Prisoners’ reformation doomed as officials, inmates partner on drug ring

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The major mandate of the Nigeria Correctional Service is the safe custody of the legally interned and to ensure that inmates are reformed, rehabilitated and effectively reintegrated back into society.  But the Correctional Service, formerly known as the Nigerian Prison Service, is bedevilled with a plethora of problems, hampering its ability to reform inmates. Apart from prison congestion, there is also the problem of corruption or compromise among some officials.

Johnson Eze, who spent 14 years in the Kuje Medium Custodial Centre, also alluded to the fact that corrupt officials trafficked Indian hemp in the facility.

“There is drug trafficking among a few officers. They corrupt the inmates brought in for reformation. They bring in marijuana and hard drugs for them,” Eze alleged. Eze, who described himself as a pastor, said he was acquitted after spending 14 years in prison.

“I was wrongly accused by the Nigerian Police Force for conspiring with one of their officers. I was sent to Kuje Medium Custodial Centre in 2005 and was discharged and acquitted on May 2, 2019, awaiting trial,” he narrated.

On September 20, 2023, the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Idowu Owohunwa, declared that the custodial centres are training grounds for hardened criminals.  The CP’s assertion was buttressed by a student activist, Gbenga Rotimi, who was arrested and remanded at the Kosere Medium Prisons, Ile-Ife, Osun State in March 2018. Kosere narrated that he risked being negatively influenced as he was locked up with hardened criminals, instead of being graded as a lesser offender.

Sharing his story, he noted, “People were battered and exposed to more criminals, especially those awaiting trials. I was exposed to hardened criminals. I met those who said they were armed robbers. Imagine what would have happened  if I had stayed there for a longer period. I am pretty sure I would have been influenced by the hardened criminals because I was very young. It was a very terrible experience.”

Another ex-inmate who simply identified himself as David, relived his experience at the Kirikiri maximum prison where he spent 14 years. He explained that the prison officials were involved in various unprofessional conducts, including trafficking hard drugs, extortion and other illicit activities that were antithetical to the reformation of offenders.

“Every corruption that goes on in the custodial centres, the warders are aware of it. Take for instance, some officers smuggle drugs like tramadol, cocaine among others and sell to the inmates who can afford it. These inmates in turn give it out to their cliques,’’ he noted.

Continuing, he stated, “Even the issue of contrabands such as gadgets; once you give some warders money, they will allow you to keep it with you for some time.

“There is nothing correctional about the custodial centres. If I should start telling you what goes on there, we will not finish the discussion in hours. I think it is just an individual decision to reform one’s self.

Another ex-inmate, Matthew John, attributed the notoriety in the custodial centres to officials who were only interested in profiting from the misery of the inmates under their care.

He argued, “Inmates can never go out of the custodial centre to bring in contrabands, it is only the staff that can do that. During my 16 years of stay in the custodial centre, warders collected #15,000 to bring an android phone into the prison.

“Those warders with no ranks cannot bring in phones because the senior warders will search them when coming into the prison. However, those warders with ranks most times are not searched. Those warders seize phones and other gadgets just to fulfil all righteousness but they are the ones that still bring in the phones to inmates who can afford it. The staff bring in drugs for inmates such as Indian hemp, shisha etc.

In

a move to address the abominable practices going on in its facilities, the NCoS management recently dismissed two officers and sanctioned 35 for misconduct.

 A statement by the NCoS spokesperson, Abubakar Umar, revealed that the men were sanctioned for trafficking in contrabands, unauthorized absence from duty, stealing, negligence of duty, criminal conspiracy as well as aiding and abetting.

 Umar noted that the offences constituted threats to security of correctional facilities and could jeopardize public safety and national security.

“The Controller-General of Corrections,Haliru Nababa, has clarified that the service will continue to reward diligence and exceptional performances, while it will not hesitate to punish erring personnel in accordance with the provisions of extant laws.

 “The Controller-General maintains that the service will leave no stone unturned to ensure that ‘bad eggs’ are flushed out of the system,” he said.

On October 30, 2022, the NCoS had announced the sacking and warning of 38 officers for various acts of misconduct and offences against standard practice. Nine of the personnel were dismissed from the service while 25 were sent away on compulsory retirement and four more were issued warning letters.

On March 24, 2023, the NCoS destroyed contrabands confiscated from various custodial facilities estimated at over N150 million. The exhibits included cell phones, SIM cards, laptops, hard drugs, power banks and other electronic devices.

 Meanwhile, a prison officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity blamed poor staff welfare for the rising cases of trafficking in the facilities.

 He said, “Staff welfare is nothing to write home about. Some are still stagnated on one rank for years without promotion. Imagine an officer on level seven for 10 years without promotion. How do you expect the officer to perform excellently? Some officers are promoted without being paid their arrears while they pay some officers but with huge deductions.

Apart from the poorly motivated staff, congestion in the correctional centres has been identified as a bane of the Nigerian criminal justice system.  It has become paramount for the custodial centres to reform and make the lives of inmates more useful whether during custody or after their release.

 It was in the light of this that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, the Police Act 2020, and the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019 were passed to sanitise the criminal justice system. In 2019, the Nigerian Prisons Service had its name changed to the Nigerian Correctional Service to reflect and satisfy the yearning of the citizens for reformation of the inmates.

The Act empowers the state Controller of Corrections to reject additional prisoners/offenders where the custodial centre in question is already filled to capacity.

 According to section 12 (8), “Without prejudice to sub-section 4, the State Controller of Correctional Service in conjunction with the correctional centre superintendent shall have the power to reject more intakes of inmates where it is apparent that the custodial centre in question is filled to capacity.”

 With this, the issue of overcrowding of cells was expected to be addressed by the Act. However, since the bill was signed into law four years ago, prison congestion has not been resolved and it continues to constitute a major hindrance to inmates’ reformation and rehabilitation.

Experts said overcrowding in the prisons remains a serious challenge and stands as an 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.

On April 30, 2023, the former Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, called for state governments’ cooperation in tackling congestion in custodial facilities across the country. He said the facilities were 22 per cent overcrowded above their capacity. Only recently, the Lagos State NCoS Controller, Ben Freedman, said about 9,000 inmates were in three correctional centres in the state. He said that they have almost 9,000 locked up in Lagos, adding that the maximum capacity should be about 1,500.

Aside from prison congestion, other old challenges that remain to date were poor feeding of inmates, and low medical care, among others. The promised release of 4,000 inmates by the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, was believed to be in response to the government’s desire to decongest the custodial facilities.

On his part, the NCoS spokesperson, Abubakar, maintained that the centres have facilities to reform inmates, adding that it was up to the individual inmate to turn a new leaf after gaining freedom.

Abubakar explained, “In the past, no inmates had access to education but today, they have access to education. They are privileged to attend the school ‘Behind the Wall’ to develop themselves. There is also what we call employment rehabilitation. It is the skills acquired while in custody so that when they go out, they will use the skills to get work for themselves or employ labour. We did not have Open University facilities but today we have a lot that is helping in the rehabilitation of inmates.

“Secondly, on the issue of correction, no one can say that there is no correction because correction is always there. We have seen several and I want to let you know that after the jail term of the inmates, they employ people. An example is one Ishaku from Gombe State. He had no skill when he came into the custodial centre, but he has employed over 134 people as we speak.

“You cannot vouch that all inmates who served jail terms or are serving will turn out good. I can tell you that more of the inmates that we have discharged have something to fall back to.

“In fact, the Comptroller General introduced ‘After-Care’.  ‘After-Care’ is a succour given to inmates through their tools. Those who went through rehabilitation therapy are provided the tools they learnt which will help them integrate back to society after release from custody.”

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