By Suleiman Hassan Gimba
This is not an open letter to anyone, this is an outcry from voices that should be heard; a cri de coeur from voices that are, often, wrongly considered to be intractable; from voices that should be allowed to echo and a nation that, now more than ever, should lick the wounds on its rotten back. If you think the Nigerian prison system is a joke, it is because it is.
Since the abolishment of the Native Authority prisons in 1968 and the long overdue Decree No. 9 of 1972 that effectively unified our prisons by setting out the goals and what was then a better form of orientation, Nigerian prisons have witnessed series of significant growth but, practicably, not in the area that really matters – the welfare of inmates – and that has given birth to a series of problems that sooner or later may prove too sweet and sensitive for the decaying teeth of this nation.
The Nigerian Prison Service is on a mission “To promote public protection by providing assistance for offenders in their reformation and rehabilitation under safe, secure and human conditions in accordance with universally accepted standard and to facilitate their social reintegration into (the) society”. These are words that if backed by action would ensure the humane treatment of Awaiting Trial Person’s (ATPs) and Convicted Inmates, and if the Minister of Interior’s “we spend 14,000 naira on the daily feeding of each inmate” assertion is half true, Prison will not only be a “home away from home” but a very much deserved “home sweet home”.
It hasn’t totally failed at its mission but it is in an area not part of its scope that it has made the most stride. It has, with the help of the police and to some extent the courts, stuffed our prisons with people that have no idea if they have committed the offence they are suspected to have committed or not. Some 72.5% of the 62,260 inmates are ATPs. And I know it is not right to let suspects go simply because we want to reduce the population of those awaiting trial. Alternatively, which is most preferable, their trial should be hastened but that is not possible, this is Nigeria even the almighty ACJA 2015 has failed at making trials as fast as they should be. We now must resort to the massive decongestion of our prison cells if we are going to be fair to these men and women, boys and girls. It is wrong, but a necessary evil nonetheless and a step the government should take if it wants to put smiles on the lips of families who have been deprived of a loved one simply because it was his word against that of a police officer.
We have 240 prisons, out of which 83 are satellite prisons and only one all-women’s prison, the KiriKiri Women’s Prison, the big issue doesn’t lie in these numbers. It is, rather, in different numbers; how long these prisons have been around. Just about 40 have been built after independence and the rest haven’t undergone serious renovations, I understand prison cells don’t have to be gaudy but making them look like they are really meant for humans would be quite a start at this stage of our development. But in the storm, we have forgotten that the main aim is not to have them keistered, laughed at and then be expected to regain the feeling of being one of us.
The aim is that, having seen them fall, we should help them back on their feet, help them get the dust off, let them keep walking and if they can’t, help them with a walking stick!</span>Recidivism! I sometimes get the feeling that prisons are meant for some specific individuals; they enter innocent and even if guilty there’s hardly a reason for a first-time offender not to be remorseful but then, our prison system is designed in such a way that he can meet the “One-eyed Sundays” and other established criminals and learn from their pool of wrong knowledge. I have seen an innocent boy come back from prison and now he is gay or a boy that went to prison as a petty thief and “graduated”, haven’t successfully learnt how to break different kind of locks, how long before he learns to break different kind of safes? And not to forget a neighbor of mine that has learnt to live most part of his life in prison than outside it, he may come out one day and start building a reputation as one of the fastest rising armed robbers in Nigeria. The more we keep making them apathetic, the more likely they are to commit another offence.
And if you think I have forgotten about the 14,000 naira that is spent on the daily feeding of each inmate and 10 billion naira overall, then guess again. there were 57,000 prisoners last year and if they were fed three square meals for the whole year, each prisoner must have eaten 1095 meals. Everything seems okay until you discover that the 57,000 prisoners collectively had 62,450,000 meals and with our budget of 10 billion naira, it means the government only spent 160.22 naira per meal or 480.65 naira per day on each inmate. This is a far cry from the 14,000 the minister talked about. So, what condition are our prisoners really in? are they even being fed at all an if yes, is it really 10-billion-naira worth of food?
About 19.8 billion naira would be required to feed the inmates this year, the budget has risen but so is the number of inmates. And since the government hasn’t denied not spending up to 14,000 naira on the daily feeding of each inmate, they are looking at means to make it look more real. 17,000,000,000 on the feeding of 70,000 would roughly be 775 naira on the daily feeding of each inmate and 258 naira per meal. Whilst this is reasonable, it is not 14,000-naira-reasonable. Therefore, the need to find other means to feed them to their “satisfaction”.
So, they came out with a “brilliant” 16th century idea, let the inmates farm to feed themselves. We can’t sit behind and watch these things happen even if the government impliedly thinks the inmates are less Nigerians than we are, we still can’t let them to be slaves in their own country. Taking their freedom of movement is what we signed for, not taking their liberty and sense of belonging to our world. How long before we start shipping them to Cherokee land or Alabama iron mines to remind them of what we are turning them into? If we are to allow prisoners farm to earn food, to remain alive, to enrich corrupt prison officials, then we should start by statutorily giving each prison official the title “master”.
And what pains me the most, is the high level of homosexuality in prisons. They are humans and with sexual feelings and desires, they mostly had zero interest in people of same sex as they were before going to prison. Going there and staying with bullies that are likely to make advances towards them and sometimes not even knowing when they’ll be tried and convicted/acquitted. This sort of things plays on their minds and their morality. if the government can’t guarantee their rehabilitation, why continue to keep them with the same institution that has been failing us since its inception and with things getting worse apart from the ever-increasing financial outlay in the institution?
It is time to privatize our prisons and we have 72 billion reasons it can happen.
The statistics might not be there but we see it every day in our communities; the same people going to prison again and again. If they can’t be rehabilitated, let us privatize the sector, let us give a private agency the contract of taking care of them, let us reduce crime to the bare-minimum and watch future generations reach heights we have never thought we could reach but let the work start today, it is our hope that these voices have reached the right ears and if they have, show them love by sharing until we start treating these people like the humans they should be treated as.
Gimba is the coordinator of Forward Yobe, Forward (FYF) and can be reached on: 08100000888 and
By Suleiman Hassan Gimba