Lagos and the quest for prison reform


Prison is an institution created 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 all across the country. In 1872, the colonial masters set up the Broad street prison with a capacity for about 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 has really changed in the outlook of the colonial days prisons and contemporary ones in Nigeria. In terms of being a reformation home, Nigeria’s prisons are simply bad news. Welfare of prison inmates isn’t really accorded much importance as most of the nation’s prisons aren’t actually good for human habitation. Indeed, there have always been skirmishes between prison warders and prisoners based on issues such as poor feeding arrangement, inadequate accommodation space and pathetic medical facility among others. Things are so bad that some of the prisons don’t even have 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. Of late, cases of jail break have been traced to the unbearable conditions of inmates.  It is not unusual to see Nigerian prisoners 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 made to 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 by the latter. Consequently, they will not be able to imbibe the right values which 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 alter the system. It is, therefore, from this perspective that one would like to view recent disclosure by the Lagos State Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General, Mr. Adeniji Kazeem, that the State Government and the Federal Government are currently working out modalities to relocate the 61 year-old Ikoyi Prison. According to Adeniji, this is aimed at upgrading the prison’s facilities and ensures effective justice system in the country.

The planned relocation of the prison, which was built in 1955 with a capacity for 800 inmates, became necessary following incessant pollution among other environmental hazards.  In as much as it is true that prison is in the exclusive list and not within the control of the state, Adeniji stressed that Lagos would not look away at the current state of the prisons in the State. His said: The prison is not within our control but we cannot look away. The police are not under the State too, but Lagos State government has made major interventions because it affects the people of the state and I can tell you in all the security services that operate in the state, this government have made one major intervention or the other.

The long term plan of the Lagos Government State, if all things work out fine, is to work with the Federal Government to construct a new Ikoyi Prison that would be a world-class correctional facility with adequate provision for hygiene, accommodation, feeding and other such critical needs. Towards this end, discussions are currently on-going ongoing between the State Government and the Federal Government to relocate the prison to a more suitable location.

Hopefully, if this laudable move sees the light of the day, it would help in no small measure to draw attention to the urgent need for reforms in the country’s prison system. As previously stated, prisons are supposed to be correctional homes where inmates come out better after the expiration of their prison term. It is expected that more stakeholders would come on board in joining hands together to work for a better prison system for the country.

Therefore, philanthropists, religious bodies and non- governmental organizations as well as corporate bodies should 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. Equally, the issue of gangsterism, which makes some inmates deferential to others, should be properly addressed. Juvenile offenders should be housed separately from the adults to forestall undue influences.

It is, however, important to emphasize 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 (A D R) 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 anchors 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 people.
Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.

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