Friday, March 27, 2009

The Sad State of Our Prisons

President Umaru Yar’Adua was spot on when recently he expressed concern about the state of the country’s prisons. In equal, if not greater, proportion to the general decay in social infrastructure, the nation’s prisons have become so squalid that they can hardly reform any criminal serving jail sentence in them. Yet prisons are meant to reform their inmates, which is why they are often referred to as reformatories. Those convicted to serve prison terms are not expected to become worse criminals as a result of their prison experience.
Indeed, every penal system is ultimately aimed at improving the character of offenders even while making them pay for their deviant behaviour. Painfully, however, the Nigerian penal system tends to leave offenders worse than they were before they were brought to justice. The criminal justice system in the country has become altogether one that tends to breed hardened criminals rather than reform them into acceptable members of the society. It is no wonder that many critics of this system now see the nation’s penal system as a training ground where many detainees graduate from being miscreants to hardened criminals.
Clearly a lot is wrong with a society that allows a man to be thrown into jail for merely wandering. But even worse is the practice of putting such minor offenders in the same cells with violent criminals. Often prison officials blame this on lack of space in the jail houses. They say that the nation has not been building any prisons to cope with the high rate of crime and conviction.
In response, successive Nigerian governments have been proposing prison decongestion and reforms. From the Shagari administration to the present one, the number of new prison facilities has not grown significantly. Each government has nevertheless paid lip service to the need for prison reform and a general improvement in the nation’s criminal justice system. In the end, not much came out of all that. Conversely, the condition of our prisons has become increasingly more deplorable. In some instances, prisons that were built to house 100 persons now hold three to four times that many. The result is the incredible congestion in our prisons, which in turn breeds further criminality, squalor and diseases among the detainees.
President Umaru Yar’Adua was therefore right on target when recently he promised that his government will build more prisons across the country. He was reacting to recent reports about the squalid state of our prisons. It is our hope that the promise will not become another empty one. Even so, expanding the prisons is only a part of the solution. Other actions need to be taken.
To address this serious problem the government needs to adopt a holistic approach. There is the need to look at the major causes of crime and criminality in the Nigerian society. The indiscriminate arrest and detention of people for minor offences go a long way in fueling prison congestion. At the rate this is happening, expansion of prison facilities will hardly solve the problem. The law enforcement agencies need therefore to be re-orientated. Government must take measures to ensure that the nation’s criminal justice system is not abused by overzealous law enforcement officers. The prison should not be a dumping ground.
It also goes without saying that much of the criminality that plagues the Nigerian society is the result of unemployment among able-bodied youths. To tackle therefore the problem of criminality and prison congestion, the authorities should address the issue of unemployment.
Deterrence has always proved more effective in crime control than punishment. Therefore, the goals of our penal system must change. By subjecting prisoners to harsh conditions, some people argue, they will be convinced to avoid future criminal behavior and to exemplify for others the rewards for avoiding such behavior; that is, the fear of punishment will win over whatever benefit or pleasure the illegal activity might bring.
While that may be true, the deterrence approach, however, stresses the need to expose people less to factors that predispose them to crime. When there is less crime, there will be less number of convictions and less people in the prisons. This, we believe, is a more pragmatic approach towards improving our criminal justice system.