Rotten Nigerian prisons at the mercy of National Assembly

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ADE ADESOMOJU reports that the Nigerian prisons remain in a rotten state, as the successive National Assembly’s legislative regimes since 2001 continue to frustrate their reform by failing to pass the bill seeking the amendment of the extant prison law last reviewed in 1972

On October 17, 2006, the then Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Bayo Ojo, set up a seven-man National Committee for the Reform of National Drug Law Enforcement Agency led by the retired Justice Gilbert Obayan.

The third of the five terms of reference handed down to the committee was the mandate to investigate circumstances leading to the evasion of jail terms by offenders prosecuted by the NDLEA and who were convicted but were never found in prisons.

Under the same term of reference, the committee was asked to identify and recommend sanctions for officials of the NDLEA and any of the public institutions found to have connived with the convicts.

In February 2007, about four months after it was set up,  the Obayan-led committee released its report which remains largely unimplemented.

In fulfillment of its mandate under the third term of reference, the committee found out that following an earlier investigation which confirmed that two drug convicts – Ejike Martins and Godwin Obi – were missing from prison, the then Chairman of NDLEA, Ahmadu Giade, had directed further investigation of all convicts from January 2006 to confirm if they were in custody or did serve their prison terms.

The revelation by the committee when freshly released in 2007 was and till today remains baffling.

The report read in part, “The findings that emerged were that out of the 143 drug convicts for the year 2006, 96 of them were never brought to prison.

“Similarly, another 101 drug convicts for the year 2005 were never brought to the prison, bringing the total convicts evading jail to 197, within this period.”

The report went on to reveal that the scam was made possible by grand connivance between NDLEA prosecutors, defence lawyers and, of course, not without the active participation of prison officials.

The report added, “On one occasion, a prison warden was caught within the court premises in Port Harcourt expecting the conviction of an accused for him to take over and set free. When he was apprehended, he admitted that he was doing the bidding of a defence counsel who is now ‘at large’.”

Prison evasion by convicts made possible by active connivance of prison officials is only a part of the eyesore that has plagued the Nigerian prison system in at least the last three decades.

As far back as 2012, an audit report of the Nigerian prison by the National Human Rights Commission had described the nation’s prisons as mostly “punitive centres” rather than being “reformatory homes, where persons who come in conflict with the law are sent to for reformation and eventually reintegrated into the society as a better person”.

In the audit report, the NHRC observed that the prison structures across many parts of the nation were old and dilapidated as most of them were built in the 19th Century by the British colonial masters.

For instance, the Azare, Bauchi, Ningi and Misua prisons were said to have been built in 1816, 1820, 1827 and 1831 respectively.

Largely, poor sanitary conditions, acute absence of recreational or vocational facilities remain a bane of the Nigerian prisons.

Another notorious problem haunting the prisons is congestion.

Speaking at the ‘State of the Nation Conference’ organised by the Nigerian Bar Association for the ‘One Year Review of Democracy in Nigeria’ in Abuja on Tuesday, Chairman of the Nigerian Prisons Service/National Human Rights Commission Committee on the Review of the Prisons Act, Mr. Olawale Fapohunda, put the total prison population as of the last week in March 2016 at 61, 527.

According to Fapohunda, who is also the Chairman, Committee on the Administration of Justice of the NBA, out of the total inmates, 60,567 were male while 906 were female.

The lawyer, a former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ekiti State, said out of the total 61,527 inmates across the Nigerian prisons, only 17,663 were convicts while  43,864 were awaiting trial.

“The rate of overcrowding in Nigerian prisons in general is 70 per cent, however there are specific prisons with overcrowding rate of 90 per cent,” Fapohunda said.

According to him, part of the reasons for the congestion of prisons is the inability of the courts to conclude the trial of persons charged with criminal offences quickly.

At the root of this problem of protracted trial of accused persons is the “limited transportation infrastructure of the NPS,” Fapohunda explained.

Figures reeled out by the lawyer indicated that the  NPS currently has 268 vehicles for transportation of awaiting trial inmates to the 5,022 courts in the 774 local government areas in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory.

In the FCT, the Kuje Prison which is said to be servicing 95 courts within and around Abuja, only has three small vans.

The problems of the Nigerian prisons are indeed enormous and stakeholders, including the National Human Rights Commission, say they beat the nation’s treatment of prisoners and prison conditions far below the benchmark set by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners

Fapohunda, who described the prison system as key institution in the criminal justice framework, said beyond overcrowding, “our prisons continue to be a source of concern due to overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate and inappropriate conditions for female and juvenile detainees, poor administration, long detention of those awaiting trial and limited access to legal advice and representation.”

He added, “Another key challenge facing the prisons is the conditions of service of prison officers. Any discussion about prison reform without a fundamental review of the conditions of service for prison officers will not be sustainable.

“The conditions of service under which the prison staff work are grossly inadequate. The pay is poor and cannot match the dangers, emotional stress and social isolation to which prison officers are exposed.

“It is obvious that inadequately-motivated workers cannot find satisfaction in their jobs neither can they be expected to perform optimally.”

He also pointed out defects in the administrative structure, which places the NPS under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.

He said, “The Ministry of Interior jointly supervises the Nigeria Police, the Prisons Service and other paramilitary services like the Fire Service, the Immigration Service and the Civil Defence Corps.

“We have said severally that the duties of the Prison Services are fundamentally different from that of the Fire Service, Immigration Service and Civil Defence Corps.

“Therefore, a situation where they are treated in the same way and administered by one administrative body will continue to militate against the efficiency and  effectiveness of the prisons service.”

A fundamental area of concern militating against the NPS’ ability to achieve its mandate is archaic legislation.

Under the Nigeria’s illusory federal system, the central police investigate all forms of crimes, with the Attorney-General of both the federation and the various states having powers to prosecute  offenders  in both the federal and state courts, while the prison which is at the end of the criminal justice system is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Government.

The extant Prisons Act was last reviewed in 1972 and since 2001 efforts aimed at reviewing the law to bring about a reformed Nigerian prisons have been frustrated by the successive legislative sessions of the National Assembly.

Since 2001, the bill seeking this reform has been dying and resuscitating with successive federal legislative regimes which have never seen reasons to give the bill and by extension the nation’s prison system, the due regard.

Fapohunda said, “There are a number of ongoing challenges affecting the ability of the prisons service to achieve its mandate. The first is its archaic legislation. Not unlike the Nigeria Police, the Prisons Act was last reviewed in 1972.

“A bill to amend the Prisons Act 1972 was first laid before the House of Representatives in 2001; in 2016 the process of amendment is still on going.”

Elaborating on the problem of  weak legislation, the representative of the Controller-General of Prison, Ahmed Ja’afaru, at the NBA event on Tuesday, Dr. Ifediorah Orakwe, said the Nigerian Constitution itself only gave the Nigerian Prisons Service  a passing mention undeserving of the critical roles the institution plays in the administration of criminal justice  system.

Orakwe said, “It is a fundamental flaw. All other segments of the administration of criminal justice, including the courts, the police and prosecution are well elaborated upon in the Constitution.

“It is as if right from the beginning, somebody had decided to go the wrong way.”

Though he said he was not aware of the report on the reform of the NDLEA which indicted some prison officials in the prison term evasion scam, Orakwe admitted that it was not surprising as  “the people there (officials) are even worse (in terms of welfare) than the people they keep.”

For Orakwe, with the cumulative effect of over 30 years of neglect, it was impossible for the Nigerian prisons to fare better.

Stakeholders believe that the managers of the Nigerian prisons do not have to travel to Europe and other parts of the developed countries to draw better prison management lessons.

As of today, the nation is said to be trailing behind many African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya, which are all said to be doing better in this regard.

Orakwe said the end result of the cumulative neglect suffered by the Nigerian prisons over the years is the complete absence of the “correctional” aspect of the mandates of the NPS.

In place of correction of convicts and their reintegration into the society, what is obtainable in the prisons is “the recycling of convicts.”

“We have a situation of recycling of convicts, whereby, a suspect is convicted, passes through the prison, becomes hardened, released back into the society, rearrested and convicted again for a similar crime,” Orakwe said.

In his statement on the position of the Nigerian Prisons and Correctional Service Bill 2016, the Executive Secretary of the NHRC, Prof. Bem Angwe, said although the bill would not solve all the problems with the prison system, “it will go a long way in addressing the prevailing conditions in prisons across the country with a view to bringing them in conformity with international human rights standards.”

“It will also help in help in improving the welfare of the officials of Nigerian Prison service and detainees; consolidate the gains achieved so far, address the challenges and ultimately mainstream human rights into penal administration in Nigeria,” Angwe said.

Generally, the features of the new bill include a philosophical and deliberate change of the name of the Nigerian prison system from the ‘Nigerian Prison Service’ to the ‘Nigerian Prisons and Correctional Service’.

The bill also seeks to establish, for the first time, the Prison Service Commission, which is proposed take over the functions of the Immigration Service, Prisons Service and the Civil Defence Board.

In its bid for a breakaway from the old tradition of opacity in the procedure for appointment of the Controller-General of Prisons, the Nigerian Prisons and Correctional Service Bill, 2016 tends to bring about transparency in the process.

Clearly spelt out procedure for the appointment of the Controller-General of Prison, if passed into law as contained in the bill, will require persons interested to make an open and formal application to the PSC.

It will also require the PSC to be responsible for the screening and selection of applicants, using the stipulated criteria for competence and qualification. It also envisages that the President would appoint the Controller-General “upon the recommendation of the Prisons Service Commission.”

The bill also seeks to grant powers to the state Controller of Prisons to reject intake of prisoners where it is obvious that such prison has exceeded its maximum capacity.

As lofty as the initiative behind the new bill appears to be, it has to first overcome the challenge of breaking the jinx of poor legislative attention which it has been consistently suffering from since 2001.

In summarizing the challenges ahead of the bill, Fapohunda said, “Engaging the National Assembly and seeking the consensus among interested ministries especially as it concerns important provisions of this bill will no doubt require additional focus and commitment.”

It was however cheering for the promoters of the bill when a House of Representatives member, Linda Ikpeazu, representing the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, at the NBA’s event held on Tuesday, said that despite the tumultuous history of the bill, “this House will pass this bill.”

Whether or not Ikepazu’s assurance was merely a political statement, will only be confirmed at the end of the remaining three years in the life of the current House.

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