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We have all heard the stories of prisons in Nigeria; dinghy, overcrowded, desperately inhumane and busting at the seams with more people awaiting trial than convicted felons.
Personally, I have not seen any of it. The closest I have been to a prison was sometime in 2003 when I stumbled onto the grounds of the one in Ungwan Sunday, Kaduna State, because I thought there was a masquerade parade going on there.
Yes; weird story. And no matter how I explain it, it is still weird, so…let me just skip that. What I would never forget were the shouts from men calling me to come back. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about and so, didn’t respond. In my defense, I didn’t know it was a prison either. I kept on going in until I met a warden who said, ‘young girl, go back. Or… do you want to be raped?’ I didn’t need anyone to tell me to turn back at that point.
But, I digress.
As I was saying, I have never seen the insides of any prison in this country. But I have heard the stories. The first one that comes to mind is the juvenile prison (Borstal) in Kaduna State. A classmate who had been so… ‘stubborn’… was sent to one. Before this happened, he had become a bit of a terror to the school and neighboring communities. He fought people, beat up others, threatened to abuse girls and was generally feared. Even though I feared him too, we were cool. (Not surprising anyway. I gravitated to all the ‘bad kids’ when I was younger. Can you guess why?) Anyway, teachers who punished him in school would watch him laugh in that menacing way that foretold doom and you could bet that they would almost always get attacked on their way home. He was threatened with being locked up in Borstal, an institution whose reputation preceded it. The sound of that name (even today) sends an involuntary shudder down my spine. He, however, couldn’t be bothered. When he was finally sentenced to time at the facility, there was palpable fear among the rest of us and the stories were used to scare us into behaving better. Years later when I finally saw that classmate and was contemplating whether to take a detour or not, he caught my eye and the option was made for me. We got talking and I saw that he was such a changed young man. It almost felt like he had been replaced by aliens. My fear for the institution deepened.
Side note: He is a warden at the institution now. Also, not surprising.
Then I heard about the ‘world famous’ Kirikiri prison; more like read about it. The instances of abuses I read about shocked my young mind. I couldn’t wrap my head around such cruelty. It is said that people go to Kirikiri to become even more hardened criminals. Imagine a correctional facility that makes people worse than they were when they went in.
Which brings me to this question: are Nigerian prisons correctional or punishment facilities? In my opinion, the latter.
Technically, prison sentences should serve as punishment for crimes committed against individuals, a group (or groups) of people or the State defining the crime according to the law. But, prison sentences should not just be about punishing individuals; it should also be about reforming them. I think this should be the biggest reason why prisons exist. In Nigeria, I cannot say for certain how much reformation is happening in the prisons. This is not to negate the work of non-governmental or not-for-profit organizations aimed at reforming prisoners. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the role of the government in correcting and reintegrating former felons into society.
Reading about the history of Nigerian prisons, you would see that before 1968, Nigerian prisons weren’t always this punishment-only centers they are today. Yes, when the idea of having justice systems made up of the police, courts and finally prisons was first established around 1861, they served mainly to please the colonial masters and their interests. There wasn’t much regard for Nigerian lives and, why would there have been? We were a slave territory and the ‘masters’ had all the power. But between 1934 and 1955, two men – Colonel V. L. Mabb and R. H. Dolan – brought about a new order to the way prisons in Nigeria were run. Dolan was especially instrumental in putting up structures that recognized that prisons needed to be as much about correcting and reintegrating individuals into society as they were about punishing them for their crimes. Here is an excerpt about Dolan’s work as found on the Nigerian Prisons website.
‘He also made classification of prisoners mandatory in all prisons and went on to introduce visits by relations to inmates. He also introduced progressive earning schemes for long term first offenders. He also introduced moral and adult education classes to be handled by competent Ministers and teachers for both Christian and Islamic education. Programmes for recreation and relaxation of prisoners were introduced during his tenure as well as the formation of an association for the care and rehabilitation of discharged prisoners. But above all, he initiated a programme for the construction and expansion of even bigger convict prisons to enhance the proper classification and accommodation of prisoners.’
Dolan had the right idea, which is similar to the one that I have.
So, let get to it.
The official national prison population in Nigeria is 73,995 people. If I know anything about statistics and data in Nigeria, then this figure is the most conservative figure the government could put out without looking bad. Which means that there are way more people in Nigerian prisons than the government is letting on. This has been corroborated by many sources who report cases of overcrowding in the prisons, with facilities stretched far beyond the numbers they were created for. Take Kirikiri prison for example. Its capacity is built for 1,056 inmates. As at March 2018, it was said to be housing 5,700 inmates, with 3,700 of those people awaiting their day in court. Kirikiri prison is a replica of the prisons across Nigeria. What is deeply saddening is that, about 68% of the prisoners in the system are awaiting their trial. (You should check out World Prison Brief for more information about prisons in Nigeria.) Honestly, disheartening doesn’t even begin to describe it.
My idea looks at how to solve three problems with one policy. These problems are:
1: Nigerian prisons are overcrowded and need to be decongested.
2: There are way too many people awaiting trials in our prisons today.
3: Nigeria generates more than 32 million tons of solid waste annually, out of which only 20-30% is collected. (Bioenergy Consult)
How can we solve all these problems by doing some basic prison (and prisoner) reforms?
My solution is simple.
We need cleaner communities with streets swept, grasses cut, gutters cleaned, and waste separated into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components before they are then properly disposed and/or recycled. The government-employed street sweepers cannot possibly handle all the work needed to ensure this is effectively done across all 36 States in Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory.
This is where the first step of integration comes in.
Like Dolan tried to do, some prisoners can be used to make up the number. My suggestion is that felons who have not committed any of the capital offences – pre-meditated murder, terrorism, espionage, and treason – should be assigned to different interstate highways to sweep the roads, cut the grasses and clear out gutters where they are present. The government-employed cleaning crews can then focus on ensuring the States – and the communities within them – are clean. One more thing that could be added to the list of tasks for the prisoner is sorting trash for their disposal and/or recycling.
How would this work for people awaiting their trail?
The first step starts at the courts. Bigger crimes and/or grievances should go through the normal court system that we already have but, I am also thinking that there should be mobile courts where petty crimes are tried quickly. These should be based in each community, with the local government performing oversight functions.
So, let us say that a young man steals a cup of Garri in the market and he is caught. Rather than take him to a magistrate court, he is taken to a mobile court which, having found him guilty, sentences him to say, a week of cleaning the gutter in that same neighborhood. The local government then gives him a portion to work on for that week. He is dressed in prison clothes and chained with just enough allowance for him to do his job. He works from say, 9am to 5pm every day until the sentence is over. Then he is let back into the society.
This brings me to the next important thing I think should be done.
For each of these categories of prisoners, I don’t believe that this work should be unpaid. Why did this man steal a cup of Garri? The answer is that he was probably too poor to afford it. So, when he is sentenced, I think he should be paid a daily allowance for his work. The new minimum wage in Nigeria is ₦30,000. I am not suggesting that he is paid that amount; he is after all, a criminal. But…he can be paid say, ₦500 per day – in addition the meals he would eat that day. This money should be kept in an account that he has already furnished the government with. At the end of his sentence, he would have made ₦2,500 if he worked on each weekday. So now, he has some money when he is done with his sentence and he can go back to society and try to find work.
With other felons serving longer sentences, they should be educated, or taught a skill, in addition to their daily workload and activities. This is such that, when they return into society, they have some money to start over their lives and be better individuals in their communities.
You may wonder what would keep felons from committing more crimes, especially as it seems like they get ‘rewarded’ for it, and my hope is that, the shame of being paraded publicly in prison clothes, and the correctional education they get while in prison, would reform them into better individuals.
For those who have committed capital offenses, they should be drafted into harder work like road construction, mining and the likes, with the same opportunity to earn money for their work.
Idealistic? I would admit that it is. It may be naïve even, but I think it can work…especially because it has worked in the past.
Here are some of the benefits I foresee if a policy to this effect is written.
First, it presents the Federal Government of Nigeria with cheap(er) labor for the infrastructural and development work the country desperately needs. Think of highways and inner communities with well tendered lawns, clean gutters for easy flow of water, well swept streets, and generally cleaner outlook. That is a Nigeria I want to see!
On the surface, it may look like the government would have to spend more money to get this to work. But I think what they already spend keeping accused persons and felons in the prisons would more than cover the expense. Secondly, if we solve the waste problem in Nigeria, and make all communities cleaner and healthier, the ripple effects would be amazing: people would be healthier and thus, more productive; investors would be more willing to put in their money towards development; the Nigerian government would be generating more income; prisons would be decongested; and best of all, formers felons can be reformed and reintegrated into the society to also contribute towards nation building. And seeing as the Nigerian government led by president Muhammadu Buhari, has changed the name of the Nigerian Prisons Service to the Nigerian Correctional Services, we seem – for one of the few times – to be on the same page.
So yeah! I am putting this out there with the hopes that the government picks this up, does a proper analysis of its pros and cons, and make this a policy that is solidified as a law. It really isn’t too much to ask, is it?