Nigerian Prisons Services: Practical Proposals For Reform

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GUEST COLUMNIST: Olawale Fapohunda

If there is one area that the Buhari administration is expected to excel, that area is in the reform of our criminal justice system. The rationale for this expectation is not far-fetched. Many of the personalities in the administration are persons with vast experience in criminal justice theory, practice and advocacy. There can definitely be no issue of lack of subject-matter appreciation. ‘Change’ we all confidently chorused, at the inception of the administration, had finally come to the criminal justice system.

If the truth is to be told our expectations have not been met especially those of the millions of vulnerable Nigerians who are likely to experience first-hand, the failings of our criminal justice system. Worse still there appears to be little by way of policy or action plan that gives any indication if or when at all change will come to the sector. More depressing is what appears to be a preference by the administration for ad-hoc interventions that are not only unsustainable but in many ways a sad reminder of why our criminal justice sector seems to be jinxed.

A fallout from this tragic situation is the state of our prisons. It has taken the security breach in Kuje prisons to draw national attention to the sorry state of our prison facilities. Two inmates escaped from what is supposed to be a high security facility. The response of the administration, following the tradition of past administrations, was to set up an investigation committee while suspending the prison governor and fourteen prison officers. This committee like previous ones will in all likelihood make a lot of recommendations but will fail to speak truth to power and highlight what we all know-the security breach in Kuje prisons is evidence of a failed prison system for which the highest level of government must take full responsibility.

Kuje prisons, located in the FCT have a capacity of 560 beds. At the date of the escape the prison population was 842. 215 convicts and 627 awaiting trial persons. Kuje prisons, services 107 courts across the FCT with seven vehicles. Three of these vehicles work on and off.

The leadership of our security agencies frequently admonishes their rank and file with the saying ‘for those whom much is given much is expected’. What about those in the prisons service whose officers have been given little to nothing to work with? Can we in all fairness hold our prison officers to the highest level of professional standards in the absence of an affirming work environment?

One of the miracles of the Nigerian penal system is that in the face of glaring inadequacies we are yet to witness a massive jailbreak across many of our prisons nationwide. Given the prisoners’ population, the prisoner to prison officer ratio and the poor physical structure of these facilities, it is simply inexplicable that prisoners have not made a habit of walking out of prisons at their convenience. The most immediate problem facing the prison system is overcrowding. Many prisons are now operating at more than 150% of capacity. This has resulted in intolerable conditions. Concerns about poor sanitary conditions and feeding are rife; one in five prisoners in some prisons inspected last year by the National Human Rights Commission said they spent at least 23 hours a day locked in their cells. Overcrowding will stymie any attempt at progressive reform. A few examples may be worth noting. Port Harcourt Prisons, in Rivers State has a capacity of 804, today it holds more than 3,593 prisoners, Agodi Prisons in Ibadan, Oyo State has a capacity of 294, it now holds over 1000 inmates, Owerri Prisons in Imo State has a capacity of 548, it now holds just over 2,144 prisoners, Kano Central Prisons has a capacity of 690, there are now over 1,609, in Lagos State, Ikoyi Prisons has a capacity of 800, it now struggles with more than 2,239 inmates. I have deliberately mentioned these prisons because I do not have to be clairvoyant to predict that the next escape or jailbreak will come from any of these facilities. How prison officers manage security with this rate of overcrowding should rightly be the subject of a research paper for an advanced degree in Psychology.

It is worth repeating for emphasis, that keeping thousands of persons in our prisons without trial is not simply a law, justice and human rights issue or about costs. It is one of national security. The evidence of this can be seen first-hand in the on-going struggle of our security agencies including the Nigerian Military to find secure prison facilities for arrested insurgents who constitute a clear and on-going threat to the peace and stability of Nigeria.

Going forward, there is little by way of recommendations for reform that has not been the subject of debates at conferences, high profile presidential committees or publications. In the course of writing this editorial, I did a quick count of the number of prison-focused conferences, workshops and meetings that I have attended, chaired or facilitated since 1999. I stopped counting when I passed the thirty-two mark. I also reviewed several of my articles and publications on the subject matter in the last ten years and found that I have pretty much been saying the same thing.

Same issues, same proposals for reform that many of those who work on prisons reform in Nigeria agree are practical and sensible. A sad combination of ineffective political appointments, limited vision and absence of buy-in at the highest level of government has ensured that many of the issues that confronted us at the dawn of democracy in 1999 are very much still with us in 2016. In addition to overcrowding, outdated and archaic legal framework, colonial prison facilities, limited institutional growth, poor conditions of service for prison officers and above all a repeated inability of the political leadership of the Interior Ministry to develop and push through the desired reforms in the prisons system are the major obstacles to prison reform.

For what it is worth, it may be useful to restate a number of practical proposals for prisons reform. First, the self-evident truth is that change will not come to the prisons system without the personal intervention of Mr. President. The tough and possibly unpopular or politically incorrect decisions that need to be made require a hands on approach by Mr. President. For example what are we going to do with the more than 40,000 remand persons in our prisons, a quarter of who have spent upwards of five to ten years awaiting trial? What do we do with the increasing population of persons on death row? Given the obvious weaknesses in our system, can we in fairness implement the death penalty? Similarly, change will not come to the prisons service if Ministerial interest is ad-hoc or limited to issues of employment, appointments and redeployment. The prisons cannot or in any case should not be administered on an ad-hoc basis. We urgently need to develop a sensible plan for prison reform that will deliver better outcomes and improve public safety.

I propose at least a three-year plan of action for the prisons service, time bound and costed with opportunity for implementation, monitoring and stocktaking. In my view priority interventions should include: access to justice programme for prisoners while taking cognisance of the inherent limitations in the criminal justice system, improving accommodation and training facilities of prison officers, modernising prison facilities, procuring additional vehicles for prisons service, better endowment for prisoner education, vocational training and rehabilitation programmes. On the issue of prisoner education and rehabilitation, if we really want to fight crime as effectively as possible, we must do more than just warehouse or incapacitate criminals for the length of their sentence. We need to ensure that when they leave jail they do not offend again.

The emphasis of our penal system must be on more effective rehabilitation. Our current approach is not working in the interest of prisoners. We need a new approach. At present, more than half of all prisoners are reconvicted of a crime within a year of being released. The evidence shows that education and employment are critical in reducing reoffending and therefore cutting crime – yet only around one in a hundred prisoners enters employment on their release. Worryingly, just one in ten leaves prison with an education or skill. This must be improved. Indeed an important area of review is the regime that limits the participation of remand prisoners in rehabilitation programmes.

Mr. President may want to consider a number of quick wins and immediate interventions. The Prisons Act, which governs the administration of prisons, was last reviewed in 1972. The Act is outdated and is today not relevant to the prisoners, prison officers and our security needs. It is inexcusable that the process for the enactment of a new Prisons legislation for Nigeria that commenced in 2000 is yet to be concluded in 2016. There are now three bills on the administration of prisons in the National Assembly. It is telling that none of these bills are executive bills. There is a need for an executive legislature parley on the appropriate legal framework for the prisons.

The need for a holistic review of the conditions of service for prison officers is fundamental to achieving progress in prisons administration. Success in improving the incarceration condition of prisoners will be dependent on prison staff having a pride in their work. I have said previously that the conditions under which the prison staff work is grossly inadequate. The pay is poor and cannot match the dangers, emotional stress and social isolation that come with the job. Inadequately motivated staff cannot find satisfaction in their jobs neither can they be expected to perform optimally.

Mr. President should consider appointing a Chief Visitor of Prisons to conduct prison inspections on a regular basis, respond to complaints, investigate deaths in custody and publish independent regular findings of his or her work and make appropriate recommendations for action to the President and National Assembly. The weakness of the current approach to prison visits is that there appears to be no formal process for any of the various monitoring or visiting systems to report on their findings either to the management of the Prisons Service, the relevant Ministries, the National Assembly or the President. In addition, none of the external agencies or individuals identified for conducting visits can do so on a full time basis, and the process, while extremely useful and important, is relatively ad hoc.

Perception of Corruption is one of the factors that have adversely affected the Prisons Service. The non-investigation of allegations of graft in the appointments and promotions of prison officers and that of pervasiveness of forged birth and education certificates have been obstacles towards achieving professionalism and efficiency in the administration of prisons. It is suggested that the administration should consider investigating these allegations. It may yet be that the perception is baseless but doing nothing is a recipe for loss of morale and disloyalty to the service.

It is simply inexplicable that a major security institution like the Prisons Service is excluded from the National Security Council. This is more so now that we are struggling with finding secure prisons facilities for insurgents. Mr. President should therefore consider appointing the Controller-General of Prisons as a member of the National Security Council.

I have at every public platform available to me repeatedly stated that an important step towards achieving effective and efficient prison administration is to remove the prisons service from the oversight of the Ministry of Interior and place it in the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Interior has for long supervised the Nigerian Prisons Service. The Ministry of Interior jointly supervises the prisons service and other paramilitary services like the Immigration Service and the Civil Defence Corps. The duties of the Prison Services are fundamentally different from that of the Immigration and Civil Defence Corps. Therefore a situation where they are treated in the same way and administered by one administrative body will continue to militate against the efficiency and effectiveness of prison administration. For the same reason, Mr. President should support the establishment of a Prisons Service Commission to take over the functions of the Immigration, Prisons Service and Civil Defence Board as it relates to the administration of the Prisons.

There is a clear and present need to give prison governors greater operational and financial autonomy in the management of their prisons. We need to remove the bureaucratic micromanagement particularly from the Interior Ministry that disempowers them.

Prison governors must be able to decide how the prison budget is spent and should have operational freedom over education, discipline, family visits and prison work services. Of course with this freedom and autonomy must come accountability and performance evaluation.

My final proposal is that given existing economic and political realities, Mr. President should facilitate a national dialogue on the desirability of state prisons opening the possibility of constitutional amendment. In my view the argument for state prisons has largely been misconceived and limited to the politics of a federal system. What Nigeria needs today is not a Federal or State prison but a prison system that meets minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. However I am convinced that if states take financial responsibility for the administration of prisons, they would exercise better discretion in sending persons who come into conflict with the law to prison especially minor offenders.

In conclusion, I am under no illusion that change will come easily to the prisons- we are in many ways still stuck in the colonial era with old buildings, archaic laws, old thinking and old ways of doings things. However, we do not have to wait until the next jailbreak to begin the hard work of putting in place building blocks for a sustainable prisons reforms programme.

Olawale Fapohunda, is the Former Attorney- General of Ekiti State