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Raising the bar in prisons administration (1)

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imprisonmentIN pursuing a holistic development of Nigeria, a pertinent consideration for the President-Elect General Muhammadu Buhari is the administration, security and welfare of the Nigerian prisons system.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) (as amended) (the “Constitution”) vests in the Federal Government the control and administration of prisons. (Item No. 48 of the Exclusive Legislative List of the Second Schedule to the Constitution; A.-G., Abia State v. A.-G., Federation (2002) 6 NWLR (Pt. 763) 264, 385-386G-C). This power is generally exercisable by statutory instrument of the National Assembly.

However, the Prisons Act (CAP. P29) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 (the “Prisons Act”) and the subsidiary legislations made thereto vests in the President of Nigeria wide powers over the control, administration, security and welfare of prisoners and staff of the Nigerian Prisons Service.

Notably, Section 15 (a) of the Prisons Act provides that the President may make regulations with respect to the organisation and administration of prisons.

The Nigerian prisons legislation and practice are generally perceived to be “anti-prisoner”. They tend to completely take away all rights and self-respect of prisoners. This is unlike the general prison practice and legislation in other advanced nations. For instance, in the United Kingdom (UK), Rule 10 of the Prison Rules (1999) S1 1999/78 provides that every prisoner must be provided, as soon as possible after his reception into prison, and in any case within 24 hours, with information in writing about those provisions of the Prison Rules and other matters which are necessary for him to know, including his earnings, privileges and the proper method of making requests and complaints. This is not so provided under Nigerian prison legislation. Also, in the UK, cutting of the hair of male prisoners is done with the consent of the prisoner (Rule 28 (8) of the UK Prison Rules). Whereas, in Nigeria, under Regulation 7 of the Prisons Regulations made pursuant to the Prisons Act (the “Prisons Regulations”), it is compulsory to cut the hair of male prisoners.

The real issue here is not about enacting more laws but effective compliance and enforcement of existing laws with necessary amendments or modifications to some. If given the option, most prisoners in Nigeria, if not all, would opt to be imprisoned in the prisons of other nations with advanced prisons system. The bad state of our prisons system brings about and nurtures the desire of most prisoners to escape from prison. This piece posits that there is an urgent need to ensure effective compliance with and enforcement of our prisons legislations so that ours will be a sane society. Honestly, the myriads of problems facing the Nigerian prisons system cannot be fully captured in this piece.

Welfare: Most prisons in Nigeria today are as bad, neglected and ragged as most (public) mortuaries are in Nigeria. The prisons’ conditions are so poor and unhealthy such that a short stay in prison can cause a prisoner chronic illness and mental breakdown. In Nigeria today, our cities, streets, towns, villages and roads are littered with beggars and persons of unsound mind. Most of these persons are ex-prisoners whose poor state of physical and mental health has been caused or worsened by their stay in prison custody. Most prisoners are discharged from prison unkempt, penniless, sick, insane and with injuries and no one to cater for them. When they come out in this state of “rejection” by the prisons system, they further suffer more “rejection” by the society. This should not be the case.

During his lifetime, the late legal luminary, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, SAN, while contributing his quota to the call for a healthy society once stated at a forum organised by the Nigerian Medical Association that “our society is fast becoming an insane society” as a result of the menace of our bad prison system. Quite clearly, the Prisons Regulations contain provisions that deal with prisoners’ welfare, but only effective compliance and enforcement of this legislation will fulfill the good intentions behind it.

The truth is that there are so many provisions of the Prisons Regulations on the health and welfare of prisoners that are hardly complied with. For example, Regulation 8 states that “all prisoners, prior to being removed or discharged, shall be examined by the medical officer, and no prisoner shall be discharged except at his own request, while laboring under any acute or dangerous disorder, nor until the medical officer shall certify that such discharge is safe.” The foregoing provision is well-conceived and dangerous as well, as it is capable of being misinterpreted.

For clarity, Regulation 8 should be amended to provide first that all prisoners prior to being removed or discharged shall be examined by a medical officer. Second, no prisoner shall be discharged while labouring under any acute or dangerous disorder until the medical officer shall certify that such discharge is safe. Third, a prisoner may be discharged at his own request while labouring under any acute or dangerous disorder if he shows verifiable evidence that he will receive medical care in a medical facility, and fourth, the medical treatment of a prisoner who is found to be labouring under any acute or dangerous disorder shall be at government expense. The fourth (above) appears to be the practice in other nations with advanced prisons system. For instance, in the United Kingdom, all expenses incurred in the maintenance of prisons and of prisoners are defrayed out of money provided by parliament (UK Prisons Act (1952) s. 6(2) and (3) amended by the Courts Act (1971) ss. 53(3) and 56(4), Sch. 7, Pt. II, Para 4, Sch II, Pt. IV).

Pertinently, the amount payable to prisoners for their work/prison labour in the course of their stay in prison should be reviewed upwards. For example, Regulation 4 of the Prisons (Appellants) Regulations made pursuant to the Prisons Act provides that if an appellant is ordered to be released by the Court of Appeal, the following payments shall be made to him for his work during the time he has been specially treated under these Regulations – (a) if employed on skilled hard labour – nine (9) kobo, (b) if employed on unskilled hard labour – three (3) Kobo, and (c) if employed on light labour – two kobo. These amounts are abysmally small and measly.

Further, the Nigerian prisons legislation and practice should provide more motivation to members of staff of the Nigerian Prisons Service (“NPS”). This may be achieved by increasing the number of medals awardable to members of staff of the NPS. Currently, there are three categories of medals awardable by the President to staff of the NPS. (Article 1 of the Honours (Prisons Services) Warrant made pursuant to the Prisons Act). The aim of the award of the medals is to increase dedication and loyalty and boost morale.

Decongestion: The judiciary plays a key role in the decongestion of prisons. There should be special legislations and rules for the expeditious trial and determination of cases and appeals involving persons in prison. Recently, there have been a number of revisions to Rules of Courts and issuance of new Practice Directions of some Superior Courts of Record, but sadly, these have not catered to the expeditious trial and hearing of appeals of persons in prison.

Also, the reformation and amendment of archaic laws and criminal procedural laws is vital. For example, it is essential that provisions of criminal procedural laws that give a Magistrate the power to remand persons in prison when the Magistrate finds that it has no jurisdiction to try the person for the offence for which the person is charged (holding charge), appears to be an absolute power and should be whittled down. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton (1834-1902) in his letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 3, 1887 –“Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton” (1904)).

In this regard, it is suggested that legislation should make the grant of bail by a Magistrate mandatory where the Magistrate finds that it has no jurisdiction to try a person for an offence for which the person is charged, except for a capital offence.

 To be continued.
• Edoh Esq. is an attorney-at-law. He has been mentored at A. A. Akpedeye (SAN) & Co., Kola Awodein (SAN) & Co., and G. Elias & Co.


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