COVID-19 and Safety of NCoS Inmates
By Francis Enobore
In spite of the high level of overcrowding in the nations Custodial Centres, no outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic was reported.
Imprisonment naturally predisposes inmates to psychological stress due to loss of freedom and denial of rights and privileges other than fundamental human rights.
Since the inception of modern imprisonment in Nigeria in the 19th century, a common feature that has always bedeviled the system intractably has been the problem of overcrowding. Simply put, the number of inmates outstripping the carrying capacity of cells and ancillary infrastructure. To be specific, about 11 Custodial Centres located in various urban areas across the country experience over 120% overcrowding.
The situation has severally compromised security and precipitated a plethora of challenges in service delivery to the inmates in terms of reformation, rehabilitation, skills development as well as general care and support.
As rightly observed by the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola in his response to an allegation of unwholesome practices reported by an under-cover journalist, the status of an inmate (whether convicted or awaiting trial) is one of the criteria for segregating inmates. Cells are constructed with the same pattern and dimensions to ensure safety of inmates and guarantee security. However, where you have the preponderance of the inmates as awaiting trial, chances are that they will be more in their cells as opposed to their convicted counterparts.
Even among the convicted prisoners, condemned inmates are usually separated from others. Similarly, the operational code of the Service provides that inmates should be segregated based on type of crime and criminal antecedent. In a typical custodial centre in Nigeria, inmates with violent crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping, cultism and so on are usually more in number than those facing financial crimes which also account for differences in cell population. As much as space would allow, inmates are also classified using other criteria such as gender, age, health status and so on for the purpose of promoting better welfare. Unfortunately, the nation’s custodial facilities are often pressured out of some of these considerations, sometimes with unbearable consequences.
Perhaps the most dreadful implication of overcrowding is the possibility of a disease outbreak. Congested environments are known to be fertile grounds for contagious diseases particularly those that are airborne. In 2014, Ebola virus pandemic came with a devastating spell that sent jitters down the spine of everyone even those in the free world yet, no prisoner was lost to the plague. In 2016 and 2017, cerebrospinal meningitis ravaged some parts of Nigeria and claimed lives. Adequate ventilation was recommended as a preventive measure with no one perhaps thinking about the plight of prisoners who have to stay in overcrowded cells. Like a miracle, there was no outbreak and no prisoner was lost to the disease. Now the scourge of COVID-19 that has almost demystified world powers and shot human activities across the globe. Considering the suddenness in the outbreak and its threat to human race, preventive measures were recommended and christened ‘COVID-19 Protocols.’ Suggestions were that institutions and all such environments where persons gather should close. What to do with persons under imprisonment became a challenge since it is practically impossible to send prisoners home with such a fiat knowing that some are even more virulent than the COVID-19.
For anyone that has even a passing knowledge of the conditions of Custodial Centres in Nigeria in terms of inmate population and infrastructure, observing such protocols would be far-fetched. The good news however, is that the management of the system under the Ja’afaru Ahmed led administration is able to weather the storm. No life lost to the pandemic and no outbreak.
It is to the credit of the present Government that this age-long challenge of overcrowding is being frontally tackled. The breather most custodial facilities are beginning to enjoy now is as a result of improved funding to provide additional cells and ancillary infrastructure. Furthermore, the President graciously signed the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019 into law with robust provisions to guide against keeping prisoners interminably to languish in jail. The system now has a non-custodial service that allows justice to be dispensed without sole recourse to custodial punishment. Alternatives to imprisonment such as community service, probation, parole, restorative justice and other non-custodial measures now exist to address minor infractions.
It is important that all critical stakeholders in the chain of justice delivery, especially state governments who are responsible for the incarceration of over 85% of the inmates, work towards activating the new law. It is also pertinent that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act signed into law in 2015, partly to check overcrowding in custodial centres, is domesticated and implemented by state governments so that together, we can usher in a new dawn in the management of offenders in custody.
Francis Enobore mni
Controller of Corrections
Nigerian Correctional Service, National Headquarters, Abuja