Comptroller-general of Nigerian Prisons Service, Jaffaru Ahmed, says the authorities have issued a plan for inmates to farm to feed themselves due to high feeding costs and inadequacy of funds. But this strategy would be at the expense of the prisoners’ rights. Vincent Obia writes
Comptroller-general of Nigerian Prisons Service, Jaffaru Ahmed, said on Monday in Abuja that the service planned to set up specialised farm centres across the country to enable prisoners farm to feed themselves. Ahmed said this when he appeared before the House of Representatives committee on interior to defend the NPS’s N72 billion budget for this year. He spoke against the backdrop of the high cost of feeding the over 72, 000 inmates of the country’s prisons, saying N19.8 billion is required to feed the inmates this year.
Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazau, had also hinted on the need for prisoners to farm to feed themselves.
As the economic crunch bites, departments and organisations would be devising ways to cut cost and become more self-sustaining – which is okay. But the idea of mandating prisoners to farm in order to feed themselves while in state custody infringes on their personal rights. It also does not promote the corrective or reformatory role of the prisons. Once someone is in prison or state custody, the federal government, which exclusively owns and runs the prisons, should accept the moral and legal consequences of holding the person. Feeding the inmate is a cost the government must bear, among other services required to keep him alive while in custody.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria ratified and brought into force in 1993, provides that people deprived of their liberty should be treated with humanity and dignity. The treaty provides that prisoners should not be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatments, and they should be guaranteed the same conditions as free persons. It says that the central purpose of prisons should be reform and rehabilitation, not punishment.
Mandating prisoners to work and provide their own food gives the impression that the prisoners are not a legitimate part of the government’s responsibility. It appears too punitive to be considered restorative for the inmates, and calls the reformative role of the prisons into question. Such a policy may end up sowing the seeds of more alienation among the inmates and fanning the flames of a new hostile relationship with the outside world, when the state should be taking steps to encourage the inclusion and integration of the prisoners into society. More serious, perhaps, is the fact that the policy would aggravate the dismal life of prisoners by increasing their labour.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also requires the separation of prisoners in awaiting trial detention from those already convicted of crimes. However, that distinction is very blurred in Nigerian prisons, as most inmates are not serving their sentences, but are in pre-trial detention. About 70 per cent of prisoners in the country are said to be awaiting trial. That places even further limitation on the extent to which the inmates’ labour can be engaged by the state.
Though, it would be a welcome idea if the prison farms initiative is introduced as part of the skills acquisition mechanism for inmates. This would be in line with the prison’s statutory reformative function. Through practical experience, inmates can be taught necessary farming skills while in custody and those who want to take up farming as an occupation can be assisted with funds and tools when they regain their freedom.
Nonetheless, there is no denying the enormous cost of feeding the over 72, 000 prisoners in the country. The feeding allowance for an inmate is N450 per day. Though, the amount is the rate approved by the federal government, prison authorities allege that adequate provisions are hardly made for it in the budgetary allocations to the service.
The prison authorities should insist on adequate funding of the prisons. They should transparently advocate transformation of Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons, which have become scenes of despair and squalor. Such transformation is even more urgent now that the country is in dire need of reorientation.
The federal government can also try to relieve itself of the unwieldy exclusive responsibility for the prisons by sharing such burden with the federating units through constitutional transfer of prisons from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List.
Exploiting prisoners’ labour to make up for government inadequacies in the funding of the prisons is a sort of shortcut that would defeat the purpose of the prison and do inadvertent harm to society. It should be frowned upon by all Nigerians.