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Taking correctional centres beyond name change

By Joseph Onyekwere |   30 March 2021   |   4:19 am  

Weighing options in prisons decongestion
Seeking to decongest the Correctional Centres, the House of Representatives, weeks ago passed for second reading, a bill to move correctional centres from exclusive to the concurrent list in the 1999 Constitution. When passed into law, State Governments would be at liberty to construct and manage their own Correctional facilities.

Leading the debate on the bill, its sponsor and House spokesman, Ben Kalu reiterated that prisons in Nigeria cannot reform errant members of the society sent there for corrections. He stated that rather than being reformed and turning a new leaf, many offenders sent to prisons turn out to become even more hardened. He argued that it is known that obsolete legislations, a slow justice system and inadequate funding are prominent on the list of challenges bedeviling the Nigerian prisons to reform inmates.

He explained that the new Nigerian Correctional Service Act, which repealed and replaced the Prison Act and consequently changed the name from the Nigerian Prisons Service to the Nigerian Correctional Service, reflects the need for the reform of the system. “The problem of prison congestion in the country is huge. For instance, the March 2019 edition of the Lagos State Criminal Information System revealed that though the five prisons in Lagos have a combined holding capacity of 4,087, they were holding 9,044 inmates,” Kalu said.

The lawmaker pointed out that overcrowding of prisons is a serious challenge and stands as obstacle to the implementation of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as Mandela Rules) adopted by the United Nations in 2015.

According to him, former Controller of Prisons in Lagos State, Tunde Ladipo, had stated that the Badagry Prisons, which was built to house only a little over 100 inmates, was at a time housing over 700 inmates. “There are 240 prisons in Nigeria with an official capacity of 50, 153 inmates but currently holding over 74,000 inmates,” he said.

Examining the pros and cons of allowing States build and operate their own Prisons, former deputy director of the Nigerian Law School, Enugu Campus, Prof Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), said such would surely be in line with the best practices for federalism. “It is a huge bottleneck in the administration of criminal justice and access to justice to have State courts with state jurisdiction yet deal only with a Federal Government controlled correctional system and infrastructure.

Prof. Ernest Ojukwu

“Can you imagine the practice for example at finding a prisoner sentenced by a court in Abia State serving his sentence at the correctional centre at Kano? It happens. I should point out also that above the need for constitutionally creating state correctional centres is the greater need to have State Police,” he pointed out.

Also, Director, FOI Counsel, President Aigbokhan, who expressed his support for the idea, argued that a House of Assembly cannot have powers to make laws on administration of criminal justice and not have power to accommodate the sentencing arising from the legislative conviction. He noted that the existing prison infrastructure capacity is overstretched, and therefore, states must assume the role of building prisons and administering them.

His words: “Decentralization is part of respect of inmates’ rights to dignity and life. An inmate is dead but living when stored up in a facility that exceed its capacity. In this wise, states must be allowed to compliment federal government role in maintaining the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted by United Nations in 2015.”

For Bar Samuel Momoh, the idea of amending the Constitution to make states build and operate their own prisons is not bad, but he wondered what would be the assurance that the financial wherewithal to cater for the facilities would be readily available as at when due. At the moment, the allocation coming to states, he noted, cannot solve the problems and when the issue of correctional centres is added, it could amount to double jeopardy.

He said: “If upon amendment, there would be increase in states’ allocation, then it is a welcome development. The dearth of correctional centres has culminated into over-congestion of inmates in Nigeria, thereby constituting a clog in the wheel of judicial progress. So, where the state can establish correctional centres, it will speed up trial of inmates and decongestion in those centres. The above is only achievable if the states have the financial wherewithal to cater for it.”

Abuja based lawyer, Joseph Ekwe, explained that section 2(2) of 1999 Constitution provides that Nigeria shall be a federation consisting of states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). In a federation or federalism, he argued, power is shared between the Federal Government and the Federating Units, in this case, the states and local governments. Ekwe further explained that each federating unit has law making powers, tax jurisdiction, the Executive and Judicial arms of its own.

He stated that the Exclusive Legislative list in the second schedule to the Constitution reserved a lot powers for the federal government without recognizing the state, which is an important federating unit. He said: “Concurrent legislative list is not enough for the states, if we really want to bring government nearer to Nigerians.
Government is still far from Nigerians because everything is reserved for the federal government.

Speaker of the House of Representatives of Nigeria Femi Gbajabiamila PHOTO:Twitter

“Item 45 of the Exclusive Legislative list and Section 214 of the Constitution provide that the Police and other security services in Nigeria are for federal government only. Item 48 provides that Prisons is only reserved for federal government among other things. States as federating units should have institutions of their own just as the federal government.

“Federal Government has Federal High Courts established under Section 249 of the Constitution as a trial court. States have their own High Courts in Section 270 of the Constitution. States also have Magistrates Courts established by law of the Houses of Assembly of various states. These Courts prosecute criminal cases and sentence people to imprisonments or fine or both. These convicts are kept in the Federal Prisons, now Correctional Centres even when they were convicted for breaching state laws. Why? Is it that states are incapable of keeping and maintaining correctional facilities? The answer is no!”

Ekwe argued that since Chief judges can discharge and also pardoned Prison inmates, as well as governors, are all agencies of the state, it is capable of managing its own facilities.

“It goes without saying that states can maintain correctional centres even in the areas of finance.
More so, when states are allowed to intervene, there will be prison decongestion and the facilities would not be over-stretched again. In view of this, it is my humble opinion that more powers should be given to the federating units, the states, which is nearer to the people to strengthen our democracy instead of curtailing the powers of the states.

“Curtailing the power of states to give to federal government is akin to fetching water from a small river to pour into an ocean. An amendment of the constitution to enable states build and maintain its own correctional centres is desirable and legal. There should also be state police in Nigeria, so that police officers would be familiar with the people,” he stressed.

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