inmates themselves. Once such persons are so empowered, with the necessary tools and credit to enable them engage in gainful employment subsequent to discharge, the chances of recidivism would be reduced. Here, again, we all have a duty in our communities to give them a chance by offering discharged convicts jobs, rather than dismissing them as ne'er-do-wells, as is often the norm.

The Service Itself The Nigerian Prisons Service of tomorrow should reflect true professionalism, competence and independence. The current Prisons Service should therefore be empowered with a level of autonomy to enhance its overall efficiency and effectiveness. For instance, the existing arrangement where its Secretary is on posting from the Ministry of Internal Affairs gives room for duplication of supervision and conflict between the two organizations. Perhaps, as has been done with the Police, the establishment of a Prisons Service Commission with sufficient latitude to take up the functions of appointment, promotion, discipline of officers may enhance and improve their current circumstances. This Body could also be tasked with devising the training needs (including human rights awareness) of the officers and men, as well as formulating a policy and strategy for improved performance. Much needs to be done to stimulate and facilitate future organizational growth and development by raising the morale of the staff themselves and improving their salary structure, conditions of service (including their pensions scheme, upon retirement), professional training and decent residential and official accommodation.

Conclusion Perhaps I may be dismissed as an idealist, but I do have the belief and the expectation that we have the wherewithal and the capacity, as Nigerians, to rise up to the challenges that confront us as a developing country, and also create, among other effective institutions, a Nigerian Prisons Service that is progressive, caring and focused on the reformative and rehabilitative aspects of incarceration. The sheer financial implications of keeping such large numbers of able-bodied, economically productive men and women inactive for such indefinite periods, are enormous, and should forcefully compel us towards conceptualizing and maintaining 'under-populated', efficient, cost effective and community-friendly correctional Institutions, comprising of an overwhelming majority of convicted offenders, rather than of those awaiting trial.

Data and statistics should be collated, with a view to maintaining proper, comprehensive records of all the inmates in our prisons, as a starting point for positive reform. International and local donors and non-governmental organizations should strategize and collaborate with each other in the area of penal reform, to increase the impact of the work they do in the campaign for best prison practices. A strong lobby should be initiated and sustained by civil society groups also, at the National Assembly, for the reform of the Prisons Bill. Governments, at all levels, must be continuously challenged by the civil society to construct and maintain adequate, well-equipped, professionally-run correctional Institutions, but we also have a major part to play, in addition to ensuring that government remains accountable and humane, by harnessing efforts towards keeping our communities crime free and our society, secure.

Individually, lawyers can play a role in keeping with their vocation, as can those of the medical profession. The pharmacists can contribute drugs, the pastors and imams moral instruction. Mention must be made, at this juncture, of the commendable efforts of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Group (PMG), who generously donated drugs worth millions of naira to the Prisons Service, through the National Human Rights Commission, last year. It is hoped that many more Associations make similar, sorely-needed gestures, while the PMG would continue with these contributions on a regular basis. The architects and engineers could give constructive suggestions and concrete donations of how to make life a bit more comfortable for the inmates, while even those without 'professions' can contribute tools of trade, books, training essentials, ideas or simply lend an ear of empathy to those who have been abandoned by the larger society, many perhaps through no fault of their own.

Ours should be an all-inclusive approach, as the progress and development of all facets of our society is a responsibility that behoves on all of us citizens, irrespective of our circumstances in life. It is a challenge we all must embrace and confront to achieve a progressive Nigeria of tomorrow, for we cannot be said to be moving forward, when so many lag behind, and sadly, where most appear to have remained stagnant.

This paper was delivered by Mrs. Uwais at the Lagos State Stakeholders Summit on the Criminal Justice System, two weeks ago.

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