Friday, June 20, 2008

Imprisoned by a strange system

PRISONERS are the people we love to keep out of sight, out of mind and out of care. Other than media and sports celebrities with whom society is obsessed in life and in death, very few people care about what happens to prisoners the moment they step into prison to commence their jail sentences. It doesn't matter that there are degrees of offences committed by different prisoners. By virtue of the way they are treated in Nigeria, prisoners are an endangered species (which is indeed something of an oxymoron). And some people like it that way.

In Nigeria, the welfare of prisoners has been neglected for too long. The state does not care about prisoners. The society is even more apathetic about the conditions of prisoners. Among the few people who care, everyone is busy wringing their hands -- what shall we do?

Prisoners in the country are regularly and systematically subjected to emotional and physical abuse by the very system that is expected to look after them. For this reason, prisoners suffer a range of health problems. First, they have to contend with regular rounds of physical abuse and torture. The physical image of a prisoner is an emblem of infamy. That image flags to the rest of society that the prisoner symbolises danger, a person who must be socially isolated. But the psychological tag, the second problem, is the most devastating because it is embedded in the human spirit.

The psychological wound inflicted on prisoners is difficult to heal because it portrays prisoners as irredeemable criminals. The socially reprehensible catchphrase that informs negative public perception of prisoners (and ex-prisoners) is: once a prisoner, always a prisoner. Whether in uniform or out of uniform, this psychological label destroys the prisoner's (or ex-prisoner's) soul. The pain leaves a hole in the heart. In civilised societies, there is some agreement that prisoners who have served time should be allowed to reintegrate into the larger society with minimum fuss. Is our society so unforgiving, so obsessed with stereotyping convicted people?

Stereotyping prisoners carries consequences beyond the personal lives of the prisoners. References to the term "prisoner" reveal a lot about the prisoner's criminal record and perhaps something about the prisoner's family background. For some prisoners, it is not the number of years they serve in prison that counts but the emotional damage that follows them during and after their prison terms. The damage affects the prisoner's identity, their name, their ethnic group, their religious denomination and everything that gives them the identity they wear. Never mind that some people say that a convicted criminal has no name to protect, no image to polish, no heart to rebuild and no reputation to safeguard.

There is also the notion that prisoners don't deserve pity and should never be treated with compassion because some of them committed horrendous crimes against society. This belief undermines the very essence of the prison as a centre for the rehabilitation of the human mind. In some parts of the world, the word "prison" is regarded as anachronistic because it doesn't capture society's objectives for jailing people. In place of the word "prison", a politically correct term has emerged. What we once referred to as prison is now known as "Correctional Services Facility or Department".

Other than people on death row, a correctional services facility is a place where the law and the state seek to correct people's behaviour. It is not a place to inflict mental and physical punishment on people who have been convicted for violating the laws of society. Perhaps more significant, a prison, as a rehabilitation centre, is not a place where people who are serving time for minor offences should be exposed to hardened criminals.

Serving a jail term should be seen as a mechanism for convicted people to be reformed in order for them to rejoin other members of the community when they are released. That's the way it is in some parts of the world. In Nigeria, however, the prison system does not differentiate between prisoners and their degrees of crime. A shoplifter could be dumped in the same prison room with a convicted murderer.

In some prisons across the country, accused persons awaiting trial are forced by our old-fashioned prison system to share accommodation with hardened criminals. Allowing convicted hardened criminals to share the same space with people whose guilt or innocence is yet to be established must be condemned as morally unacceptable. It is like the Nigerian state is deliberately grooming a deadly cocktail of criminals for future harvest.

In law, an accused person on remand is not the same as a convict. However, in the administration of prisons in Nigeria, suspects and convicts are treated as if they are on the same platform, as if society has already prejudged the culpability of those on prison custody. The unintended consequence of this pathetic practice is that, by the time the convicts and the accused persons are released from prison, the system that was supposed to facilitate their mental and physical rehabilitation would have hardened them so much so that they find delight in committing further crimes, some of them odious in nature.

By subjecting accused persons who are awaiting trial to the same harsh and brutal conditions that are reserved (unlawfully) for convicted criminals, by allowing suspects to associate freely with convicted criminals, and by placing suspects in the same holding centres populated by convicted and hardened criminals, we are simply laying a solid foundation for the development of an unstable youth. Even convicts on death row have certain rights. Why shouldn't accused persons be accorded such rights?

Accused persons in prison custody should never be treated as if they have already been tried and convicted. The law operates on the philosophical understanding that everyone is innocent until a court of competent jurisdiction has found that person guilty. The government and prison administrators have an obligation to respect the human rights of accused persons who are awaiting trial. At another level, it is tragic that people who committed minor offences are thrown into the same prison conditions as convicted criminals. In law, there are levels of crime and levels of punishment. A prison system that dishes out uniform punishment to all convicts without regard for the severity of crimes committed by inmates is riddled with injustice.

Within government ministries and departments, there is so much talk about imminent prison reforms, including programs designed to assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners. But these talks are never transformed into practical action. The first challenge for prison reforms in Nigeria must address these inequities. There must be morally and legally acceptable standards for the treatment of prisoners and the administration of prisons.

Over the years, Nigerian prisons have developed a nasty reputation as the torture chambers commonly associated with despotic regimes. Every month, ex-prisoners recount chilling accounts of their experiences in prison. All the accounts are remarkably unambiguous: our prisons are overcrowded; there is no programme for the welfare and healthcare of prisoners; and prisoners are poorly fed.

At the conclusion of the Federal Executive Council meeting in early October 2007, the Federal Government commended itself for raising the daily allowance of prisoners from N150 for each prisoner for each day to N200 per day. It was the kind of charity you would not expect from your enemy. There is poverty in the land and there are many people who can't afford one decent meal per day but, for goodness sake, N200 naira per day can't buy a reasonable meal for anyone in Nigeria, not to mention prisoners. That decision by the Umaru Musa Yar'Adua government exposed the mean-spirited nature of the government, including its uncaring attitude toward the welfare of prisoners.

Comprehensive and urgent reforms are overdue in the prisons. Reforms that focus solely on the decongestion of prisons cannot take effect without corresponding reforms in the criminal justice system. These must also include a reduction in the number of days that suspects can be held in prison custody before they are charged or tried in court. The obligation is on the police to conclude on time investigations that would lead to the prosecution or discharge of accused persons. There are too many people in prison custody in Nigeria who shouldn't be there.