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Decongestion of correctional centres: The Ogun Example

By Ademola Orunbon

Prisons are public correctional institutions established by government where inmates — suspects and convicts — are detained. Concerned citizens observe that over the years, the situation in Nigerian prison cells across the country has become miserable where many inmates who are awaiting trial languish.

They observe that some of the inmates have even spent more years in prison than the actual years required if they had been convicted. On Wednesday, August 19, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari signed a bill into law.

This bill is chiefly geared towards changing the name of the Nigeria Prisons Service into the Nigeria Correctional Service. This development is very significant given that it bothers on a salient aspect of social existence and intercourse: Crime, as argued by many scholars, is an inevitable reality in the society. To put it differently, there is no crime-free society.

What is obtainable is that the rate of crime incidence could vary from one society to another. The correctional facilities play a vital role in determining this variance. There is consensus among criminologists that there are three important aspects of the criminal justice system.

They are: the police, the trial court and the correctional home (see Dambazau’s “Criminology and Criminal Justice”). Thus, correction occupies an important place in crime discourses, specifically crime prevention and control. The prison is an aspect of correction.

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Correction is broader in that it goes beyond ostracising the offender only as in the case of prison, it also sees to his rehabilitation, restitution and re-socialization.

Therefore, the move to change the Nigeria Prisons Service to the Nigeria Correctional Service is indeed a commendable one; especially as it is against the background that there are many things wrong with the Nigeria Prisons Service.

Moving forward, I dare say that the semantic transformation alone is not enough, there are more to do if truly rehabilitation and not punishment is the watchword here.

Modern correctional facilities are fast leaving Nigeria’s behind given that no substantial restructuring has been accorded to it. This explains why the rate of criminal activities is high in Nigeria. In saner climes, prisons are for reformatory activities. But in Nigeria, prisons harden inmates the more due to the level of punishment meted to them.

This is against the submission of Michael Foucault that discipline is not about capital punishment but ‘space’ which enhances reformation. Zaynab Aliyu who was accused of trafficking drug by the Saudi Arabia authority and therefore remanded was reported to have learnt pure Arabic and committed half of the Quran to heart during her sojourn in a Saudi dungeon.

This is a country where the prison system works. The opposite is the case in Nigeria, no value is added to offenders; rather they are devalued. Inmates are also human beings. By virtue of that, ‘some of their fundamental human rights’ should be well guaranteed. They should be given the freedom to study, learn vocational skills and advance personally.

The Nigeria Prisons Service has failed the Nigerian society in its entirety. This is evident in the level of recidivism that stares most Nigerian prisons in the face. The chance at which ex-inmates would be re-admitted into the jail is very high. The Nigerian prison system breeds the criminal tendencies in an individual-offender. A petty criminal may come out of the system to become a die-hard criminal.

The modus operandi in Nigerian prisons does not support the rehabilitation of offenders. In most cases, petty criminals are put together with hardened criminals, paving the way for the further mal-socialisation and criminalization of the former. Living condition in Nigerian prisons is very harsh which could toughen inmates the more. The problem of overcrowding is another with many of the inmates awaiting trials. No genuine rehabilitation programmes for inmates.

Rather, they are given demanding tasks and exposed to capital punishments which can only harden them the more. To this day, there are still insinuations that in Nigerian prisons a new inmate is given the beating of his life to serve as a ‘welcome party’. So, how does an offender come out of this shambolic system re-socialised?

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The phenomenon of stratification is another major problem in the Nigerian prison system. Some prisoners are more equal than others. While some ‘big prisoners’ spend their jail terms in a well-conducive environment; common prisoners continue to languish in deteriorated blocks in prison.

This is why Marxists and most conflict theorists hold that the prison is also a haven of social inequality. Nothing could attest to this than the state of the Nigerian prison system. Should some inmates be more equal than the others?

In the light of all these, it is thus re-assuring that the presidency had deemed it fit to right many of the wrongs in the Nigerian prisons by assenting to the bill. In the same token, kudos must be given to the eight assembly for initiating this bill, and to the ninth assembly for not discarding it on political grounds.

However, it is not over until it is over. It is hoped that this development will not just exist on paper. Indeed, if the problem of rehabilitation, overcrowding, structure, inequality could be addressed in the prisons, the rate at which criminal activities occur would reduce drastically. In Nigeria, there are several prisons, just like any other country in the whole world, but, unlike some of the countries, Nigeria prisons are seriously congested, choked up with prisoners.

There are some persons there within the confines of the prisons that have not yet been charged with the commission of any offence, those that are there on an awaiting trial basis, and those that are there because their families have simply decided to allow them to rot away there in the prison in one part of the country or the other. They are brought into the prisons and then many of them are forgotten there, some of them for several years due to the fact that there is no one out there to help them get back out into the society.

There is now the question that is being rippled through the walls of the judiciary: how can the Judiciary go about decongesting the Nigerian prison system so that there will be space there? How can they cut down the number of the inmates that are being thrown into the jails and then left there to rot?

And some of them are just there because of very simple offences that other people commit every day and then end up getting away with either because of the fact that they have the clout to do so or because of the fact that there is no one out there to prosecute them.

It is a truthful fact that sometimes, the judges do go around the prisons, looking into matters concerning the prisoners and seeking for ways to have them released if there is a way for that to be done, or else, for their matters to be taken to the courts of law so that the justice system can dispense with them.

But the point to be made here is that these efforts are not enough, because there are too many prisoners. And yes, the Nigerian system has the Legal Aid, but that is not enough. Many_ not all of them, note this_ do not really expend the necessary energy into the work of the prisoners they are handling.

But then, in all fairness to them, there is no way for them to be able to get it done because of the fact that they are not paid well, prisoners can be such seasoned liars, there are too many prisoners in the police holding cells and in the federal prisons; etc.

I remember the time I had gone to the four prison formations with the Chief Judge of Ogun State, Justice Mosunmola Dipeolu at the three Senatorial districts of the state, she also lamented the congestion of the prisons across the state but admitting that it was beyond the state government capacity to decongest the Nigeria  Correctional Centres, promising to do her best within the armpit of the law to make sure those prison formations receive necessary attention, indeed she was passionately forced to release 21 inmates unconditional during the quarterly jail delivery exercise, which is in line with the Nigerian constitution. Though, she admitted that the objectives of the exercise was to decongest the correctional service in the state, as well as ensure justice, but admonished the released prisoners to endeavor to reform themselves and refrain from crime and criminality.

Though, if the government at the Federal level could also embark on the touring of the Nigeria Correctional Centres across the country and release or pardon those inmates who are pardonable, then, the prison formations across the country will minimally decongested. Those in these prisons custody are not even meant to be kept them; some has no case to answer while some were detained there with no reasonable offences. Indeed, during that tour, it was observed that some were detained at the prison custody on the order of the court, what does that mean? Even, the Ogun state Chief Judge, queried that detention of that persons. It was even learnt that some file cases of the detainees had got lost in the process, and they had been there for up to eight to nine years without giving them any trial.

According to the State Controller of Correctional Centre, Mr. Victor Abolade Benson, which was represented by his Deputy in charge of Ibara Correctional Service, Mr. Onokhowomomo Godwin called on government to build more correctional centres with modern equipment so as to decongest the centres across the state and teach them on how to fish or vend for themselves if eventually they were released from those prisons custody. He added that Correctional centre of 510 capacities, now in used for 1,189 inmates, that was of Ibara Correctional Centre, but he said that of Ilaro Correctional centre has grown over the years from an initial capacity of 126 inmates to an all-time high at 532 inmates this month, noted that out of 526 inmates, only 167 are convicted persons while the remaining 359 are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs) from 17 different courts scattered across seven Local Government Areas of the state.

And the above scenario presents one of the classic situations of the Nigerian prisons being overly congested with prisoners, some of them persons who are not really meant to be there. But then you can trust the decaying monolith of the fabric of the Nigerian societal living and all the crumbling, disintegrating social stratagems involved to be nothing to alleviate all these. Nobody cares; the judiciary that should be doing something is trying the best they can, but the point is that there are too many cases on the case dockets in the courts; there are too few judges and magistrates to handle the plethora of cases that there in the judiciary. They can only do so much.

The prisoners too are flooding the prisons and so many of them do not have the money necessary to have their matters dispensed with. So, what should be the next step? Because, as it stands, the prisons have to be decongested; there are no two ways about it. They cost a lot of money to run. What can the government do to have the prisons less conglomerated with criminal minds and even the non-criminals who are fused together in that system? Yes, by the non-criminals there is to be included those that are the maggi-stealers, the pick-pockets, small-time thieves struggling to put food on their table and a little change in their pockets_ in my opinion, those are not thieves, but rather, they are the victims of the circumstances foisted upon them by the decaying system they have found themselves in. So, if they are not criminals in the real sense of the word, why then are they in the prisons? Why not look for ways to rehabilitate them rather than have them decaying there in the prisons and forestalling the development of their full potential? And when they have spent these years in the prison simply because of their commission of one inconsequential crime or the other, they are then hardened into something bitter, filled with the auspices of hatred for the society that had wrung them dry, and then they become the real criminals of the time.

And some of them are just young, misled individuals that would have been in need of proper guidance, rather than the choking claustrophobic integration into the congested, flea-infested prison yard. If they had not gone to those prisons in the first place, then they may not have turned out for the worse. They might have had a fighting chance to become better persons in the fabric of the society. So, the government should have to do something about this. Lawyers, who are seen as the mouthpiece of those that cannot speak for themselves, should also fall in and join the fray to help decongest the prisons. How can the latter do this? They can work in conjunction with the Legal Aid Council; they can also take on pro bono cases for the less privileged, or they can even go on active campaigns to help some of the prisoners who are really looking for the help they cannot afford. It might not mean much in the short term, but in the long run, it can be a great help towards achieving a better society. For, it is to be said that it is only the person wearing the shoes that know where it is pinching him (as the Proverb says). It is the prisoners that can tell you what they are undergoing.

Orunbon, a journalist and public affairs analyst, writes in from Abeokuta, Ogun state Capital

Can be reached via: orunbonibrahimademola@gmail.com or 08034493944 and 08029301122