The decongestion of Nigerian custodial centres following the outbreak of COVID-19 is considered the boldest undertaking in the history of amnesty in Nigeria.
In this interview, Ahmed Ja’afaru, the Controller-General of the Nigerian Correctional Services explains the significance of the exercise and the new penal system.
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What role did your agency play in the decongestion of custodial centres following the outbreak of COVID-19?
Well, the amnesty programme is usually a yearly programme that sometimes takes place about three, four times in a year, depending on the request from the State Committee on Prerogative of Mercy and the Federal Presidential Committee on Prerogative of Mercy under sections 175 and 212 of the Constitution as the case may be.
With the coming of COVID-19, we were instructed to come out with modalities and the usual criteria for granting amnesty to them in order to reduce overcrowding in our various correctional centres. The criteria are those who have ill health likely to terminate in death and that also depends on the offence committed; those who have 60 years and above not of sentence but of age, and then those undergoing three years sentence and above and have less than six months to serve: and those who have also spent more than 75 percent of their sentences. We requested all the states to submit and we vetted them and sent to their respective committees on prerogative of mercy of the respective states to determine those that would be released. In the process, we submitted a list of about 2,600 from our end but at the tail end, we had over 5000 that were released as a result of that programme. This occurred because the Attorney General and Minster of Justice wrote to state attorneys generals and governors as the case may be to ask the CJs of the state and the state prerogative of mercy to sit down and see the possibility of perhaps expanding the list based on what was presented to them.
Some CJs went in for the usual jail delivery and the others, some awaiting trial persons were also released, which were not part of the original list and that is why we have this number of over 5100. We were later directed by the Minister of Interior to compile a new list of those awaiting trial who have spent five years and above and those in the centres for federal offences. Mark you, the President also granted amnesty to some. That is what we kicked off with initially in Kuje. We also prepared another list for the Federal Prerogative of Mercy for them to determine. That has been submitted and we are still awaiting the outcome.
We observe a trend where many of your officers invite investors and charitable organisations to support the welfare of inmates. This is considered uncommon among civil servants. How do you explain this morale?
It is part of our training. And it is part of our mandate. The mandate of the Correctional Service, which is clearly stated in the Act establishing the service, signed by Mr. President on the 31st of July, 2019, says that we take custody of all those legally interned. But we are also mandated to do a risk and needs assessment of the inmates and continue to reform, rehabilitate and re-integrate these offenders back to the society. And so the passion of every correctional officer is to assess the risk and the needs of the inmates under him or her and then apply a treatment method. The implication of that is that as a correctional officer, you have to be humane and humble. That humility is what you see in the passion of our people in their efforts to reform fully. Aside from that, we have been provided the necessary tools under this administration. We have a budget that has enabled us to purchase the tools for our job.
Is it feasible for the ex-inmates who truly appreciate what they have learnt in the prisons and are already used to the system, to be recruited into the service?
To be frank with you, there will still be a process for us to determine. That will have to be determined by the board. Under the new Act, all those who have gone into our custody and are discharged are supposed to be given a certificate of good conduct and good behaviour and that means you can no longer refer to them as ex-convicts. Once that is done, I can tell you that it is possible to have some of them recruited into the service, not just because they know the place but because they are competent and are found suitable.
In what ways has the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari enhanced the performance of the Nigerian Correctional Service?
Let me say with all sense of responsibility that no administration from 1960 has given the Nigerian Prisons Service, as it then was, and now the Nigerian Correctional Service, the attention it deserves. We have never had it so good, is it infrastructure upgrade We have upgraded our infrastructure. We have dilapidated buildings, mark you that most of our custodial centres are over 100 years old and some of the buildings are also like that. They need intervention and this administration has come and it has provided the necessary enabling capital to be able to now intervene in our infrastructure upgrade. We are happy where we are today and we hope that before the end of this administration, the entire system would have changed for the better and that we will have a very good penal system that can be comparable to any, not only in Africa but the world over.
How has the Nigerian Correctional Service Act helped in this?
Mark you, the Nigerian Correctional Service Act that was signed in 2019, provides two set of services in one, custodial and non-custodial, and indeed it has provided far-reaching changes for the Nigerian Correctional Service. The functions and objectives of the Service are clearly outlined in the Act. This was not there before. The procedures for the appointment and tenure of the Controller-General are clearly spelt out. We also have a respite for condemned convicts. This is a class of inmates whose number is rising because most of the approving authorities are not willing to sign to commute or sign the death sentence. Now, the Act says, if anyone of them exhausts his appeal, we can approach the Chief Justice of the State where he was sentenced to commute it to life imprisonment. To manage over-crowding, the law says we can now trigger rejections. If any of our custodial centres is approaching the limits of the number of inmates it can accommodate, the officer in charge should notify the relevant authorities. Three months after he has notified them, the officer can reject new inmates. Why did it say three months? To allow the members of the justice family to see how they can address the number of inmates in custody.
Then the Act provides for non-custodial service including community service, parole, probation, restorative justice and any other that may be assigned by the courts. What do I mean? Many of the states of the Federation that have adopted the Criminal Justice Act 2015 have started community service. Most of the people who violated the lockdown in most of the states were sentenced to community service.
We also have probation, which means that from the courts, convicted persons will go to their homes under certain conditions and the probation officers will be monitoring their activities as set out by the courts. And we have parole. That means, based on good behaviour we can allow convicts to spend the remaining part of their sentences at home in the society. These are things that when fully implemented, will reduce overcrowding of the custodial centres. And then we have restorative justice, which we can apply during sentence and even after sentence, we can bring the victims and offenders together and interface with the possibility of finding solutions to their problems.