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OUR PRISONS SYSTEM AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE

By NBF News

In the last few months, we have received disturbing reports of jail breaks across the country. Some reports attributed the jail breaks to the worsening conditions in our prisons. As a result, the campaign for prisons reforms has once again been ignited. The prisons system is always part of an intricate web of criminal justice system and there are two broad schools of thought in criminal justice.

One school of thought posits that criminal justice is aimed at or ought to be aimed at punishment. In other words, it's an eye for an eye. When a person is convicted, this school believes that he serves a prison term to suffer for his crime. Thus, this serves as a deterrent to others who may be contemplating a life of crime. It also deters the convict himself from going back to crime, if released because of the hard labour he might have undergone.

The other school of thought says criminal justice is aimed at or ought to be aimed at reformation. This school believes that when a person commits a crime the society must help the person to get back to normal ways by helping the person to go through a process of reformation and rehabilitation. In other words, the best way to make sure others are safe from the propensity of a convict to repeat a crime is to educate him about the immorality of his actions and to empower him to make a decent living.

The prisons system and conditions are always a reflection of the type of criminal justice system a country runs. A country like Nigeria that pays little or no attention to prisons reforms and the standard of life of inmates is certainly a country that favours punishment as a philosophy behind criminal justice. What happens in our prisons at times can be mind-boggling. I will give some examples.

A few weeks ago, in one of our prisons, fellow convicts descended on some peers considered prominent and rich - that is, the 'big boys'. Their grouse was that the affluent prisoners were not making the good life go round by preferring to eat their own special meals brought for them from home, use their GSM lines alone, have access at any time to whoever wants to consult with them and so on and so forth. So the prisoners ganged up and beat these so-called 'big boys' black and blue and demanded equal treatment and justice. The warders watched.

The other day, just like on so many occasions, the prisoners were allegedly taxed by the prisons officials to contribute money towards the burial of a fellow prisoner who had died mysteriously. Those who wanted preferential treatment from the warders were believed to have quickly contributed and those who did not contribute reportedly had some of their 'privileges' withdrawn. When I took over the case of 53 MASSOB activists that were charged with treason, we noticed that one of the young boys who was previously hale and hearty suddenly went hysterical. He was screaming unintelligible words in court, prompting the judge to order that he be taken to the Black Maria outside till the end of the proceedings.

On inquiry, we were informed that he was kept in the same cell in Ikoyi Prisons with Clifford Orji, the alleged insane man-eater who has been remanded there for some years. One night, Clifford Orji reportedly jumped on my client and began to bite him all over his body and the next day my client also went insane. The court immediately ordered his removal for medical attention and today the young man is fine. These instances show that in Nigerian Prisons, just anything is possible. This is because there are hardly any rules or regulations and if they exist at all, corruption and Nigeriarism do not make these rules work. It is also a clear testimony to the fact that an institution that is meant to keep the dysfunctional ones in society is left to rot away. Little wonder the jail breaks have continued to escalate.

It is either our prisons system is part of a deliberate policy adopted by government to make our prisons centres of punishment as against centers of reformation or it is plain corruption that is making the system degenerate. But it is high time Nigeria adopted a definite philosophy of criminal justice. Leaving the prisons that ought to be the key institution that determines the future conducts of dysfunctional persons unattended to can spell doom for society.  Obviously, there are pros and cons of both schools of thought on criminal justice. The one on punishment pays little attention to the life and welfare of the convict after serving out his prison term and that can backfire on society as he may end up a more hardened criminal than he was . The other one on reformation pays little attention to deterrence against crime as it would appear that it encourages convicts to be treated with kid gloves.

But quite honestly, I do not think that both positions are diametrically opposed extremes on the matter. A system that cleverly blends both philosophies in building the institution of prison can best serve our purpose. There is no reason why a convict cannot be made to suffer all the inconveniences of incarceration whilst being moulded to face the future with hope. Let me illustrate: These days, there are so many young men and women who are rotting away in our jail houses. Many of them were students before they were arrested. There is no reason why we should put their education in jeopardy because they are either awaiting trial or serving prison terms. In that case, you waste all their productive years because they made a mistake sometime in their lives.

There is no reason why government cannot establish a Prisons University where inmates can continue their education or any vocation whilst serving their terms. The system punishes them by not granting them the liberty of normal students, but at the same time, it reforms them by making them high-profile citizens. They will graduate, finish their terms and come into society as highly-skilled assets to the nation and not liabilities. So an undergraduate in say, year two, who is sent to prison can simply get a transcript to the Prisons University to continue his or her course.

There is also no reason why government cannot establish a post-prison centre, where ex-convicts can go for training, education or advice and counseling. By so doing, the government will not only save the ex-convicts, but the society at large who can fall victim to their viciousness or frustration. The prisons system or institution is not just some remote, unconnected and detached institution from society that should be ignored. It is a vital and necessary link in the chain of social dynamics, human existence and interaction and government business. We must address it frontally if we are to avoid further jail breaks.