To the wide applause of stakeholders in the Nigerian criminal justice system, President Muhammadu Buhari, last week, signed into law the 11-year-old Nigerian Correctional Service Bill.
Nigerian prisons had been heavily criticised for their overcrowded state and poor conditions.
Experts said in such a state, the prisons in the country lacked the capacity to reform errant society members sent there for correction.
Rather than being reformed and turning a new leaf, many offenders sent to the prisons, according to experts, become hardened and turn to recidivists.
Obsolete legislation, slow justice system and inadequate funding are prominent on the list of challenges identified by stakeholders to be hobbling the capacity of the Nigerian prisons to reform locked-up inmates.
It was against this background that the signing of the Nigerian Correctional Service Bill last week by the President was hailed by many familiar with the system.
With the newly-signed law, the Nigerian Prisons Service had its name changed to the Nigerian Correctional Service, to reflect and satisfy the yearning of the concerned stakeholders for reformation of prison inmates.
But beyond the name change, the law has many provisions, which experts have described as laudable and cheering.
For instance, as a direct response to the overcrowded prisons, the law, in its Section 12 (8), empowers the State Controller of Correctional Service to reject the intake of additional inmates where the facility under his watch is filled to capacity.
The Section 12(8) read: “Without prejudice to subsection (4), the State Controller of Correctional Service, in conjunction with the Correctional Centre Superintendent, shall have the power to reject more intakes of inmates where it is apparent that the correctional centre in question is filled to capacity.”
In the same vein, the law also made a strong case for the use of non-custodial sentencing for minor offenders instead of sending them to already overcrowded jails.
The problem of prison congestion in the country is huge.
For instance, the March 2019 edition of the Lagos State Criminal Information System revealed that though the five prisons in Lagos State have a combined holding capacity of 4,087, they were holding 9,044 inmates as of March this year.
A former Controller of Prisons in Lagos State, Mr Tunde Ladipo (now an Assistant Controller General), said the Badagry Prison, which was built to house only a little over 100 inmates, was at a time locking over 700 inmates.
The Executive Director, Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative, Mr Ahmed Adetola-Kazeem, a staunch crusader for prison reforms, described the new law as “a watershed in the history of treatment of offenders in Nigeria.”
However, he raised concern about the practicability of Section 12(8), which empowered the State Controller of Correctional Service to reject additional inmates when the facility under his watch is full.
“The question then is: where will the inmates be taken to? Will such an inmate be released, particularly where he has been alleged to have committed heinous crimes? This particular provision is very unrealistic unless more prisons are built, considering our population as a country, and more particularly in urban areas like Lagos, Kano, Rivers etc,” Adetola-Kazeem said.
He believes that except more prisons are built, that provision of the law would not work as prisons in the country have already overshot their capacity.
Adetola-Kazeem said the need had arisen to move the prison from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List, so that both the Federal Government and the states can share the burden of funding the prison.
He said until this was done and more prisons were built, the law might be merely academic.
“It is suggested that the prison be removed from the Exclusive Legislative List, so that states can cater for many of the inmates in prison who committed or have been alleged to commit state offences; that will lessen the burden of the Federal Government. The state should build their prison,” he said.
Also, the Senior Legal Officer, Human Rights Law Services, Mr Collins Okeke, argued that making the states share in the responsibility of funding the prison would help to check indiscriminate imprisonment of people for minor offences created by state laws.
Okeke said, “Because of the way our constitution is crafted, prison is on the Exclusive Legislative List, under the control of the Federal Government, so, state governments really don’t care and magistrates just keep sending people to prison and the Federal Government continues to pay; and for the Federal Government, nobody is really asking questions about how much is going into servicing the prisons.
“I believe that there is a need somewhere along the line for an argument to be made that prisons should be removed from the Exclusive Legislative List and put in the Concurrent Legislative List, so that the states can participate in the building and funding of prisons.”
On the new law’s provision for the use of non-custodial sentencing, Adetola-Kazeem said lack of reliable data would pose a challenge.
He said, “The Correctional Services Act cannot work effectively unless some attention is paid to other aspect of our national life.
“The non-custodial measures, such as community service, probation, parole etc, may not work effectively if we do not have reliable data of every person in Nigeria.
“If you don’t have reliable information on people you can’t effectively trace them when they abscond. Furthermore, technologies, like trackers, need to be adopted to effectively track those on parole, for instance, to prevent them from escaping justice.”
On a general note, Adetola-Kazeem said for the law to achieve its main aim of reforming inmates, the prisons, most of which are old, needed infrastructural upgrade.
He said, “There is a need for infrastructural upgrade and training and retraining of correctional officers for the new Act to have any effect.
“In order for the Act to fulfill its aim of reforming, rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, there needs to be fewer people in our overcrowded prisons and adequate officials, coupled with the provision of state-of-the-art training facilities.
“This will ensure that most inmates can benefit from educational and vocational training, which will be of immense benefit to them after their release.”
The Executive Director, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, Mr Sylvester Uhaa, also hailed the final signing of the new law, which he said had been too long in coming.
However, despite describing it as “a great legislation with wonderful innovations,” Uhaa is concerned about the culture of poor implementation of laws in Nigeria.
He said, “I am concerned that the Federal Government, as we have seen in the past, may not adequately fund its implementation, especially with respect to the non-custodial options, which will require significant amount of financial and human resources, political will and commitment.”
Like other experts, Uhaa believes that it was time that states partook in the running and funding of the prison, without, which, he doubted, the new law could achieve its aims.
“If states are not willing to support the Federal Government, the financial implication of implementing the Act will soon become too heavy for the Federal Government. So, I urge state governments to support the Federal Government in implementing the Act,” he said.
While expressing his delight that his advocacy for rejection of intake of additional inmates in overcrowded facilities was captured in the new law, Uhaa said except the State Controller of the Correctional Services demonstrated courage, that provision would be easily frustrated.
He said, “The provision on rejection of inmates by the service is something I vigorously campaigned for; and I am happy it has come.
“But the implementation of this provision requires a lot of courage and determination on the part of the service, and I hope the Controllers will be courageous enough to do the right thing, not minding the conflicts this might generate between the judiciary and the States Controllers.”
Like Adetola-Kazeem, Uhaa emphasised the need for facility upgrade and commitment to the training of inmates.
He added, “I also want to see innovations in the area of prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration.
“For example, we can recruit teachers from the N-Power scheme to teach in prisons and also release some inmates to work on release programmes, among others.
“In addition, the successful implementation of the Act depends very much on the level of inter-agency cooperation among the Police, Judiciary and the Correctional Services, as well as on judicial and police reforms.
“If, for example, the high level of indiscriminate and unlawful arrest of innocent and poor people by law enforcement agencies continues, the courts and the correctional facilities will remain congested.
“So, every effort must be made to ensure that law enforcement agencies, judiciary and the Correctional Services respect the rule of law and human rights in their operations, and that there is accountability to check impunity, corruption and abuse of power, which are prevalent in the system and have undermined the credibility of our criminal justice system.”
Uhaa added that the society needed a change of orientation and attitude towards prisoners observing community service or are on parole and diversion, for the provision of the law on non-custodial sentences to work.
For Okeke of HURILAWS, the law has not done enough to address the wide call for abolition of death penalty in the country.
Section 12 (2) (c) of the new law provides that, “Where an inmate sentenced to death has exhausted all legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years has elapsed without execution of the sentence, the chief judge may commute the sentence of death to life imprisonment.”
Okeke, who said this provision was not extraordinary, said what the country needed was a moratorium on death penalty.
He said, “That provision is laudable but it is not something extraordinary because that has actually been the practice; it is just that it is not in the law.
“If you notice, over the years, what happens is that, in Lagos, for instance, the state has not executed anybody. What they have done over the years is that when a death row inmate has stayed up to between 15 and 20 years, they commute the sentence to life imprisonment. So, it is not new.
“What we are hoping would happen is a situation where the country would have a moratorium on execution of death row inmates. A moratorium means that government takes a definite position as it relates to death penalty, by saying we are going to formally halt death sentence.
“At the moment, we have an informal halt because execution of death row inmates is not taking place; but there is no legislative backing for that.
“What we advocate is a moratorium. Our argument is that our criminal justice system has a lot of loopholes that make it possible for many innocent people to find themselves on death row. So, we are saying, why don’t we have a moratorium while the government continues to reform the criminal justice system, instead of keeping these people on death row perpetually on the apprehension that they could be executed at any time?”