Making Nigerian prisons truly correctional

LAST week, the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) Act was repealed and replaced with the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) Act 2019 when President Muhammadu Buhari signed the bill on the latter into law. And with the coming into force of the new law, the NPS will now be known and addressed as NCS. The name change was ostensibly informed by the obvious chasm between the reformatory objective of the prison system and the appallingly low level of achievement of that goal regarding transformation in the personalities of prisoners after serving their terms. The conception of jail is that the freedom of convicts is constrained while the state, through the prison system, takes steps to correct and rehabilitate them so that they can ultimately become useful to themselves and the society.

President Buhari reportedly alluded to this much when he said that the Correctional Service comprised the  custodial and non-custodial service, adding that the non-custodial service was intended to be a place of reformation and that those sentenced under this would not stay in custody but will have remediation.  However, the current focus of the prison system in the country is mainly on sanctions and deterrence. It spares  little or no  thought for life after prison terms. As a consequence, many convicts who spent time in prison have had to repeat the same unpleasant experience time and again.

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People get into prison and become hardened as if prison is a training ground for inmates to become more virulent outlaws. Many have become jailbirds as they found the demands to properly re-integrate into the society rather difficult because the prison system did not prepare them for such eventuality. The rate of recidivism is intolerably high, an eloquent testimony to the fact that the prison system has been ineffective in reforming inmates. It is therefore a welcome development that the government has ensured a name change to mirror the reformatory aspect of the purpose of the prison system. That is gladdening as the move in itself epitomises an official acknowledgment of the fact that the current system is not correctional. However, name change alone is inadequate: it must be backed up by action. In other words, beyond the change in nomenclature is the dire need for comprehensive reforms without which the name alteration will amount to nothing.

Truth be told, to be worthy of its new name, the NCS has to undergo wide ranging reforms in the areas of decongestion of prisons; quick and expeditious treatment of cases of awaiting trial inmates; appropriate use of plea bargaining; re-energised focus on moral coaching and vocational training of prisoners; general improvement in prison conditions and so on, not mere name adjustment. While we welcome the name change, it must be a stepping stone to executing the needed overhaul of the prison operations and not just a smokescreen to obfuscate the more fundamental need for a diametrical re-jigging of the system which must necessarily include, though not limited to, re-orientation of the prison officials and inmates.

For instance, the pervasive sleaze in the system must be addressed. There is a recurring allegation that when people donate relief items to the inmates, those materials disappear, even as officially allocated welfare items seldom get to the prisoners in full measure. In essence, the integrity quotient of some of the officials who police the activities of the prisoners approximates that of the inmates; many of them are privileged criminals who are incapable of leading an exemplary life. Pray, what manner of knowledge, be it legal, moral or ethical, can such officials impart to the inmates?

Sadly, too, the seemingly over-flogged issue of deplorable prison conditions in the country has remained salient, especially as it relates to the carrying capacity of the prisons. The reality on the ground is that inmates are crammed into facilities that were originally meant to accommodate less than one twentieth of their population. Worse still, such prison facilities are usually unfit for human habitation, having become decrepit and dilapidated often owing to protracted official neglect, disability of age and/or pressure of use. Pray, how can such facilities effectively serve the purpose of reformatory homes even if the officials have the best of intentions and the inmates are favourably disposed to correction? These are the entrenched issues that sheer modification of name cannot resolve; they require genuine official commitment and determination as well as pragmatic steps to alter the status quo in a fashion that reflects the new nomenclature.

The old system of community service, suspended sentence and parole should be institutionalised to decongest the prisons and assist in establishing the corrective approach to punishing convicted criminals. We urge the Federal Government to muster the political will to follow through with the whole gamut of system reforms needed to effectively change the public perception that the country’s prison system is a breeding ground for felons rather than a truly correctional institution. This goal obviously transcends mere name change.

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