By Kayode Ojewale
IN December 2021, I read in the news about an 18-year-old boy who had been arrested on three occasions for traffic robbery.
The last arrest, at the Ketu area of Lagos, was the third time. When he was returned from the Nigeria Correctional Service, NCS, just a few weeks after his previous arrest by the Lagos State Rapid Response Squad, RRS, he resumed traffic robbery. Despite being convicted and sentenced to three-month imprisonment, he was not deterred.
When the teenager was arrested the third time, he confessed that he went into robbery again to offset the debt he incurred after his release months ago. One wonders if the young boy’s reason for returning to crime justifies his action. Similarly, a few days ago, men of the RRS arrested six suspected robbers for allegedly dispossessing accident victims of their belongings around Ojodu-Berger on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. Four of the arrested suspects were said to be ex-convicts. Would it be said that these ex-convicts have become brutally insensitive and unrepentant?
Truth is, the prison walls are not meant to only deprive inmates of their freedom, but they are to refine them. Nigerian prisons have been renamed correctional centres and as the name suggests, it should bring about a change in the life of anyone who ever visited there on the basis of conviction after freedom.
It, however, hasn’t lived up to its expectations after rebranding. There should be a reform in activities of NCS, not just in the name. There ought to be some lasting lessons an ex-convict learns as a result of corrective measures put in place by the custodian centres.
It’s over two years that the Nigeria Prison Service was changed to Nigeria Correctional Service, NCS, yet nothing really has changed about their modus operandi. The system of operation of NCS still remains the same as the desired transformation many expected is yet to manifest with overcrowded prison facilities, underfeeding, a large number of inmates awaiting trials among many other challenges which have been an albatross for decades.
I strongly believe that apart from confining a convict to a place as punishment for his act, one other important reason why a prison exists is to allow self-rumination during lone moments. Yes, ‘criminals’ are confined to various correctional centres on grounds of gravity of the offence to prevent the occurrence of such action and for social reformation but there must be a striking difference in conduct and character when they leave the custody. If after regaining his freedom on completion of prison terms or by virtue of pardon from a constituted authority, the ex-convict fails to turn a new leaf, then the correctional institution has had no impact on him.
An offender, released after satisfying the due process as specified by law, is not expected to return for the same or any other offence again if he is well corrected during his stay.
The NCS is saddled with the responsibility of reintegrating a pardoned or freed offender into society for a better life and living. Rebranding of the NPS to NCS should include a commensurate change in their mandates. The objectives of NCS must be made public for the assessment and evaluation of correctional officers and their custody.
In Nigeria, history is rich with records of jailbreaks in time past with some escapees being rearrested and others still at large. Most jailbreaks (successful or foiled) are usually characterised by the infliction of injuries on inmates or wardens, death and loss of properties. There had been instances where some Nigerian prisons were attacked by hoodlums and in the process, inmates escaped to freedom.
If these prisoners who are under correction, had been well-refined, didn’t force their way out – a possibility of connivance with attackers not totally ruled out, then they won’t break free illegally even when the opportunity pops up.
I salute the courage of some prison escapees, who gladly and of their free will, turned in themselves at police stations and correctional facilities. It’s a reflection of the change of heart and the willingness to allow the law to take its course for eventual true freedom. Those on awaiting trial list, those sentenced to life imprisonment and others on death row could have their judgments reversed or relaxed as the case may be someday if mercy locates them.
Many have died in jail not because they were guilty or had been convicted, but because of the system of operation in Nigeria which is characterised by long years of trials and court sittings to determine their judgement.
It is not all those in prison custody who are criminals because some are yet to be proven guilty of allegations against them. Generally, criminals are either labelled, ‘alleged’ or ‘convicted’ as the case may be. Allegations against an accused are, however, not formalised until proven guilty by a court of law.
Ministry of Interior must do more to ensure that correctional facilities and institutions nationwide are well-equipped with security apparatus to forestall any jailbreak that may spring up from within and also prevent attack by any external arrangement. More important is the need to put in place various programmes that will positively alter and correctively reconfigure the attitude of those handling convicts in their custody.
Services of counsellors and emotional intelligence experts must be engaged to regularly hold sessions with these prisoners.
The roles and responsibilities of Nigerian correctional institutions should stretch beyond the confinement of the prison yard. Their duties should extend to the post-prison life of any convict who once served terms or stayed for any period while awaiting trial before discharge and acquittal.
Let me also state clearly here that, while most people refer to correctional centre inmates as prisoners, not everyone remanded there is guilty of the offence; many are innocent but have become victims of circumstance. Others are awaiting trial.
So, in addressing the challenges of the occupants of these centres, we must be cautious not to cast aspersions and stigma which suggest tendencies of stain on them.
Many have abandoned and condemned ex-convicts to live lonely and die after they leave the correctional centre because it is assumed that they are no longer of use to themselves and society again. They tag and label them as ‘never-do-well’. This ought not to be so as it may damage their mentality, psyche and self-esteem. If our correctional centres nationwide make significant impacts in the lives of ex-convicts, then their thinking faculties would be refined, not damaged.
For a full rehabilitation to be completed in the life of anyone who once went through correctional custody, the government and other concerned authorities must provide an avenue or an enabling environment for an ex-convict not just to live again, but to live well and responsibly.
Ojewale is of the Public Affairs and Enlightenment Department of LASTMA and wrote via: [email protected]