Saturday, October 15, 2011

The move to collapse Nigerian Prison System

The presidency and the National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) have embarked on a strange move to collapse Nigerian prison system. How do I mean? An executive bill seeking to amend the Transfer of Convicted Offender (Enactment & Enforcement) Act Cap. T16 LSN 2004 (Amendment Bill 2001) is currently being processed at the National Assembly. Once the amendment sails through, the consent of convicted Nigerians serving various jail sentences abroad would no longer be sought before they are repatriated home to continue to serve their respective jail terms. This is because the prisoners’ swap legislation seeks the removal of “consent” and “verification procedure” from the Act.

I find this move which is said to be a request from British authorities curious because the situation of Nigeria’s prison system at present is heart-rending. According to a report in Thisday of October 2, 2010 titled ‘Nigerian Prison’s Rising Population’: “The Nigerian Prisons Service derives its operational powers from CAP 366 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990 to among other things take into lawful custody all those certified to be so kept by courts of competent jurisdiction; produce suspects in courts as and when due; identify the causes of their anti-social dispositions; set in motion mechanisms for their treatment and training for eventual reintegration into society as normal law abiding citizens on discharge; and administer prisons farms and industries for this purpose and in the process generate revenue for the government. The Prisons Service in Nigeria is exclusively a Federal Government concern as no State for now has the power in law to operate or maintain prisons. The Nigerian Prison system was supposed to exist with the full complement of legal, vocational, educational, religious and social services but the situation has remained pathetic.”

Broad Street Prison, Nigeria’s first jail, was established in 1872 to cater for 300 prisoners, the country currently has about 146 convict prisons, 83 satellite prison camps, 12 major farm centres, nine cottage industries, nine subsidiary farms and 124 market gardens. Others include three borstal institutions meant for remand and treatment of juvenile offenders, (at the moment, the Prisons Service has only three of such in Kaduna, Ilorin and Abeokuta), one open prison camp, one staff college and four training schools.

On July 6, 2011, at the commissioning of a new federal prison at Ikot-Ekpene built by the Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State, the Controller-General of Prisons, Mr. Olusola Ogundipe decried the menace of Awaiting Trial Congestion in the Nigerian Prisons Service stating that more time and resources are being expended in containing the pre-trial suspects than in the reformation of convicts. He informed the audience that the prison had over 48,000 inmates in custody but only about 14,000 of them were convicts. This he said hampers in no small measure the core mandates of the Nigerian Prisons Service.

Earlier on July 31, 2010 while speaking at a one-day quarterly roundtable on prison reform, Ogundipe had stated thus: “It may interest you to know that up to 50 per cent of these ATPs (Awaiting Trial Prisoners) have been on remand for between 5 and 17 years without their cases being concluded. Ikoyi prison has an original capacity for 800 persons. Today, the population is 1,900. Out of this number, only 24 prisoners are convicts. Port Harcourt Prison has an installed capacity for 804 persons. Today, the prison locks up 2, 924 persons out of which only 117 persons are convicts. Awka Prisons with an installed capacity for 238 persons presently accommodates 486 inmates out of which 21 are convicts.” The prisons boss also harped on the need to expand the prisons like other arms of the criminal justice system as the situation had led to one prison servicing many judicial divisions. He gave an instance of Kuje Prison in Abuja which serves 30 judicial divisions including Abaji. Any wonder there have been series of jail break in Nigeria?

The above paints a graphic picture of the state of Nigerian prison at present. With the proposed amendment to the Transfer of Convicted Offenders (Enactment and Enforcement) Act Cap T16 2004, the floodgate of prisoners will be open which our current holding capacity cannot contain as the facilities on ground are grossly inadequate. Moreover, these prisoners whose consent clause for repatriation was being removed did not commit the offence for which they were jailed in Nigeria. Why then should they come and serve their sentence in Nigeria?

A July 8 and 9, 2009 report in The Guardian and Daily Mail of UK respectively had reported that Britain is planning to build a £1million jail in Nigeria to take convicts whose crimes were committed in the UK. The prison would house 400 Nigerian inmates incarcerated in British prisons who cannot be forcibly sent home to complete their punishments. The report quoted Lin Homer, the chief executive of the UK Border Agency, as telling the British MPs that "We are in negotiations with Nigeria to help them establish better prison conditions … it is about helping them generate a structure that can cope. We are prepared to invest if that would enable us to send people home.” The deal , according to Lin, would save taxpayers' money, because “the UK would no longer have to pay the £30,000-a-year cost of keeping inmates in our own jails. “ Has Britain built any prison in Nigeria before pressuring Nigerian officials to pass the amendment? Not that I know of.

No matter the merit of prisoner swap move, a comprehensive justice sector reform (Police, Judiciary, Prisons reforms) is needful before such amendment should be considered. We must not lose sight of the fact that this move is not a bilateral agreement between Nigeria and Britain alone but something all other countries worldwide could take advantage of to further congest Nigerian prisons. The overwhelming awaiting trial inmates need justice as the current situation is a breach of their right to fair trial. It is high time Nigerian judicial system avail itself of other penal options such as suspended sentence, parole, weekend sentence, etcetera. This is in addition to the current periodic amnesty to prisoners by the president and governors. Decongestion of Nigerian prison is long overdue and swapping foreign prisoners would only exacerbate a deplorable situation.