In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Ifediorah Orakwe, a retired Controller of Prisons (Planning, Research, and Statistics) Nigerian Prisons Service, spoke about the country’s overcrowded prisons, challenges, and the way out.
You were in the Nigeria Prisons Service for over three decades. What has changed over the years?
I was in the service for 34 years; so much has changed. I joined the Prison Service in 1982 when, if you come into the prison, if the population is 2,000, 1,800 or thereabout will be convicted prisoners, so we put to various vocations. Although, the vocations were not very funded but you could see some prisoners go to woodwork, to carpentry, to metalwork and learn vocations. Those who could go to school go to school.
But over time, the face of the prison has changed; now instead of getting convicted persons, everywhere you go you find ‘awaiting trial.’ And that ‘awaiting trial’ in the prison does not enable us to do the job we used to do before. What we now do is manage ‘awaiting trial.’ But before, if you come to the office, somebody will tell you, ‘Take care of these prisoners, mentor and monitor their development and their transformation.’
They assign you some prisoners, you are their care-giver, you are their monitor, you are their mentor. You will be interested in their progress from the day they come in until the day they come out, and at the end of their time, you do some assessment and say, ‘Yes out of this number of prisoners committed to my care, this number actually did very well.’ And that time, too, we used to honour them with after-care rewards. Some of them will go even as far as passing Trade Test certificates in various vocations.
But these days now… it has been progressive…. since 1985… So many prison officers who are 25 years and below will not be condemned if all they know is how to manage ‘awaiting trial,’ because like you saw in the chart, awaiting trial numbers were increasing, the convicts were deceasing. So you come into the prison now all they need to do is to contain prisoners in their various cells and that is not what the prison is, that is not what a standard prison is outside the shores of this country and until we get to terms with that we are not getting it right.
At what point did things begin to go bad with the prison system?
I said 1985 was the kind of… although it was difficult to bridge, but it was 1985. But you could say ’84 when so many politicians were brought into the prison by the corrective regime of Idiagbon/Buhari. So by 1985 too, throughout that period of trial, they were released. Since then we noticed progressive increase in the number of people who are awaiting trial in prison. And now it has degenerated to the level where awaiting trials are all over the place.
What do you think is responsible for the difficulty in going back to what we used to have?
The court systems are not functioning, the prosecution, they’re all at fault. The prosecution and adjudication have a problem; the moment they remand, they forget. Somebody said yesterday that the policemen said they’re no longer extracting confession; that shouldn’t be the end. Police investigation should be so proactive; they should be innovative. In some of these countries where they don’t use coercion, they bust crime, they bust cases, so we could do like that.
You faulted former president Obasanjo’s approach of decongesting the prisons when he was in government, …
(Cuts in) It’s not Obasanjo alone. It is a general approach. They see it as a way of decongesting the prison. But my take is, it is wrong. Let us set the prosecutional and adjudicatory mechanism, let us restore them so that anybody that finds his way into the prison will pass through the process and go home if he’s innocent, or be sentenced if he’s guilty. But to begin to say ‘go home,’ you will release poison into the society and that’s why we are having pervasive crimes now.
Some people have argued that executing condemned prisoners is one way of decongesting the prisons. What do you think?
Well, like I said, one of these people… I think The Sun did a story on it recently, I don’t know why the governors… sentencing somebody to death and keeping that person under the sentence of death for this length of time is double jeopardy. If we were to carry the case to the private council, those death sentences could be quashed. If the governors are afraid to sign death warrants, they should at least commute… what we are saying, decongest the condemned convict cell. If you think you can’t shed anybody’s blood like some of them will say, commute it to life so that they can leave that place and have hope of rejoining the society in future. Commute the death sentence to life, that the governor has the power to do. That the governors are not doing that, is suspicious and questionable.
What do you think is a better solution? Building more prisons or expanding existing ones?
Expand the one you have. See, if you must control crime and preserve society, we must have prison. Because as a matter of must, in every society there must be people who will commit crimes and such people when they commit crime they will go into the prison more as punishment because they will be separated from their kith and kin. So in the prison they have the opportunity of self-assessment and change before they come back. And there are others ones that have graduated to the level of being pathological criminals that should be kept in prison for a longer time; these are done else everywhere. But when you release them and they’re running about, you find them doing so many things. It’s not as if I’m an advocate of imprisonment, but anywhere a complex society like Nigeria exists, and wants to control crime, then surely they must have prisons.
What do you think about private individuals building and owning prisons to complement government-owned ones?
No. No. They have tried it in South Africa, they tried it in Mozambique, they tried it in the UK, it failed. Listen, criminal justice is government business. Government says that its directive principle of state policy is to provide national security, to provide for security of its citizens, and so it is government business. Criminal justice from arrest, to prosecution, to judgement is government business, it shouldn’t be done by anybody. When the government has failed to do it, it’s failing the fundamental policy, the state policy they’ve sworn to in the Constitution. It’s government business. No private individual can provide court, no private individual can provide police, no private individual can provide prison; no, it’s government business. If government says it is not its business, it is abdication of responsibility.
Earlier you spoke about your Namibian experience. How can Nigeria learn from it?
That’s what am telling you, that’s why Nigerians should learn because in Namibia they also have a complex system like we do but the government came out and said anybody who is arrested for any matter, the case must be finished between three months and six months. Otherwise, release the person. And the government is also watching. So it has made the Police Force to become innovative. When there is a crime, they go to the root, the evidence they get to prosecute you is not by extraction, it’s not by coercion. You will be surprised a police man will go into the community non-descript, gather every available fact about a particular person, use it to prosecute the person in court. You just have to have capacity, you have to have a professional Police Force and, of course, you have to have judges who have the capacity for that work. Not judges appointed on ethnic or tribal sentiments but because of their skill. You know in those days, they used to appoint very successful private legal practitioners as judges, they were called gladiators. When they climb to the bench there, all they want to do is to show expertise and skill in the application of law, I think we may go back to that.
When you look at Nigeria’s prison population as a ratio of the total population of the country, do you think it’s low?
It’s very low, very low, and it is as a result of the criminal justice system that is not performing. And that’s why you have criminals everywhere because if the criminal justice becomes dynamic and functional, we will have close to 300,000 in prison, to match our population. As we begin to interact, I’ll begin to give you comparative figures from other crimes. Nigeria is the least lucky and it’s not symptomatic of…. When you see a population of 180 million in this modern world with a prison population of 68,000, it would have indicated one thing, that this place is without crime. I leave you to judge whether we are without crime or not.