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Prison Reforms Act and burden of amendment

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Prison

The bid to repeal the prison Act and replace it with Correctional Services is in the works.

And the parliament, clearly aware of the rot in the criminal justice sector and the urgency to tackle the menace, seems determined to make this happen and in good time too.

To get this done, the National Assembly is collaborating with civil society organizations such as the Prisons Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) and Justice, Rule of Law and Anti-corruption (ROLAC) among others.

Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Interior, Dr. Adams Jagaba at a retreat for the review of the amendment of Nigerian Prison Act, cap 29 of 2004 in Enugu last week said his committee had conducted intensive research and extensive consultations with critical stakeholders to produce a document that would address most of the challenges inherent in the current prisons system.

His words: “The importance of these amendments cannot be over-emphasized, given the challenges bedeviling our prisons system.

The House of Representatives committee on Interior has held public hearings on eight bills referred to the committee, amongst which four are the Nigerian Prisons Service amendment Act.”

While the committee of the lower house seems upbeat about the amendment, it is not certain how the entire house and the upper chamber of the parliament will key into the project in order to make the dream of amending the prison Act become a reality and bring succor to Nigeria’s derelict prisons system.

This is because similar efforts in the past did not see the light of the day.

The controller-General of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS), Ahmed Ja’afaru, who noted that the focus of the Prison service in 21st century was on rehabilitation, stressed that the Service needed to be empowered with an Act that would enable it operate more effectively.

Ja’ afaru, who was represented by Assistant Controller-General in charge of planning, Research and Statistics, Suraji Olariende at the retreat said the Service had earlier attempted to have a bill on prisons in 2001 but was unsuccessful with the process.

He said: “When the prison act first attempted to have a bill on prison which was presented in 2001, many people kicked against it because they did not know the importance. 17 years down the line, we are yet to have a new bill on prison act.”

Highlighting some of the striking provisions of the bill, executive director of PRAWA, Dr. Uju Agomoh said some contents of the bill deserves celebration.

“One is the focus on the whole notion on correctional services and the promotion of rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

So within this bill, we have clear provisions that will position the Nigerian Prison Service as we know it today and now the Nigerian Correctional Services with the clear mandate to provide both custodian and non-custodian services.

“The second aspect is that we now have a platform that provides the structure and administrative processes to enable the implementation of non-custodian measures, whereby when you have people who are charged with minor offences instead of going to put them in the prison and the state feed them, these people can now be attended to in the community either by serving probation or community service,” she said.

Agomoh said they are recommending that a particular structure be created under the Nigerian Correctional Service with the clear purpose of providing supervision for those who have been sentenced to non-custodian service.

Another robust provisions in the bill has to do with mentally ill individuals and the physically disabled. The essence is to ensure that you don’t have people who are in prison just because they are mentally ill.

Those in this category commits no offence but are however, hounded into Prisons just because, they are mentally ill.

People in those categories have no business being in prison because they have not committed any offence, Agomoh insisted.

“This practice which everyone knows is very bad is anchored on archaic law known as Lunacy Law.

But with the provisions in the new bill, we will get rid of that.

Part of how the bill has recommended to deal with it is the provision of the process of mental health review board at various state levels with appropriate professionals,” she explained.

The other innovation in the bill borders on the clear provisions for people with physical disabilities in terms of infrastructural care and their other needs.

There are also provisions that provided for the establishment of young offenders institutions, the Borstals in each state of the federation.

Currently, Nigeria has only three Borstal institutions located in Kaduna, Abeokuta and Ilorin.

Connected to that is the case of women inmates. There are recommendations in the bill for separate facilities for women and making sure there is one in each state of the federation.

This include facilities for anti-natal care and proper care for women who have babies in prison.

For Agomoh, those and many more provisions are things that actually enables Nigeria to be compliant with international standards.

Besides, the bill makes significant provisions to address the major problem of awaiting trial persons.

It also provides a safeguard and clear processes that needs to be put in place by the correctional services, which will activate other agencies to provide the needed care for inmates.

One of such novel provision is the power of the correctional service to reject inmates when their detention facility is full as well as the power to provide custodian or non-custodian services.

National coordinator of Legal Defence Assistance Project (LEDAP), Mr. Chino Obiagwu agreed that the prisons should be defined to engage in correctional services.

According to him, naming it correctional services agency will well reflect the rehabilitative purposes and promote the objective of penal punishment.

His words: “Prisons require a civil oversight to ensure independent monitoring.

The new prison law should provide for prison inspectors’ that will operate from outside the prisons but with responsibilities to have auditing and policy oversight of the institutions.

A prison visitor board should also be decentralised so as to make it easier for operations. A regional or state level boards will be effective.

“The introduction of non-custodial sentences in the ACJA requires that the prison reform bill should contain all necessary provisions that will equip the prisons to carry out and mange those sentences.

Such alternative to imprisonment measures as parole, probation, suspended sentence, community services require special skills and tools of the prison services.

“The absence of integrated data on prisons, inmates and their biodata, convictions and other necessary statistics is a major constraint of criminal justice administration in Nigeria.

The ACJA provides for central and integrated data among the agencies of the criminal justice system and that the Controller of prisons should maintain and submit to the Attorney General data of prisons for central record management.

These reports are expected to the integrated into similar data from the police, the prosecution and the courts.”

For Obiagwu, the prison reform law should prioritise accountable data collection and management. The new prison law, he suggested should make rehabilitation its central goal of correctional services.

According to him, skills learning should be mandatory in prisons, with equipped facilities He also stressed that the use of half way homes should be required for every prisoner before he is released.

For director, Access to Justice, Mr. Joseph Otteh, the Nigerian Prisons system has a troubling variety of problems, – beginning perhaps with the constitutional framework of the penitentiary system.

He noted that the problems also includes the very brutal conditions in which prisoners live, overcrowding, horrifying sanitary conditions and its decrepit infrastructure, grossly inhumane nutritional provisions, the failure of the prison system as institutions for reform of character, the troubling level of inmate deaths and the lack of a system of accountability for lives.

“A lot of industry and effort has been put into reducing the prison overcrowding problem – with the help of many concerned actors.

However, it seems that with every push to lower the prison population, there is a parallel counter-force pushing in the opposite direction to exacerbate the problem.

“I think Prisons reform must look, amongst other things, at how Prisons can force changes themselves too, by ensuring they can deliver their services in ways consistent with respect for the dignity of those incarcerated.

Perhaps by giving prisons the power to reject prospective inmates when the available prison space and capacity reach a certain threshold. That can force States to begin to think of creative ways of handling petty crimes.

“On the part of the government too, it’s important to ensure crime control policies they establish are responsible ones, and take account of the finishing lines –i.e. disposition measures.

“Why impose fines, for instance, that poor people cannot pay when you can ask that they do community service as an alternative?

So, there are many elements implicated in reforming prisons, and there won’t be a single silver bullet for all of them. Even then, reforms can start with the low hanging fruits,” he stated.

Otteh pointed out that reducing overcrowding and perhaps making a provision for better health and sanitary care for the prisons will be a good development. “It’s not just a question of increasing the budget.

No, budgets can increase but the quality of prison services will remain the same, because, there is systematically, across the governance spectrum, we say from anecdotal information, a level of corruption involved.

The new Prison Bill can be a good foot forward and a great opportunity to address longstanding concerns,” he enthused.

Civil rights lawyer, Mr. Emeka Nwadioke described as “highly unacceptable” a situation where some awaiting trial inmates stay in prison for over 10 years, adding that this is a major cause of prison congestion.

Nwadioke, who addressed the lawmakers on some aspects of the draft bill, stated that the Prison Amendment Bill “offers a credible framework to address some fundamental ills plaguing Nigeria’s prison system.”

The pro bono lawyer harped on the need to mainstream global best practices in prison management, and decried “excessive reliance on imprisonment and apparent reluctance by the courts to deploy non-custodial measures such as community service, notwithstanding copious provisions of the ACJA on the matter.”

A member of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Criminal Justice Reform Committee, Nwadioke said: “With countless detention centres in Nigeria, proliferation of petty offences, stringent bail conditions, poor pro bono culture and the unsatisfactory processing of minor offenders, there is no gainsaying the urgency required in passing this bill.”


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