Prisons are meant to be penitentiaries, a place where people who have fallen short of societal expectations, are sent to for corrective purposes to enable them become better citizens at the expiration of their time. At least, that is what the authorities intend the place to achieve. This, though, is not automatic as there are conditions attached which if met will enhance the desired result. Some of these conditions include an understanding on the part of the authorities that inmates are entitled to certain basic facilities that will aid their cleansing and make them appreciate the wrong they committed and undertake to behave better on release. The prison system is not meant to trample on their humanity.
In civilised societies, what inmates are made to lose is their freedom. They have access to other social amenities available to others outside. In actual fact, some countries due to improvement in human development indices, are recording fewer anti-social elements needing incarceration. Comparing the increasing trend of prisons and prisoners in Nigeria to other parts of the world, is the reality that some countries are seen shutting down their prisons as a result of lack of prisoners as reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In its report in 2016, it revealed that Dutch prisons were emptying fast as a result of the falling number of prisoners in the Netherlands. It also indicated that number of prisoners fell from 20,463 in 2006 to 10,102 in 2016.
Sadly, it is not the case in Nigerian prisons where inmates come out worse than they went in. Because of declining social indices, Nigerians are exposed to crime and criminality that make it inevitable for the prisons to be overflowing with inmates. Unfortunately, there is no visible expansion in the system to accommodate these inflows. The resultant effect is congestion which exposes inmates to epidemics, homosexuality and other forms of abuses that harden instead of correct prisoners. When these people are freed, they become a menace to the society the hold grudge against for subjecting them to such indignities.
Available statistics indicate that out of the total population of 71,443 in-mates nationwide, awaiting trial inmates stand at 48,702. Many of them have been behind bars for a longer time than they would have served if they had been sentenced.
The Port Harcourt prison, for instance built in 1918 and designed to hold 800 inmates now accommodates 5,000, while Kirikiri Maximum prison in Lagos built to hold 956 inmates, is now home to 2,600 inmates. Even worse is the maintenance of these inmates. The Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Prisons Service, Ahmed Ja’afaru, in his budget defence at the Senate, lamented that N17 billion allocated for feeding of the inmates was meagre and could not spread across the 244 prisons. He further explained that a total of N450 was being expended on each prisoner, stating that N300 was for the actual meal and N150 was expended on cooking.
While government had given verbal commitments to reform the prisons system, a lot is yet to be done in the administration of the country’s criminal justice system to make it protect the fundamental human rights of its citizens including the prisoners. It is appalling, in our view, that most of the prisons are still in the form the colonial administrations left them decades ago.
Early in the year, the Minister of Interior, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd), raised the alarm on the deplorable state of prisons in Nigeria. From congestion in virtually all the prisons to the inmates’ exposure to epidemics. Little wonder then that he complained that “any human being that goes there would come back as an animal.”
On his part, Senate President Bukola Saraki once described prison congestion as a national scandal, promising that the 8th Senate would fast-track the passage of five bills to effectively decongest prisons in the interest of justice and to save cost for prisons maintenance as well as enhancing prisoners’ welfare.
But we insist that the most pragmatic way of decongesting the prisons is to remove permanently those situations such as unemployment, poverty and corruption in the system that encourage people to take to anti-social behaviour. The BBC report did not say that there no crimes and other disagreeable behaviours among citizens of those countries it cited. The report tried to explain that because the people see their governments making genuine efforts to improve their living conditions, they see no compelling reason to hurt the decent society and end up in jail. Instead of building more prisons the government must improve the criminal justice system, create jobs and provide those social infrastructure that conduce to civilised behaviour. Those are the prison reforms that will make sense.