Imperatives of prison reform

Prison is an institution established by law to provide rehabilitation and correctional facility for those who violated the law as a punitive measure. However, besides its punitive goal, prison is primarily meant to reform the inmates to be better people in the society.

Like every other society, Nigeria has her own fair share of prisons scattered across the country. In 1872, the colonial masters set up the Broad Street Prison, with a capacity for 300 inmates. It must be stressed that the colonial prisons were not really intended, at that time, to reform prisoners. Rather, prisoners were mostly engaged in hard labour as dictated by the colonial administration.

It is, however, sad to note that nothing really fundamental has taken place in the outlook of the colonial days’ prisons and contemporary ones in Nigeria. In terms of being a reformation home, Nigeria’s prisons cannot be said to have arrived yet. Welfare of prison inmates has always been an issue as most of the nation’s prisons are considered not too good for human habitation.

Indeed, there have often been skirmishes between prison warders and prisoners based on issues such as poor feeding arrangement, inadequate accommodation space and pathetic medical facility, among others. Sometimes, some of the prisons have limited number of suitable vehicles to convey prison inmates awaiting trial to court.

These shortcomings have resulted in poor prison conditions. Therefore, inmates face years of confinement in often cramped and dirty rooms, with insufficient food allocations, inadequate minimum standard of basic hygiene and scarcity of decent clothing.  A major bane of prisons across the country is overcrowding, which constitutes a serious threat to the health of inmates.

According to experts, cases of jailbreak have been partly traced to the unbearable conditions of inmates.  It is not unusual to see a typical Nigerian prisoner look so frail, with rashes all over the skin, among other deadly physical diseases. While one isn’t advocating that prison inmates should be treated as lords and queens, at the same time, prison shouldn’t be hell on earth for them.

Universally, the prison ought to train inmates in trades or vocations that could uplift them whenever they are out of prison. The idea is to ensure that they are properly integrated into the society after their sojourn behind bar. This way, they won’t likely constitute nuisance to the society. Towards this end, prisons ought to have facilities for both formal and informal education to support the various aspirations of inmates.

Ideally, the prison, aside serving as a form of punishment for offenders, is also planned to be an agent of reformation and rehabilitation. But sadly, reverse seems to be the case as too many criminal offenders emerge from prisons worse off than they initially were. This is largely due to the fact that first-time offenders are often kept together with hardened criminals and they end up being badly influenced. Consequently, they will not be able to imbibe the right values their imprisonments were meant to inculcate.

From all indications, the prison system in our nation is in dire need of interventions from various segments of the society. Major stakeholders need to come up with ideas and initiatives that would radically change the system. Inasmuch as it is true that prison is in the exclusive list and not within the control of the states, it needs to be stressed that state governments should not look away at the current state of prisons in their respective states. After all, the police are not under the state too, but various state governments across the country have made major interventions because of the crucial nature of the police to public security matters.

Similarly, philanthropists, religious bodies and non-governmental organisations, as well as corporate bodies, could also assist the prisons through donation of essential items in order to achieve the goal of actually reforming the inmates. Also, prison officials should continuously undergo trainings, particularly in inter-personal relationships and psychology in order to attain the competence required in effectively performing their duties.

It is, however, important to emphasise that in order to reduce the burden on prisons in the country, more emphasis needs to be placed on the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) method. The main objective of ADR is to encourage and promote the resolution of disagreements in a way that is devoid of legal action. It is on this principle that the Lagos State Government anchored the creation of the Citizens’ Mediation Centre (CMC) in 1999. The initiative is to help in settling disputes without seeking redress in courts. The goal is to ensure that much strain isn’t placed on the judicial process. With this, the prison would attract less number of inmates.

Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja

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