I Have an Idea About Prison(er) Reforms

Image: New Stage 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 It almost felt like he had been replaced by aliens.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,

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