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The politics of tackling prison congestion in Nigeria

By John Oziegbe

In the past, the task of predicting prison populations appeared easy. The assumption was that as crime
increases, more offenders would get arrested and as more offenders were arrested, more of them would be convicted and imprisoned.

The extent of prison congestion was extrapolated from increases in the crime rate.  Unfortunately most of these compelling assumptions were not analyzed along with consistent reform of prison law, training of personnel, maintenance of facilities and building of new prison infrastructure.  Therefore one major reason why the tackling of prison congestion in Nigeria has failed is that the prison reform process has become politics of settlement.

The incident of attempted jail break in Kaduna prison last week again brought to fore questions around government seriousness in improving Nigeria’s current prison regime.  Last week it was widely reported in many national dailies how some inmates went berserk in Kaduna prison resulting in the death of some inmates while some prison officers were badly injured.

The Kaduna Central Prison in the early hours of Tuesday

In a swift reaction to the ugly incident, the Controller-General of Nigeria Prison Service, Mr. Olushola Ogundipe, blamed the crisis on congestion in the prison, which he said is over stretching the facilities and making the inmates uncomfortable. According to him: “the situation had been brought under control.

Awaiting trial and robbery convicts attempted to break in and escape from Kaduna Prisons. I want to say that the total number of inmates that we have that were opened out this morning was 797. Out of this 797, we have 539 awaiting trial and we have about 139 people awaiting execution, on the death row. So we had a lot of cases of people awaiting trial in the yard most especially robbery suspects”

The above testimony is not new. In fact it is no news to say that Nigerian prisons are congested and that the number of awaiting trial inmates outweighs the convicts. We have heard this several times without number from past Controller Generals and at different fora. But what is consistently baffling is lack of genuine and transparent efforts on the part of the government to tackle the problems of prisons congestion.

On assumption of office, the current Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke, (SAN), has constituted a nine member committee headed by the Solicitor General/Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Justice to revisit the issue of prisons congestion across the country.

In a statement credited to his Personal Assistant on Media and Publicity, Mr. Onyema Omenuwa:  “The minister is particularly bothered by the controversies that have dogged the programme since it was introduced in 2005 and as such, upon assuming office last week, resolved to immediately set the necessary machinery in motion to reform the programme, considering that the anomalies the programme was set up to address are yet to be eliminated.” According to Vanguard Newspapers, the minister was quoted as saying that the committee would “create a synergy between the ministry and other stakeholders for a more coordinated approach towards ensuring its success.”

From left; Comptroller-General Nigerian Prison Service, Mr. Olushola Ogundipe; the Assistant Controller-General NPS Kaduna Command Alhaji A.A Ashafa with other officials at the Kaduna Central Prison after the rampage by inmates.

As much as I appreciate the effort of the AGF, I am also concerned about the timing of the committee, its terms of reference, the failed attempts of past AGs and the lukewarm attitude given to other fundamentals needed for a holistic reform of the prisons and the entire justice sector.

I recall that successive Federal Attorney Generals have either set up their own committees or commissions relating to prisons or the entire justice sector. We have had so far efforts made by the Chief Olujimi, SAN, to Bayo, SAN and recently Michael Aondoakaa, SAN. I am bothered just like the current AGF that neither of these committees or commissions have solved the problems of prison congestion nor ameliorated it. It therefore means that something is fundamentally wrong which need to be corrected if we are serious in ensuring a better prison regime in Nigeria.

That prison decongestion has been politicized is no longer in doubt; it has become a way of settling friends and political associates at the detriment of the prisons. We are all eye witness to the bogus and meaningless decongestion exercise of former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Chief Ojo,  which process was further worsened by his successor in office,  Aondoakaa.

In spite of the whopping sum put into that programme, the money ended up in the pockets of friends and political associates with no job done. Some who got part of the largesse pretended to be doing prison decongestion projects without any aim or purpose.

Today some are still asking pertinent questions: what was achieved in such hopeless and wasteful exercise? It is quite unfortunate that those who profess to be role players in reforming the administration of justice in Nigeria have become mere profiteers. Successive Federal Attorney Generals have embarked on politics of settlement rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.

Since the inception of the current civil regime in Nigeria, the National Assembly has persistently passed executive bills while it has displayed a lukewarm and unwilling attitude towards public interest bills. Today there are so many bills that have been introduced by NGOs through some members of the National Assembly touching on administration of justice and specifically prisons.

There is the Prisons Act Amendment bill, the Community Service bill, the Victims Rights bill, Anti discrimination bill to mention but few. Over and over again public hearings have been held on these bills by appropriate committees of the House of Representatives to no avail. It has become a ritual to spend colossal sum organizing public hearings, workshops and roundtables discussing the same issues without touching the substance.

At these hearings there is a consensus on the dire need to amend the Prisons Act to reflect present realities and trend in prison administration.  The Prison Act Amendment Bill took care of novel situations that were hitherto not provided for in the old law. It completely radicalized the old law by making provisions covering prison visits for Chief Judges and members of NGOs, to rights of awaiting trial inmates. It introduced clauses relating to rights of refusal to take more inmates in prisons that are certified filled to capacity. It also ensured maximum compliance with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners etc. Officers of the Nigeria Prison Service and representatives of Nongovernmental organizations, lawyers and other stakeholders have actively participated in various hearings and roundtables on the proposed amendments to the Prison Act.

The Community Service Bill among others provides Nigerian criminal justice system a credible community based penalty, by requiring those found guilty of imprisonable offences and who would otherwise have received a sentence of imprisonment or detention to undertake paid work for a specified number of hours for the community and to seek to ensure that Community Service is only recommended and used where other community based disposals for dealing with the offender are not appropriate.

The excuse for not passing this bill can no longer be that we do not have institutions and trained personnel to support community service. These can be put in place if we are serious in addressing the problems of prison decongestion in Nigeria. The present committee set up by the current AGF few days on assumption of office may have been a good move. It could have been better if the AGF had consulted a wide spectrum of the real stakeholders before setting up the nine member committee. I have not seen the other terms of reference given to the nine man committee. Apart from the head of the Committee, I am not aware of the other members of the committee.

First, I assume that individuals who were members of past committees are not included in the present. Second, I also assume that part of the terms of reference of the committee is not only to reform the shabby work done by previous committees but to also to investigate how the bogus amount meant for prison decongestion was spent by the previous committee, who were the beneficiaries of the largesse, how many people or inmates were released, who did or did not do their job well; with a view to bringing those found wanting to book..

Paying friends and political associates in the name of prison decongestion does not even scratch the surface of a larger problem. It smacks of pretence and undermining the serious of the problem. We only heard the past Attorney General statements to the effect that the Federal Government has decided to take some of the public interest bills as executive bills.

Ever since that statement, no positive step has been seen in that respect other than the setting up of new committees. Why can’t the seriousness attached to passing Appropriation Bills be extended to bills like the Prisons Act Amendment bill, the Community Service Bill, the Legal Aid Council Amendment bill or the Human Rights Commission Amendment bill?

Unfortunately in February 2009 when Nigeria’s human rights situation was reviewed by the United Nation Human Rights Council in Geneva, the then Foreign Affairs Minister denied the ugly situation of our prison system and said that more prisons are being built across the country. Back at home the Nigeria’s Senate Committee on Interior was lamenting the deplorable situation of our prisons saying that they were no longer fit for human habitation and that “a majority of the cells are leaking during rains and the perimeter walls and some cells have, in some cases, collapsed.

The statements credited to the former Foreign Affairs minister were quite unfortunate. It is like the proverbial ostrich that hid its head and thinks it has kept itself from the public view. That is playing politics with the human rights of many Nigerians particularly those held in prisons.  Playing politics with prison reform has primarily left our prisons for punitive purposes. Prisons can be managed to be effective without being inhumane or gratuitously punitive.

It has been an elementary assumption in corrections that offenders are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment. Though imprisonment must of necessity be uncomfortable, this does not mean that it needs to be stultifying or destructive. I think a purposeful and serious minded reform efforts should also ensure that some of these bills are passed into law while institutions and workforce needed to ensure its workability and effectiveness are put in place. Again it must be stressed that the proper thing for the present Federal Attorney General and Minister of Justice to do is to set up a commission of enquiry, call it a committee to investigate the manner and circumstances under which the last prison decongestion was conducted, how much was given to friends and political associates, find out how many people were released from prison and then ensure that those found wanting are brought to book. That is the right way to start.

The National Assembly must go back and dust all the public interest bills touching on the administration and reform of the prison and ensure their immediate passage. The current Attorney General can play a lead role in this process. That Kaduna prisons which has the capacity of only 524 is currently stretched to 797 shows that we have long lost tune with global trend in correctional management. Government should not only make noise that new prisons structures are being built; it should take a step further to show to Nigerians where such new structures are.

Nigeria’s correctional facilities would not live up to their name if we keep playing politics with prison reform or were the so called role players are more interested in the money they make out of the process. I commend government institutions at federal and State level, individuals and NGOs genuinely involved in  the process of prison decongestion. These efforts need to be complemented with a functional and effective judiciary and a holistic reform of obsolete laws.

The challenge for Nigeria prisons is to find ways to ensure that inmates use the time they spend in confinement to improve their chances of becoming law-abiding, well adjusted, and contributing members of society after serving their sentences. Achieving this however lies on a purposeful and result oriented reform process devoid of politics of settlement and corruption. The enormous resources used in past prison decongestion programmes must be investigated and culprits brought to book and punished. The time to put an end to politics of prison decongestion is now.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.