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Prisons Are To Reform Not Punish



Sylvester T. Uhaa is an expert and the Country executive director at Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE – Nigeria), in this interview with ISABEST OMOREGBEJI, he speaks on the reformations and rehabilitation of ex-convicts from the Nigerian Prisons

How did you come about Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)?
I will just like to emphasize that CURE Nigeria is part of an International Organization called International CURE located in Washington D.C United States. I came to know about them because of my interest in justice and prison reforms. I was training to become a priest, a Jesuit Priest and so I was working in Benin. I often visited the prisons and I discovered that a lot of people in prison needed help. They did not have access to legal services; people will get sick with poor access to medical care. I saw women gave birth in prison and there was nothing for them, I saw people die in prison, I saw people who were detained for very long time without going to court. So I really wanted to respond to those issues, that was how I started the Nigeria chapter of CURE, which is an independent chapter to address those issues that I saw in the prisons and in the justice system in Nigeria.

Can you let us into some of the cases you’ve handled that border on character Reformation and rehabilitation of ex-convicts?
Actually we wanted to do a lot as our name implies to rehabilitate people who have gone to prison but as you know, it is very capital intensive and so we have not been able to do much in terms of rehabilitating people who have gone to prison. But in 2008 then I worked with Edo State government with Professor Osunbo and then I was able to convince the state government to give me slots to employ people who had just come out of prison. They understood that and were very willing and gave me 20 slots to employ ex-convicts on a sanitation program then in Edo state. I enrolled people who just came out of prison to work and earn money. I also in that project recruited some in my office then in Edo state. At the national level we understand that rehabilitation of an inmate begins the very day he or she gets admitted into a prison, that’s the day you ask the inmate of what he or she is interested in and you start training and rehabilitation.

What role have you played so far in helping the Nigerian prison authority in the reformation of inmates?
One key issue in rehabilitation is education, it is on record that CURE Nigeria in 2015 shipped a 40 feet container of books from the United States and you can see this on our website and we have donated those books to the Nigerian Prison Service and they have distributed them to about 18 prisons across the country for education purposes, to establish libraries in those prisons. We didn’t stop there, last year we wrote a proposal to the U.S Embassy in Nigeria to donate educational materials to all the prisons in Benue State and they bought equipment like text books, lockers, television sets, tables, boards and writing materials worth about $10,000 and we donated that to Gboko prison, Makurdi prison and remand homes- that are for children in Gboko and Otukpo prisons.
We have received reports from these places that prisons officers and inmates are making good use of those materials and it is helping them. But we are not happy that the goal of establishing libraries in prison wards for government to intervene and recruit people, teachers who would teach in these prisons is not coming up well. That has not been done even in Benue State, even in all the other prisons across the country where these books were distributed; government has not taken the step to recruit teachers who will teach the inmates so that they can make use of these books.

Have you seen this y our idea being practiced in some other places?
I have visited prisons in the United States and that is how it’s being done, in fact in two prisons, I met Nigerians teaching there. That is why I thought I would establish libraries in prisons in my own country and expect that government would at least recruit people who will teach there so that we can turn our prisons from what it is to a place of reformation.
I want to tell you that very little is being done in this regard and we’re feeling very frustrated about it.

Talking about the worsening situations of prisoners who are unable to get rehabilitated in the prisons; what other strategy do you think government should adopt aside from setting up libraries in prison wards?
Of course there are many things to be done like the setting up of the national Open University service. Well, they need to expand that to all the prisons and the federal government should be able to fund that because inmates don’t have money to pay for their education. So someone needs to fund it.
Another area is the area of skills acquisition; they need to be trained in` different skills such that when they leave prison they will be able to make a living for themselves. Currently, they are only trained in barbing and hair dressing, which is not enough. That kind of trade can hardly make someone earn a decent living and so you need skills like ICT.
We have very talented people as inmates. But education is very key. If you are able to establish libraries in such places so that inmates could study and get their degrees, get their master’s and doctorate you empower them to come out and be better citizens

What are some of the challenges facing reformation and rehabilitation of inmates in Nigerian Prisons?
As you know 70 per cent of our inmates are awaiting trial. That makes it even difficult for the Nigerian prison service to train its inmates because an awaiting trial inmate can leave at any time. The prison says they do not have the mandate to train awaiting trial inmates, the mandate of the prison is to rehabilitate and train only convicted prisoners. So for us to achieve that, we must ensure that our prison population, say 95 or even 91per cent are convicts. That will make it easier to plan for the inmates.

There are circumstances in the Nigerian Prison Service where minors or first time offenders are remanded together with hardened criminals in the same rooms. How do you react to that?
That is a very serious issue and CURE has often reacted strongly against it. The Child Rights Act which is a Nigerian law and all international laws on criminal justice system are very clear that children should not be in any adult prison, unfortunately that is not the case in Nigeria. Wherever we find that we confront whatever authority in charge. So again I am taking this opportunity to ask all the stakeholders in the police and the judiciary to ensure that children are not sent to any adult prison. It is very dangerous to send minors to adult prisons or detain them in adult facilities because of the environment. Children must be kept in juvenile facilities. Children who commit offences should be treated as children and not as adults.

Genuinely do you think a criminal or an ex-convict can get rehabilitated and the changes thereafter?
Of course everybody is capable of becoming a better person and that is exactly what prisons are suppose to do, to offer them opportunities to change and go through training, psychological analysis, go through counseling so that they can abandon the bad or whatever criminal behavior. Of course everyone can change if given the right rehabilitation and help.

As an expert in character reformation and rehabilitation how do you advise government and of course the Nigerian Prison Service?
This is what we need to do, we need to reform our entire criminal justice system, the police, the courts and of course the prisons. Our attitude toward fighting crime need to change, our attitude now is to lock criminals up or punish them but we cannot achieve safety by simply locking criminals up. So what I want us to do, just like we have been saying, we should have an approach to fighting crime that is aimed at reducing crime rather than reacting to crime. And what we want government to do is to invest more in providing jobs to people, invest in our education, and invest more in social services so that it will reduce crime in our society.

Another thing that we need to do is to change the philosophy of our prisons from punishment to rehabilitation, reformation and reintegration. We frown at government building more prisons at the moment. You are aware that six prisons have been designated to be built across the country, with one in Kano. While we recognize that our prisons are old and we need new prisons, we do not think it should be now.

We feel we should build new prisons only when we have successfully decongestant the ones we have. After we must have reformed the entire criminal justice system then we can build new prisons. Building prison when we have about 70 per cent of our inmates are awaiting trial does not make sense, those new prisons would soon be filled up with people, and our prison population will continue to go up.

The thinking that we need to buy more arms, recruit more police to have safety is not correct. We need to provide education and give people jobs, millions of youths graduate from our universities every year and they do not have jobs. You can’t fight crime by simply buying arms for police; we need to invest in our youths. In the criminal justice system we need to fight impunity, we need to fight lawlessness; we need to fight lack of accountability. So these are the issues and we need to fight it. There is corruption in our criminal justice system and we need to deal with that.