Prison reform: When will it be Eldorado?

(By Emma Eke)

Without giving any support to the social stigma that still trails freed inmates, it cannot be out of place to reason that free missing, as it is termed, has a way of hardening a soft mind. If a first time offender passes through the prison system, he/she usually turns into second degree criminal, especially if he/she was at three notorious yards, which we shall not name, but have already been indicated by a cluster of NGOs which did a survey of the system two years ago

IMAGINE this scenario: An hourglass-shaped figure, in her 20s, walks smartly towards her visitor, offers a warm hand of welcome to him and a seat. Apart from her inmate’s uniform, fashionably designed to reflect the dexterity of the dress maker, nothing else gives her away as a prisoner. She is about to run through a two-year-jail term slammed on her for some inexplicable complexities in a fight that ensued at a party she attended in her neighbourhood. The owner of the club lost some valuable items while some people were wounded as a result of the fracas.

   Meanwhile at the reception room of the complex is a young man, enthusiastically indicating to anyone that cares to listen that he has come around to see his fiancée. He never shows any sign of regret over her present plight. The emotionally laden meeting has seen the lovebirds glued in long embrace, at the expiration of the 10-minute allotted for such a visit, until a mild voice of the supervising official sees the duo parting.

   To many, this picture is more of an Eldorado than real as far as prisons service in Nigeria is concerned. Put differently, if such is feasible, it may be outside this clime. But not a few have indicated that such cannot happen in this country due to its sloppy criminal judicial system, which has crippled the much talked-about reform of its prison system.

   Yes, those in this school of thought have been able to quickly arrive at such a conclusion based on their knowledge or exposure to life in the major 25 major prison complexes across the country. Their pessimism is not helped by the reality that inmates in most prison yards are skewed such that 65 per cent of them fall within the age bracket of between 20 to 45; 30 per cent within 46 to 60 years and the rest being above 60 years range.

  In fact, no other personality than Pastor Moses Aluh, the Overseer of the Bridal Assembly Church, a Lagos-based Christian group, laid credence to the doubt that giving credence that the present state of the prisons in this country, cannot reform anybody that passes through it. This he expressed in an interview he granted The Guardian, Sunday, March 29.  Many commentators also not differed from him.

   Anything could be adduced as the actual reason for the state of inertia baying against the much needed improvement in the system. But policy makers have insisted that they are not bereft of ideas on how to get the best for this sector.

   Prisons service is known for its long history of existence, since the transformation of mankind. The truth of the matter is that the policy drives of past and present administrations tend to clear the road only for failure, as all programmes towards this are left mainly at paper levels.

  Evidence is not in short supply as to support total dislocation between policy intention and implementation. But both are targeted at claiming that the primary function of prisons, serving as reformatory institutions, is attained.  Yet, those saddled with this responsibility, onerous as it is, can hardly chest-beat themselves, confidently, of having actualised much feats.

  However, it is not in any way difficult identifying some of the hurdles that are lined up on their path to success. Neither is it herculean finding a way out, so long as the political will and the ‘yes-we-can’ attitude are not in short supply.

  Putting all of this in proper perspective here won’t be a bad idea.  What is the initial raison d’être for prisons in the first place? As part of social institutions that has remained more than relevant – right from the colonial era till today – prisons service has remained a double-edged creation. It serves as instrument for maintaining the status quo and holding down voices of dissent that may nurse audacity to go the extra miles shaking the power-that-be. It also holds an individual accountable for his action.

   Therefore, emphasising that as the agent of coercion may be extreme definition, but it wears more of such semblance than any other. And this is going by it emergence in history of modern society.

  That American author, Jack Lynch, has not captured it less succinctly in his book, Cruel and Unusual, in which he quoted Nathaniel Hawthorne, an official that played a noticeable role in the colonial era of North America. In the latter’s celebrated piece entitled, The  Scarlet Letter, Hawthorn stated: “The founders of a new colony, whatever utopia of human virtue they might originally project, have invariably regarded it among theory of earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison….” He contended that ever in early years of American exposure to (as to be termed new world) prisons were among the first public building erected as the need for “house of detention,” consisting more than 40 homes.

   But what later became good news was that by 18th century, reforms upon reforms were domination of discourse as regards peripheral and structural cleavages of prisons. Some of them were able to take off, while many others have remained best on drawing tables of various nations. Still, never has it ever been out of the consciousness of many people, irrespective of nationalities, that prison could be their next homes.

  Thus, across Europe, America, Asia, and Africa in particular, governments find a good use for the institution.  Among the bulk of the colonial edifice (states), belonging to Europe, failure of noticeable changes in that subsector, has seen policy makers ruefully supervising restructuring of the prison system, in line with those of former colonial masters. But in an opposite direction to what obtains in developed economies, prisons are the last place to expect comfort for its inmates.

  Ironically, the inmates of the high-walled-gates, right from colonial enlightenment homes (educational institutions) were cruelly locked up in harsh conditions of the prison walls. Reason: for having the temerity to demand for self-government. The difference between then and post Independent Republics was only in the re-painting of the walls more than it is in quality of service aimed at reform. The process of handing over might have left the criminal judicial system in its current parlous state, as an aftermath of ever daring to ask them to leave the stage.

  Try as could be possible for a remarkable change, all has remained forlorn. Thus, many things have been eluding the inherited legacy. It is not difficult noticing that inmates in most of the prisons lack basic things, including psychotherapy facilities, which anyone traumatised by mere fact of conferment needs to remain human there-after.

  There have been some improvements, though. For instance, today, daily ration has risen from N5 per meal to N20; medical services have also minimally changed. Still, the effect of such speaks whispers, as far as government transformation agenda is concerned.

    Some have argued that the unwillingness that saw the colonial masters leave the stage without effecting change in the prisons system should no longer fly, more than 50 years after their departure. How long can we keep blaming them when regimes after regime in this country, have had budgets drawn for that sector? This has admittedly been acceded to by some past senior officials, while current ones look over their shoulders before accepting that all that are required for ideal prisons are yet to be in place. They say apart from relative enhancing of the perquisites of the offices, by way of political patronages, the prison is still much inwardly stagnant, modernisation wise.

   Analysts lack confidence in the system too, given the astronomical growth in the number of prison inmates, as recently released by the Prison without Borders, an NGO. According to it, estimated inmates for different periods are: 1973-1983 (15,000 and 20,000); 1983-1993 (20,000 and 35,000); 1993-2003 (35,000 and 40,000); 2003-2013 (40,000 and 47,000).

  But what has returned some iota of hope for the future is the recent promise by the British Government that it would build a prison in Nigeria to house about 400 inmates, currently, serving various terms in the UK. This is in line with the Transfer of Convicted Offender (Enactment & Enforcement) Act. The Project, as announced, was estimated to cost about N250 million. What is still holding this can be anything but not unrelated to the yet-to-be implanted John Odah-led ministerial committee on the states of Nigerian Prisons. Its white paper is expected fast track the needed dream of attaining basic reforms and other changes.

  But there is no debate on why the service has been witnessing unprecedented jump in number of inmates.  As of last year, of the total number of inmates, only about five per cent are citizens of West African sub-region, Asia and others. The fact is that most of the inmates, being youths, bring no cheers to the active workforce of this country.

   However, what has been audible is a promise by the supervising Minister, Abba Moro, that there was no plan to keep the service in a state negligence for long. At least, the advocacy that decongesting of the prisons should be uppermost has not been faulted by anybody. A situation where about 65 per cent of the inmates are awaiting trial for minor cases, as stealing food stuff, etc, cannot be anything hopeful for change. But how this could be achieved without improving first, the criminal judicial system is a hard nut to chew.

    Many have described as snail-speed the introducing of robust changes in the system as to dovetail in favour of the prisoners themselves. Also, clustering of all categories of prisoners in the same structure is anti-reformatory. This, said experts, is the main reason most ex-convicts come out worst than they were before going in.

   Without giving any support to the social stigma that still trails freed inmates, it cannot be out of place to reason that free missing, as it is termed, has a way of hardening a soft mind. If a first time offender passes through the prison system, he/she usually turns into second degree criminal, especially if he/she was at three notorious yards, which we shall not name, but have already been indicated by a cluster of NGOs which did a survey of the system two years ago.

   Mrs. Ruther Aiyer, director of Prison Walls Reform, an NGO, confirmed that one of such prison yards , notorious for not introducing reforms quick enough is in Lagos, Enugu and Kaduna, among others. Why has it not been possible to boost the recent efforts on the part of some inmates to improve academically? That about 20 of them is currently admitted by National Open University and that some who sat GCE papers did well is heartening.

     Visits made at Ikoyi and Kirikiri prisons, Lagos, give some credence to underhand dealings, which should also be corrected. It is same in all the prisons across board. Right from main portal to the prison yards, demands for gratifications from visitors to inmates are made.

  In all, five spots of such demands exist, while in some places a list is read out to the hapless visitor. This is despite some official support from charity homes and philanthropists to the running of the system. If gratifications are demanded for the inmates, it would be a different question.

  There is no way we can revert to the old era when a prison warder would lead a number of inmates for public work, armed only with his baton and his uniform. They were seen on high ways and official quarters doing some works. As they were often seen rendering soulful and ennobling songs, which usually synchronised with their energy dispensed during outside work. The warder would only watch with glee, and members of the public freely dropped some items in appreciation. However, any attempt to try such these days will be suicidal. Yet, that does not call for exploiting visitors who have genuine reasons to interact with their relations behind bars.

• Eke is a Lagos-based journalist.

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