By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
Mr Ja’afaru Ahmed is a thoroughbred officer, who has held strategic positions in the Nigerian Prisons Service until May 2016 when President Muhammadu Buhari found him most qualified to be appointed as the Controller General of the Nigerian Prisons Service, an organisation he joined in 1989. Among the posts Mr. Ahmed had held before his appointment as the NPS CG are: Officer in charge, Birnin Kebbi Old Prison; Officer in charge Kano Central Prison; Controller of Prisons, Sokoto State Command; Controller of Prisons, Kebbi State Command; Assistant Controller General of Prisons (Admin) at the National Headquarters; Zonal Coordinator, Zone A Headquarters, Lagos and Deputy Controller General of Prisons (Admin) at the National Headquarters, Abuja.
In this interview, the CG spoke on what he was doing to uplift the Nigerian prisons, make it more humane and end the embarrassing episodes of jailbreak in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Having taken over the leadership of the Nigerian Prisons Service since May 2016, what have you been able to do differently to breathe life into the system?
To be precise, when I assumed duties as the Controller General of Prisons on the 21st of May 2016, there were a lot of challenges confronting the system. One of the challenges had to do with the laxity on the part of the workers leading to various problems confronting the service. There were logistic problems, overcrowded prisons, infrastructural decay, lack of medicines, poor motivation for the workers and a myriad of other challenges inhibiting productivity.
Confronted with these challenges therefore, I therefore presented them to the Federal Government for necessary assistance. Luckily for us, we have a listening government, a government of change that has come to do things differently and therefore, this government intervened by giving the NPS a capital budget that it had never had for some years.
With this, we were able to intervene in the infrastructural decay. If you go around the country you will find a lot of projects going on, some of them have been completed because we have been able to pay the contractors while others are ongoing and in advanced stage of completion. The completion of these projects had drastically changed the environment and the way we house inmates. I can tell you that a more humane custody of inmates has come into being and I thank God for this administration under President Buhari, which has responded positively to our financial needs to fix the prisons.
The issue of logistics was another problem; our inability to take prisoners to court had often been a source of tension in the various prisons and a serious setback to our ability to give quick access to justice. But with the government financial support, we have been able to procure about 217 vehicles at once and have distributed them across the nation. We also got a large financial outlay to purchase a large consignment of medicine to take care of inmates in our various prisons nationwide. In fact only last week we distributed medicines to the various state commands and many of them confessed that they had never seen these medicines for years and that is true. As a sign of our proactive measures, the last time an outbreak of meningitis was reported, we were able to intervene urgently and not a single soul was lost throughout the period of the epidemic.
In terms of welfare of workers, we have been able to promote stagnated inspectors who had stayed in that rank for over 15years. In this regard, no fewer than 11,000 were promoted by the board and others that were within my powers were also promoted within one year.
We were also able to intervene in terms of barracks accommodation, as well as schools and training of inmates. In fact the trainings we have had this year, we have never had it for some years. As I speak to you, our training schools are full, not by new recruits as others would want to say but by our existing staff who are going for small courses. These include orderlies and drivers, chief warders, intelligence gathering officials and record officers.
I can tell you that these small courses matter because they are routine and are targeted to increase the efficiency of the staff at the work place. So, that was what changed the image of the Nigerian Prison Service. And when I came on board, there were a lot of escapes of inmates and jail breaks.
How did you stop the rampant jailbreaks?
We took action in the sense that some staff had in the past committed serious offences but were never punished. We said it should no longer be the case, and that anyone who committed any offence must be promptly brought to book to serve as a deterrent to others in accordance with the law. From all the reports of jail breaks and escape of inmates, it was clear to us that there were many cases of laxity on the part of our staff and we had to move immediately to deal with it in order to save the system from further exploitation. We punished the offenders adequately. We further discovered that we needed more hands to work in the prisons. We also intervened in the structures of our prisons. If you look at the Koton Karfe Prison, you will discover that the inmates simply made a hole because of the nature of the materials used in building the walls. That episode has now taught us to change the pattern in constructing the prison cells nationwide which will last for a generation. And finally, we moved to check the rate of trafficking in the prisons and punished those who were involved in passing information to and from the prisons, thereby compromising the safety of the prisons.
What do you mean by trafficking in the prisons?
Trafficking is passing information or unauthorized items such as cell phones and other things into and out of the prisons without authority thereby compromising standards of operations.
Let me cite an example, the Koton Karfe episode happened because the prisoners were able to enter the cell with a 2×4 timber which they used in hitting the wall repeatedly before it collapsed because the wall was made of hollow blocks. As the prisoners were hitting the wall, they were drumming as if one of them was about to leave the cell the following day. It is traditional for inmates to ‘organise a party’ for one of them who is to be discharged the next day. And because it was raining heavily, the officers on duty thought it was the normal drumming with bowls and other items for those leaving the following day, not suspecting that the inmates were actually opening the walls with a plank. In the end, they were able to break open the walls through which 13 of the prisoners escaped. So, far, we have recaptured six of them but we have taken concrete steps to change the situation.
What opportunities and facilities are available in the prisons for inmates who are willing to acquire further education to do so?
Part of our mandate is to reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners back into the society as law abiding citizens. In the prisons under my administration, we have a set of prisoners who have no formal education and can therefore not read or write and what they simply need is skills. We have given them the opportunity to acquire such skills that will help them to live meaningfully. We are currently equipping our workshops and constructing new ones for carpentry and welding fabrication as well as training facilities for any skills the inmates can learn while in the prisons. At the end of their programme, we have what we call aftercare services where we purchase the necessary tools for each of the trades they have been able to acquire and be certified in order to start off their chosen business and I am happy to say that some of them are successful employers of labour today.
For those who want to acquire formal education, we first provide the opportunity for adult education, then junior secondary school, NECO and WAEC.
I am happy to report that no fewer than 149 of the inmates from Kuje Prisons who sat for NECO/WAEC had five credits including Mathematics and English.
We have a centre for registration in Kuje Prisons and 13 centres for inmates to learn under the National Open University of Nigerian, NOUN.
In 2014, one of the best graduating students from NOUN came from Enugu Prisons. As at today, no fewer than 300 inmates have matriculated into various universities and are pursuing various courses nationwide.
So we are making efforts to reposition and make the prison a better place for the unfortunate Nigerians who happen to be there so that their lives are not wasted. We try as much as possible to reform them and reintegrate them back into the society as law abiding citizens.
What has happened to the prison farms we used to see flourishing across the country in the past?
The farms are still there. We have what we call market gardens close to the prisons and 17 farm centres nationwide. We want to use these centres and produce enough food realizing the enormous burden of feeding prisoners. We also want to ensure that we look inward and see what we can do so that in a few years time the prison will be able to feed and be able to reduce its dependence on government.
To achieve our set goal, we have chosen three big farm centres namely: Kujama prison in Kaduna state which has about 1,200 hectares for maize production; Ozala in Edo state which has about 1,650 hectares for palm oil production and Lakushi in Plateau state which has also about 1,100 hectares for rice production. Once we are through with these three, we will add other ones until we raise enough money to complete the 17 farm centres nationwide. We have been able to buy a total of 22 tractors in the last one year and distributed them to the prisons nationwide for serious farming and food production. This year we intend to purchase combined harvesters, planters and the rest of them for these farm centres from the money provided in 2017 budget so that by 2018 when they start, they will start their farming season early and we will be able to achieve what we have set for ourselves. The 22 tractors that we bought for farming purposes were the first set of tractors that would be procured since 1976 when the farms were established.
What are you doing to ensure quick dispensation of justice for inmates so that they don’t remain on awaiting trial list forever?
I have already laid out my plans in that regard and gave instructions to my officers to take all necessary steps to reduce prison congestion across the country. I made it clear to them that there is no justification for anyone to stay in the prison for up to five years and above awaiting trial. I have made it clear to them that the prison is for convicts and not persons awaiting trial. I have asked them to engage more with their various commissioners of police, the chief judges and the attorneys general of their respective states and see how best this challenge can be managed. Beyond that, we have also made a case to the Minister of Interior, who in turn has presented a strong position on the matter to the Federal Executive Council on how best to tackle the matter once and for all.
We have called for review of all those prisoners who have been in prison custody for five years and above and also make the prerogative of mercy of the respective states to be more functional as well as the construction of more prisons. Our ultimate plan was to have a 3,000 capacity prison in the six geopolitical zones and we have started with the 3000-capacity ultra modern prison in Kano. When that one is completed, we will then put more of such structures in other places nationwide.
What would you like to be remembered for when you are done as the CG of NPS?
When I look back after leaving this seat, I want to leave a prison service that is truly performing its mandate of secured and humane custody with functional facilities, a dedicated, well trained and highly motivated workforce and a prison service that will be a pride to Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
So, can you say that you have prepared the ground for these lofty ideals to thrive?
I said I have been able to intervene in barracks accommodation. If you saw the barracks before we intervened, you would agree that human beings were not supposed to stay there but we have made it more comfortable for the staff. We are going to provide uniforms free for junior staff, something they have been paying for in the past. I am kitting them from beret to their shoes to make them work with a sense of pride and confidence. We are making promotions more regular for those who are due. They have just taken the examination for the 2017 promotions and I am sure very soon the result will be out. I have given them the opportunity of training and retraining and we have been prompt in paying them their welfare allowances as well as prisons insurance. We have also taken steps to pay those who have retired, their Prisons Welfare and Insurance Scheme, PRISCO. The overall objective of what we are trying to do is to create a conducive environment for all the prison workers and I am happy that with what I have put in place so far, the workers are becoming more comfortable now and the bad eggs have been booted out to ensure that those who are doing their work are also doing it to the best of their ability.