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Decentralise prisons, don’t privatise them

By Ochereome Nnanna
A NOVEL controversy has joined the queue in the public arena: the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) intends to invite the private sector to manage Nigerian prisons.

Abba Moro, the Hon Minister for the Interior, disclosed this while receiving a delegation of the African National Congress (ANC) ofSouth Africa in his office.

The same delegation had visited Bamanga Tukur, the National Chairman ofNigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who indicated the readiness of his Party to embrace the idea of turning the management of correctional facilities into a profit-making venture in Nigeria.

To many Nigerians the very notion of privatising prisons is shocking. It is yet another sign that our government these days is tired of governing.

They just want to be in power, award contracts, make big money and keep on being in power without the vision, sweat and sacrifices that true leadership entails.

I would have equally been shocked if I had not stumbled upon a feature in the New York Times during my recent trip to the US. It painted the picture of the private prisons system as a dominant part of American law enforcement and correction.

Pro Publica, a public interest media forum, has the numbers that immediately put you in the picture of just how the private sector has become so central in the US– and the abusive problems they are increasingly becoming. Here are samplers:

There were 1.6 million people in federal and state prisons as of December 2010 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Out of these, 128,195 inmates were in privately run, profit-making prison companies.

Between 2002 and 2009, the number of prisoners sent to private facilities grew by 37 percent.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison operator in theUS, owns 66 prisons with 91,000-bed capacity. In 2011, CCA earned total revenue of $1.7 billion and it spent $17.4 million in the last ten years lobbying for “customers”!

Private prisons are therefore lucrative businesses both inAmericaandEuropewhere they are popular.

They make their money not through charging the inmates fees. No. They sign contracts with governments to build and (or) operate prisons, providing food, medicine and regulated welfare/capacity building/security services to inmates, all within the terms of the law. Government pays them their costs plus their margins of profit.

In a way, they are just like private medical clinics compared to general (government owned) hospitals, except that government alone pays the bill whether one is incarcerated in private or public prison.

My impression is that Abba Moro and PDP believe that, civil servants in the Nigerian Prisons Service having failed to maintain an acceptable level of prisons services, it is time to invite the private sector, with their perceived better ability to manage manpower and facilities, to come in under the usual Private/Public Partnership arrangement.

Profit against justice

However, the American experience has also shown that the profit motive often works against justice for the inmates, especially disadvantaged groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and illegal immigrants.

Prison companies have been known to “lobby” for longer sentences on minor infractions to increase their chances of bigger profit and expansion.

This is where the danger really lies. I see a situation where the adoption of the private prison system will become a new craze like private universities, where every influential or wealthy politician will want to establish one in order to freeload from government coffers without necessarily providing the services.

This will put the Nigeria inmates of private prisons where some of their American peers find themselves today. And that is where I stand when I say no to private prisons at this stage of our poor level of law enforcement where big crooks get away with frauds such as the fuel subsidy scams.

We do not need private prisons inNigeriaas of now. What we need is the total restructuring of our correctional justice system through decentralisation.

One of the reasons our prisons services are so poor is that only the federal government has the sole constitutional power to operate correctional facilities.

We should have state and county jails. I am not a fan of the local government system, so I cannot call for local government prisons.

Our justice delivery system already has federal, state, magistrate and customary/Sharia courts.

We should also have federal, state and possibly community police; as well as federal, state and community prisons. We can make our laws to ensure that certain levels of offences are met with commensurate levels of punishment or correction.

Why should a chicken or yam thief in a village be remanded in a prison populated by armed robbers, kidnappers, murderers and ritualists? Why should a minor traffic offender or “wanderer” be remanded in a federal prison as “awaiting trial” inmate for any reason?

Decentralisation to enable lower tiers of governmental authority operate correctional facilities will immediately solve the crowded prison conditions and give the prison workers breathing space to practise their professions in an atmosphere of enhanced sanity.

This constitution amendment provides us with the opportunity to change a lot of things, especially decentralisation of powers currently overburdening the federal government.

Focus on weighty issues

We must desist from blindly copying anything we see in developed countries. ANC‘s South Africa is a far more developed country, with better infrastructure and greater per capita crime rate than Nigeria.

If they are ready to enter the circle of Westernised capitalist culture of privatising correctional services we are not.

PDP should focus more attention on justifying what it has done with the thirteen years it has bestrode the political affairs of Nigeria without being able to conclusively solve any of our national problems it inherited from the military, especially power, poor infrastructure, oil dependency, food insecurity, high crime rate, high unemployment, high corruption, unfocused national goals and poor quality leadership at the highest level.

These are challenges thatSouth Africahas largely overcome and can afford to move a notch higher to other, more fanciful pursuits.



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