A two-day International Conference on Nigerian Prisons Reforms ended on June 5 at REIZ Continental Hotel Abuja. It was packaged and driven by First Consultancy and Training, a UK-based company.
The Minister for Interior was there, the Attorney General was represented; the Crown Agents, the Law Reform Commission impressed all; the Human Rights Commission and the speakers and all stakeholders present did a good job.
Discussions at the well-attended conference exposed the years of shameless neglect of our Prisons and the huge opportunities for the use of agriculture to improve the lot of the Prisons. But the Ministry of Agriculture was not represented.
Their absence was strongly regretted by participants because Nigerian Prisons has about 15 large farm areas scattered around the nation, which could be used for mechanized farming, and also offer opportunities for poultry, fish, snail and honey bees farming, to name a few. These could be harnessed to augment the funding and feeding of the Prisons and the inmates. This was the new idea this conference was bringing on board.
The National Planning Commission was very ably represented by the Secretary to the Commission, but the Minister of Agriculture could not find a Director to send to such an important conference. The 24 points communiqué at the end of conference posited thus: “The potential capabilities of the inmates should be explored in the agricultural sector to boost agricultural and agro-based activities and improved equipment provided for the prisons.” Who were the participants talking to when the Ministry concerned with agriculture could not be bothered?
If this conference were to take place in overseas, they would line up to attend, with their PAs, collect esta code and all sorts of allowances, but may not even pay the conference registration fees! The price of local food stuff has been rising monthly since the past six months and Mr. President should not be blamed for the rising price of local food when he has a minster to find solutions to such situation? Can the ministry find any lasting solution to the food question without interacting with all the agencies concerned? It was wrong for the Minister to continue to neglect matters concerning Nigeria Prisons. Ministries should attend conferences that impact on their core mandate, especially if private sector driven.
Where government claims that there is no money, and a private person spends his own money towards finding solution to a problem confronting government, it is wrong for that same government or an arm of it, to shun the same private sector driven action. This is part of why PPPs often collapse due to lack of commitment and foresight from the government side; more so, because there are no consequences for such negligence or incompetence.
We are talking of the reformation of criminals in prisons in Nigeria, and engaging them in agriculture is surely one of the best ways to help their reformation and also contribute to feeding and funding the prison system.
Nigeria runs a prison system that is majorly still in the state they were over 50 years ago, while our leaders talk of Vision 20-2020 without shame. Government provides N200 per day for the feeding of prison inmates; what greater punishment is there than this that a man will spend N50 per meal in Nigerian Prisons. Even the prison personnel have become victims, in more ways than one, through several years of neglect and internal dichotomies in officer cadres that create more frustrations. Our prisons can never reform any criminal as they are!
Nelson Mandela once said that the conscience of a nation is reflected in the way it treats its prisoners. The Nigerian Prisons is a big scar on the conscience of this nation. The neglect suffered by Nigeria Prisons stems from the fact that the Police and Judiciary have continued to spare our leaders from going to prison when they commit crimes.
These high profile felons should be sent to prison where they will acquire firsthand experience of the system and get reformed themselves. You cannot reform a small thief when you put him in the same cell with armed robbers and murderers and later with terrorists! Such a person can only become hardened and more skilled in crime. Terrorists must never be kept in civil prisons because the terrorist has a completely different mindset and value for life.
The way out of the myriads of problems of the Nigerian Prisons is to create a Prison Service Commission, just like the Nigerian Police Service Commission, with a retired Comptroller General in charge. This will eliminate all the attenuating conditions which make the Prisons personnel / warder a victim of the society.
A situation where someone awaiting trial is conveyed to the court on a motorcycle is as shameful to our country as it is risky for the warder. The new CGP may well consider the setting up of a Prisons Equipment Fund/Foundation, modeled to improve on the failures of the Police Equipment Fund, which was chained and imprisoned by greed and corruption.
If the reforms envisaged by the Prisons Reforms Bill currently before the NASS will be meaningful, by reducing human rights violations, and to bring our prison practices in line with international standards, two things must be done: The law makers must get the communiqué from this conference and let the resolutions impact on the bill as necessary. And the major stake holders and operators of the prison system must be consulted to accommodate their opinions and suggestions based on their respective hands-on experiences.
Mr. Clement Udegbe, a lawyer, wrote from Lagos.