A transfer of prisoners to meet Ministry of Justice targets?

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Nigeria and the United Kingdom are signatories to the Scheme for the Transfer of Convicted Offenders within the British Commonwealth. The Scheme allows for the transfer of prisoners between Nigeria and the United Kingdom where the consent of both states and the prisoner is obtained. A separate compulsory transfer agreement is under consideration which would not require the prisoner’s consent. This week’s decision by the Nigerian lower house of Parliament brings closer the prospect of some of the Nigerian citizens being held in prison in England serving the remainder of their sentence in one of Nigeria’s 148 prisons.

The UK Ministry of Justice has made clear its aim to stabilise or even reduce the size of the prison population in England and Wales over the next few years, yet the numbers have hit record highs over each of the last five weeks. With each prison place costing an average of GBP 45,000 per annum and budget deficits to overcome, transferring, without consent, some of the 600 Nigerians in prisons must seem an attractive way of  making a quick saving. There is something to be said for prisoners having the opportunity of serving  their sentence close to their own communities. Of at least equal importance are the conditions of detention which they will have to endure .

Since Justice and Prisons first visited prisons in Nigeria in 1999, the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS) has made some genuine progress in reducing the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Prisons are less the closed institutions they once were and the NPS has formed constructive relationships with civil society and international bodies interested in their work. Initiatives have been undertaken to renovate prison facilities and to improve the performance of prison personnel. Yet terrible abuses and life threatening conditions continue to characterise many parts of the prison system. It is not only international observers who have passed damning comment; even national authorities have documented their grave concerns. The Nigeria National Human Rights Commission’s National Prison Audit carried out in  2007-2008, reports  old facilities, filthy accommodation  ‘hardly fit for human habitation’, lack of medical personnel and medicines, inadequate water supply and severe overcrowding. The NPS are themselves among the many who call for urgent reforms to address the chronic problem of overcrowding.

The responsibility for this situation does not rest solely with the NPS. The failure of other agencies in the criminal justice system to function effectively has led to the well documented scourge of overcrowding .The awaiting trial prisoner population averages at around 70%, though this can be significantly higher in urban prisons. Since 1999 the total prison population has risen slightly but Nigeria’s overall rate of imprisonment at 31 per 100,000 is not particularly high. The problem is with the percentage of remand prisoners that has increased despite efforts to bring it down.  Many of those awaiting trial are detained on a ‘holding’ charge, having been first brought before magistrates court not competent to hear their case. This continues to push up the remand population, placing immense strain on the prisons’ infrastructure, much of which dates from the early 20th century. The total prison capacity in Nigeria is only marginally exceeded by the current prisoner population but this disguises the fact that  prisoners are not distributed across the prisons system. There are intolerable conditions due to overcrowding in many urban prisons, while Open Prisons may remain seriously underutilised.

The failure of the criminal justice system in Nigeria has been further undermined by apathy of legislative bodies, notwithstanding the surprisingly swift progress so far of the prisoners transfer legislation. Draft prisons bills have been before parliament for nearly ten years, but modern  legislation that will equip NPS to respond to new and evolving challenges has simply not been given the priority it requires. Proposals to introduce alternatives to prison such as Community Service have also been failed to reach the statute book. Following Nigeria’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in July 2009, the Attorney General of the Federation launched a draft Policy Against Torture. More than two years later, the new National Committee on Torture is still not fully able to fulfil its mandate to monitor places of detention.

The Nigeria Prisons Service and Nigerian prisoners need the sustained attention of national legislators and not simply on the prisoners transfer scheme. Nigerian prisoners should not be viewed as a convenient mechanism for reducing a burden on the UK Ministry of Justice. The forced transfer of prisoners to serve their sentence in harmful conditions threatens to contravene  national and international standards and norms. Without a serious programme of reform it will place yet further strain on a prison system  unable to cope with existing commitments let alone new ones.


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