THE fresh concern raised by the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Prisons Service, Peter Ekpendu, about the mean feeding allowance of inmates has brought the deplorable conditions in the country’s prison facilities into perspective. For those with only a vague idea of what life behind bars looks like in Nigeria, his presentation provides but a hint. Our criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul. The aim of incarceration should be to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.
According to the prisons boss, who was defending his department’s 2016 budget at the House of Representatives, the amount proposed for the feeding of the 65,000 inmates in the country’s 238 facilities was drastically slashed from N10.6 billion to N5.2 billion, amounting to N222.30 for the feeding of an inmate per day. In a world where the standard is to aspire for three square meals, what happens in a situation where N222.30 cannot even guarantee a square meal?
Evidently, this mirrors the magnitude of official contempt for the inmates. With the value of the naira rapidly plummeting, verging at an all time low of N372 to a dollar last week, it means that a Nigerian prisoner is required to survive beneath the old World Bank poverty threshold of less than $1.25 per day. Currently, it is $1.9 per day. As rightly warned by Ekpendu, it is a situation that has to be urgently addressed if the ugly consequences are to be averted. Besides, he stated that payment for services rendered by food contractors and suppliers were in arrears.
Nigerian prisons have over the years gained notoriety for restiveness, arising mainly from the appalling living conditions of the inmates. This has been worsened in recent times by the activities of terrorists. In the five years to 2014, no fewer than 2,251 prisoners escaped from prison in jailbreaks masterminded by Boko Haram, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. The assailants took advantage of the relative laxity in security to overpower prison guards and free the inmates.
Apart from poor hygienic conditions, inmates lack access to proper medical attention, often resulting in the outbreak and spread of easily preventable and treatable diseases. There is an acute lack of potable water and proper sewage disposal system. Prisoners are denied good sleep at night, due, in the main, to overcrowding, with hardly an elbow room to spare. Of the 65,000 inmate population in the country, 72 per cent are said to be awaiting trial, while 28 per cent are convicted.
Life in Nigerian prisons could, indeed, be harrowing. While in other parts of the world, the prison is a place where convicted criminals are expected to come out reformed at the end of their sentences, in Nigeria they are more likely to come out hardened. Having learned more of criminality than rehabilitation while in incarceration, a former inmate in Nigeria has a high probability of returning to crime after serving his time.
The situation is so bad that Britain, in 2009, offered to build a comfortable jail in Nigeria to take about 400 Nigerian convicts whose crimes were committed in the United Kingdom. “Jails there (in Nigeria) are considered so rough that any prisoner the UK tried to deport could oppose their removal on human rights grounds,” a Daily Mail of London online report said then.
According to the CAP 366 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, the NPS is empowered to, among other things, “set in motion mechanisms for their (inmates’) treatment and training for eventual reintegration into the society as normal law-abiding citizens on discharge.” This has been seen in only a few instances, especially in the cases of some 31 candidates who were certificated after distinguishing themselves in the November/December West African Senior School Certificate Examinations in 2014.
In Germany, according to reports, incarcerated people have considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and they are expected to exercise judgement on how they use their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. But, in many cases in Nigeria, the inmates come out barely reformed. At the end of their jail terms, they look more dehumanised than dignifying.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the sentencing of an individual should only constitute “a deprivation of the basic right to liberty,” not “the restriction of other human rights, with the exception of those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison.” By curtailing the freedom of an individual to be able to fend for himself, the responsibility of doing so automatically falls on the government that is detaining him. Such a responsibility includes feeding the inmates.
There has to be a reform of the prison system to make living conditions less dehumanising and to make an inmate a better person than he was before incarceration. Many countries are taking giant strides in ensuring that the only thing being denied prisoners is their liberty. Our system, too, has to refocus from punitive to restorative justice and integration. This has to start with decongesting the facilities so that those who should not be there, in the first place, are spared that agony. The Nigerian criminal justice system could incorporate instruments, such as community service and suspended sentence as is the case in the United Kingdom.
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