Correctional Service Act: cure or placebo?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Stakeholders in the criminal justice system have praised President Muhammadu Buhari for signing into law the 11-year-old Nigerian Correctional Service Bill. The Act, which changes the Nigeria Prison Service to Correctional Service, provides the legal framework for the reform of the sector. Is it adequate to spur the urgently-needed prison reforms? ROBERT EGBE asks.

The trio of Jide, John and Deolu (not real names) were arrested by the police in Ajah, Lagos State and handed over to men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in May 2015. Two of them, however, were barely out of their teens, while the third did not look above mid 20s.

They were subsequently remanded in prison custody, following a Magistrates’ Court order. But the police did not forward their case file to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution for advice on the matter.

By the time Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative (PRAI) was aware of their predicament and requested for a legal advice in 2017, they had already spent two years in custody.

Following a PRAI application compelling Lagos State Attorney-General (A-G) to state why they should not be released, they were charged to a High Court.

“Upon a perusal of the charge sheet, we noticed that they were charged for being disorderly persons, which is punishable upon conviction with three months’ imprisonment. We filed an application asking the court to discharge them, having spent three years in prison for an offence punishable with three months’ imprisonment. In response to our application, the prosecution withdrew the charges against them and they were discharged,” PRAI founder Ahmed Adetola-Kazeem told The Nation.

From Prison Service to Correctional Service

It is the plight of the three men and others like them, still in custody, that informed stakeholders’ push for prison reform.

President Muhammadu Buhari, on August 8, signed into law the Correctional Service Act 2019, which repealed the Prisons Act 2018 and changed the Nigeria Prison Service to Nigeria

Correctional Service. According to Section 2 of the Act, the new law aims at the following: compliance with international human rights standards and good correctional practices; providing enabling platform for the implementation of non-custodial measures; enhancing the focus on corrections, rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders and establishing institutional and sustainable mechanism from the correctional service in response to the problem of high number of awaiting trial persons

11-year history

Since Decree No.9 of 1972, which initiated some reforms in the Nigerian Prisons Service, there have barely been improvements in custodial service. The re-organisations of the sector in 1986, 1993 and 1999 were inadequate to solve the problems.

The Correctional Service Bill was presented and read on the floor of the Upper Chamber in January 2008, by a former senator and current chairman of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Victor Ndoma-Egba, in the sixth assembly.

When the bill was read for the second time in April 2010, Ndoma-Egba hoped it would address fundamental lapses in the Prisons Act.

He said it would also put in place a framework for the rehabilitation and transformation of inmates and address inadequate funding of prisons.

Features of the Correctional Service Act

Aside changing the Nigeria Prison Service to Nigerian Correctional Service, the Act also legalises sweeping reforms in the prisons system.

The Prisons Act was last amended in 2004, but the new law brings with it novelties – non-custodial service – such as community service, probation and parole.

In the new law, the goal of the institution will be to correct; reform; rehabilitate, reintegrate all persons legally interned; provide safe, secure and humane custody for inmates; identify the existence and causes of anti-social behaviours of inmates and initiate behaviour modification in inmates through provision of medical, psychological, spiritual and counselling services for all offenders, including violent extremists, and provide support to facilitate speedy disposal of cases of persons awaiting trial, and empower inmates through the deployment of educational and vocational skills training programmes. It will also facilitate incentives and income generation through custodial centres, farms and industries.

The law also prohibits torture, inhumane and abusive treatment of inmates.

Stakeholders praise new law

Prisoners’ Reform and Welfare Action (PRAWA) Executive Director Dr Uju Agomoh who praised the Act, noted that it contained “many positive things”.

Agomoh said: “In specific terms, the ways the new law will improve the prison system and the correctional service in general include the following:

Address problem of petty/minor offenders detained in prison custody

“It will help address the problem of having petty/minor offenders detained in prison custody as these can benefit from the non-custodial service. This will save funds for the government, avoid these low risk offenders being socialised into more criminal culture by high risks offenders and hardened criminals.

A boost for non-custodial sentences

Not every offence deserves to be punished by imprisonment. According to Agomoh, the Act will “help fast track the implementation of the non-custodial provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 and the Administration of Criminal Justice Laws of various states, by providing the needed support in terms of manpower for the supervision of non-custodial sentences across the states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Teritory (FCT) just as we currently have prisons (custodial centres) across these location. With this, it will encourage the courts to issue non-custodial sentences in deserving cases.”

Management of overcrowding

Sections 12(4), 12(5), 12(6), 12(7), 12(8), 12(9), 12(10), 12(11) and 12(12) of the Correctional Service Act is targeted at solving overcrowding in prisons.

Also, the Act provides that ‘’in the event that the custodial centre has exceeded its capacity, the state controller shall within a period not exceeding one week, notify the chief judge of the state, the Attorney-General, the prerogative of mercy committee, the state criminal justice committee and other relevant bodies’’.

It prescribes sanctions for any state controller, who fails to notify the relevant bodies when the custodial centre approaches full capacity within the stipulated time-frame.

It also empowers the correctional centre superintendent to reject more intake of inmates where it is apparent that the centre in question is filled to capacity.

Agomoh said: “It will make the correctional service to take a more active role in helping manage prison overcrowding by having them trigger an early warning system to alerting the judiciary, ministry of justice and other key stakeholders of the inmates population status viz-a-viz the prison capacity to undertake measures to help control the inflow and outflow of inmates in the facility in question.

Inmates’ mental health provided for

Section 24 of the Act provides for the establishment of the mental health review board to help review cases of inmates with mental disorder. “This will hopefully help address the problem of the so called ‘civil lunatics’ and ‘criminal lunatics’, who are often detained in prison without adequate review and mental health treatment. This will hopefully help reduce the burden and capacity gap on the service with respect to the management of these persons,” Agomoh said.

Young offenders’ facility

The provision of young offenders’ facility in each state is intended to help address the problem of having underaged persons in adult prisons. This is provided under Section 35.

Self-development

The Act also provides incentives to encourage inmates participation in training and vocational workshops and reintegration of inmates into the society (example through issuance of good behaviour to deserving inmates) “which will go a long way to encourage good behaviour in the custodial facilities,” Agomoh added.

Relief for prisons staff

Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) Public Relations Officer Francis Enobore told The Nation that the “Nigerian Prisons community received the news of the signing of the Bill into law with excitement and joy because “we all saw it as something that is coming to relieve the service of a lot of excruciating experiences that we have always had, particularly addressing all the perennial problems in the service”.

Enobore was particularly delighted about the non-custodial and similar aspects of the Act. He said: “To us it does not make a sound meaning if you arrest a street hawker and lock him up in a prison that is overflowing with armed robbers, kidnappers and all those other high profile criminals because at the end of the day you strengthen a street hawker to go out of the prison to become a hardened criminal.

“So, the signing of this Act by Mr. President is bringing a huge relief to us, the entire prison community because we now know that those, particularly first offenders that have minor infractions, instead of keeping them in prisons, you send them to community service.

“It is going to be a win-win situation, the society that the offender has offended will win because they will do services free of charge, the offender himself will win because he will no longer be in prison, rather he will be doing community service and still be relevant to himself and his family.

“So, that will to a very large extent reduce the number of people that will be behind bars. And under this non-custodial wing, we talk of probation. Under probation, you may be guilty of an offence, a Magistrate will look at you and say, look, you go for a period of six months as the case may be, be of good behaviour, make sure you don’t go out of your track, but if you do that, you will be punished for the new crime and the punishment for the old offence added to it for stiffer impact.

“This arrangement has a kind of deterrent effect, the person within that period of probation will be extra careful not to infringe on any law and over time, it will become part and parcel of him to live within the laws as defined by the society.

“We also have Parole, a prisoner after spending part of his prison sentence may be released on parole to a parole officer and given the charge that you are on parole for the next two years and if you go out of your way, the new crime you will suffer it, the balance of your imprisonment on which you were given parole will be added to it.

“So, from whichever way you look at it, it is a win-win situation for both the offender and the society because we will no longer have excess people in prison. For those that shouldn’t absolutely be in prison, the new order says that they shouldn’t be in prison.”

The act is good, but…

Legal Advocacy Response to Drugs Initiative (LARDI) Secretary-General, Emeka Nwadioke commended President Buhari for signing the Bill, but urged the government to ensure its effective implementation.

He added:“The new law will catalyse many of the noble designs on prison reform that have been gathering dust on the shelf.

“Aside from mainstreaming the non-custodial framework, which is now separate from the custodial system, effective implementation of the law will deal a fatal blow to the crippling distortion of the prison system by the awaiting trial crises.

“That some prisons harbour over 90 per cent awaiting trial inmates is clearly a recipe for chaos and dysfunctionality. The new regime will free spaces in the prisons and enable prisons authorities to really implement their three-pronged mandates of reform, rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners.

“The mandatory provisions on the building of borstals and female prisons will secure the rights of these vulnerable groups and ensure that they are treated with the dignity they deserve. The current situation where minors are incarcerated in prisons is an unmitigated aberration.”

President of the Association of Professional Negotiators and Mediators (APNM), Dr. Dorncklaimz Enamhe said the signing of the Bill into law by the president “is a welcome development that is long overdue”.

He noted that “proper implementation of the provisions of the new act will not only improve the correction and reintegration of convicted persons, but also breathe life into the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and the various Administration of Criminal Justice Laws dealing with Non-Custodial Alternatives“.

Correctional Service: Cure or placebo?

Adetola-Kazeem described the Correctional Services Act 2019 as “a watershed in the history of treatment of offenders in Nigeria”.

Nevertheless, he observed that the Bill may not fulfill its aims unless several things are done.

In his view, “some of the provisions of the Act seem very ambitious without a clear thought-out plan on how to properly implement same”.

Unrealistic provision

Adetola-Kazeem noted a potential problem with Section 12 (8) of the Act. This section provides that: “Without prejudice to sub-section (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.”

The question then is, where will the inmate be taken to? Will such inmates be released, particularly where he has allegedly committed a heinous crime? 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.”

Solution? States should build prisons:

Adetola-Kazeem suggested that Prisons be removed from the Exclusive Legislative List, “so that states can cater for many of the inmates in prisons, who committed or are alleged to have committed state offences. This will lessen the burden of the Federal Government. The states should build their prisons”.

Paucity of data:

The lawyer also observed that the Correctional Services Act cannot work effectively unless some attention is paid to other aspect of our national lives.

He said: “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 of 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.”

Overcrowded jails, poor facilities: Another challenge to the new scheme’s success, Adetola-Kazeem noted, is poor prison infrastructure and inadequate training of correctional officers. “There is 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 and state-of-the-art training facility. This will ensure that most inmates can benefit from the beneficial training be it educational and vocational tha t will be of immense benefit to them after release.

“In the event that the custodial centre has exceeded its capacity, the state controller shall effectively remedy the situation when such occurrence happens.”

Will the new law work as planned?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_media_grid grid_id=”vc_gid:1568670356047-9ea45f21-9a5b-3″ include=”3638,3637,3636,3635,3634,3632″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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