Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Let’s privatise and decentralise Nigerian prisons!

Hearty congratulations to the new Comptroller General of Prisons, Dr. Peter Ezenwa Ekpendu. I do not envy him on this appointment coming on the heels of incessant jailbreaks and attacks on Nigerian prisons with the last one being at the Minna Maximum Prison on Saturday, December 6, 2014.
Against these unhealthy developments, I think it is high time we fast tracked justice sector reform part of which is prison reform. I have two key suggestions. Let us privatise and decentralise Nigerian prison system. That is the norm and trend in some countries particularly in the United States of America which has federal, state and private prisons. Indeed, American private prisons are about 100 as of March 2014.
I am therefore seeking the repeal of the Nigerian Prisons Service Act as well as a constitution amendment for these to happen. Why? There is a blatant inefficiency in the management of the Nigerian prison system. Jailbreaks have now become a recurring decimal so much so that it is no longer how many jails have been broken but how many have yet to be. Since the Nigerian government is in the habit of privatising anything that is not working, let’s hand over the management of our prisons to the private sector as well. After all, the security sector has long been privatised and commercialised or don’t citizens have to engage private security to secure their lives while the Nigerian police takes care of the political office holders as well as the high and mighty who could afford to hire them as personal guards?
For instance, wouldn’t it be a nice idea if a convict is given an option of a private or public prison to serve his or her jail term? Those who choose to go to private prison will pay for the service (there should be option of working to pay for their incarceration) while those who choose to go to public prison would have government paying for them. Would that not be in line with freedom of choice? After all, in Nigeria today, almost all social services have been privatised and commercialized such as schools, hospitals, media, security, roads, housing, agriculture, transport and many more.
Experts say the incessant jailbreaks are due to overcrowding engendered by high number of awaiting trial inmates and insufficient number of prisons to cope with the high volumes of inmates. With my proposal of having both public and private detention facilities, an accused will have a choice of where to await trial and if convicted serve their prison terms. It’s all a matter of cash. If you choose to go private, you can be sure of having speedy trials as those running the detention facilities will be the ones to liaise with the Police and the Court to ensure that your case file is not missing and that you’re in court on the adjourned date. The detention facility authority will also ensure a more hygienic prison condition for those within their facilities. In fact, a prisoner will have a choice of the size of room and standard to enjoy if they can afford it.
As there are private and public wards in the hospitals so will there be one-person, two-person, four-person rooms with fans, air conditioners, choice menu, recreational facilities, vocational skills workshop, guest reception areas, etc. The key word is money and I know there are many prisoners in our jails today who wouldn’t mind paying for a more conducive environment to serve their jail term. Even the private prisons will be able to recommend their prisoners for parole or amnesty.
You may want to ask what assurance there will be that prisoners in private facilities do serve their term in prison and not in their homes. Well, there will be checks and balances. Officers and men of Nigerian Prison Service will be posted there to ensure full compliance with prison conditions. There will also be unscheduled monitoring by the NPS inspectors to ensure that their officials posted to the private prisons are not compromising standards.
The above suggestion does not in any way negate the imperative of justice sector reform. In fact, it is an integral part of it. The extant public prison will still have to be better resourced and managed. I do not understand why prisons are under the exclusive legislative list. It needs to be brought under the concurrent list so that the states can help out in the establishment and management of prison services. The Nigerian Prison Service employees need better training and re-training in modern prison administration. Some of the prisons have to be relocated to a more secure environment that will not make them prone to external attacks as is currently the case.
Provision of basic welfare facilities cannot be overemphasised. There is the need for proper sanitary facilities – beddings, rest-rooms (toilets), lightening, ventilation, recreational facilities. Prisons should not be hell on earth. Prisoners do have rights and privileges including options of going to school and learning vocational skills even while in prisons. After all, many prisoners have sat for external examinations like West African Secondary School Certificate Examination and Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination from prison and passed in flying colours. Many don’t know that in some other climes, prisoners have a right to register to vote in an election in as much as such convicts are not on death row (that is, convicted for murder).
The police have been fingered as a cog in the wheel of expeditious trials. Many a time they misplace or “sit on” case files of awaiting trial inmates. At other times, they give excuses of not having concluded investigations of the suspect. Yet, such persons are kept in detention for far more years than the maximum sentence the offence being tried carry. What a travesty of justice! The courts too are not helping matters. Many suspects being clamped in prison as awaiting trial could and should have been released on liberal bail conditions and only taken to prison on conviction.
The Nigerian Legal Aid Council or the Office of Public Defender as called in some states expected to provide legal representation for indigent suspects is not doing enough in this respect. Poverty is also contributing to the congestion in our prisons as some convicts with the option of fine could not buy their freedom because of their financial incapacitation. The situation in our prisons could have been worse but for some public spirited individuals, social clubs, religious organisations and civil society who go on prison visitation to provide succour and bail out some of these convicts with options of fine.
I have in a previous commentary on this issue advocated that our judges explore other punishment options such as suspended sentence, community service, weekend sentence and parole as a means of decongesting and concomitantly reducing restiveness in our prisons. Seriously, the time has come to explore the option of private prisons in Nigeria.
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