The Revolution in Nigeria Prisons

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To Pastor Benson Iwegwu, the ex-convict is a menace to society on returning from prison unless he is rehabilitated. As the head of the Prison Fellowship of Nigeria, he has embarked on reformation of the system. Segun James reports

By the time you are reading this, 50 inmates of the Nigeria’s premier prison, Kirikiri Prison in Lagos would have graduated and on their way to new lives as reformed citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The 50 were part of a stream of over 1,200 inmates that have been rehabilitated and sent on the way to success by the Prison Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), a Christian faith denomination group founded by Pastor Benson Iwegwu, a lawyer who believes that the nation’s prison system instead of being a reformation system has become a breeding ground for hardened criminals, and worse still, creating more criminals of young venerable and impressionable youths who enter the prison for minor infractions but ended up as hardened criminals once out of the system.

Iwegwu is not new to the system. As a lawyer, he has had cause to defend and sometimes prosecute such persons who ended up in prison once convicted. He also found, from experience that such persons once released, within a few weeks or months were back in jail for other offences. It has become a vicious cycle that has put the larger society in great danger, hence the formation of the PFN, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) dedicated to prisoner reform and rehabilitation.

Since 2009, and within its limited budget, the PFN has rehabilitated over 1,200 inmates who have not only graduated from various universities in the country, but have become successes in their various fields.

Today, 50 more of such inmates are graduating in various vocational and professional programmed mentored by PFN in collaboration with the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN), the Covenant University and the Nigeria Prison Service.

Called the Life Recovery Pre-Release Empowerment Programme, it is aimed at reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners and to empower the inmates before exiting the prison.
The programme is designed not only to address the spiritual life of the inmates, but also their personal and emotional issues including any psychological problems that will expose them to criminal behaviour again.
To complete the process, they are empowered with business and entrepreneurial training and skills that are designed to ensure a life out of crime after prison.

While the SMEDAN role in the scheme was exposing the inmates to vocational skills, the Life Recovery Pre-Release Empowerment Programmed is not based on any precise curriculum instead it draws from critical disciplines helpful in the reformation and treatment of the inmates. SMEDAN also provides business and entrepreneurial study.

The role of the Covenant University is the provision of psycho-analytic counselling and support and therapy in order to address the personality dysfunction in the inmates during their prolonged incarceration in the prison, while the role of the PFN is to provide the spiritual and vocational content of the programme.

Impressed by the efforts of the PFN, the Director General of SMEDAN, Dr. Dikko Umar Radda, paid a visit to the prison to see for himself the level of success that has been recorded by the programme since it started.
Radda said that the success of the Kirikiri programme was a polit scheme for others in the country as the agency looks forwards to helping in the rehabilitation and re-integration of the inmates.

The programme according to Iwegwu, is designed to rehabilitate inmates who have less than two years to their release date. However, the programme does not include awaiting trial inmates who constitute over 75 per cent of inmates in the Nigerian prison system.

According to Iwegwu, “the inmate has soul, spirit and body. While we provide the spiritual and vocational skills that will see them living a crime free and more fulfilling life after prison, it is important that they have a total education that will ensure they do not return a to a life of crime after prison.”

Iwegwu said that the educational programme was designed into two modules of 18 months. Six months inside the prison and another 12 months post prison experience after which they are given “seed money” by the PFN to start a new life that is crime free and rewarding.

He said that the programme has been a success since it started in 2009 as records have shown that none of the graduates of the programme have returned to a life of crime. He stressed that it has taken a lot of commitment and goodwill of people and others agencies to get the programme going.

On how the progamme funds its activities, Iwegwu said that “for us, it is a flagship programme that is not run by one organisation but partners that send out messages that reformation, rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-inmates is a collective social responsibility.

“To ignore the reformation of inmates is to jeopardise our collective safety and security and compromise our national well-being and safety. That for example, there are over 4,000 inmates in the Kirikiri Medium Prison. That is well above its 1,700 built-up capacity; and many of them, over 70 per cent are awaiting trial inmates!”
On why the concentration on Kirikiri Prison alone given the many prisons in the country, Iwegwu said that the paucity of fund and the fact that it is the biggest prison in the country accounted for this.

On his motivation, Iwegwu said that for decades, many ex-inmates have been shuttling from one prison to the other as they go back to prison after being arrested for the same crime over and again.
He said that this is what fuelled escalation and sophistication of crime in the country, adding that this anti social attitude must be looked into for the greater good of the larger society which bear the brunt of such behaviour.

As the 50 inmates graduate, Iwegwu and the PFN hope that they would find their new vocation useful like others in the past and never return back to prison.