The Nigerian Correctional Service, formerly known as the Nigerian Prison Service (NPS), is an agency of the Federal Government under the Ministry of Interior. Historically, the Nigerian prison system, as it is known today, was introduced by the British during the time when Nigeria was her colony (1861–1960). This was consequent upon the establishment of a west patterned Police Force and court system in the year 1861 by the crown. The British left a two-tier system (Native and Federal) of prisons which became unified into one prison system in 1968. However, imprisonment was originally a part of pre-colonial Nigerian societies before the advent of the British colonial rule. For instance, among the Nassarawa in North- central Nigeria, it was usual to expose a thief to jeering by locking him in stocks which was used as a form of shame and humiliation reducing the status of the offender in the society by the clan of the victim until the offender was redeemed by his relations, discharged or disposed of. Among the Igbo tribe of the South-East, relatives would bind a murderer while enquiries were made by their spiritual head to the gods to ascertain the reason for the commission of the crime before a verdict was made and sentence delivered.
As earlier noted, the origin of modern Correctional Service in Nigeria dates back to the year 1861. That was the year when conceptually, a Western-type prison was established in Nigeria. The declaration of Lagos as a colony in 1861 marked the beginning of the institution of a formal machinery of governance. At this stage, the preoccupation of the colonial government was to protect legitimate trade, guarantee the profit of British merchants as well and guarantee the activities of the missionaries. To this end, by 1861, the acting governor of the Lagos colony who was then a prominent British merchant in Lagos, formed a Police Force of about 25 constables. This was followed in 1863 by the establishment in Lagos of four courts: a Police court to resolve petty disputes, a criminal court to try the more serious cases, a slave court to try cases arising from the efforts to abolish the trade in slaves and a commercial court to resolve disputes among merchants and traders. The functioning of these courts and the police in that colonial setting necessarily meant that prison was needed to complete the system. And it was not long in coming for in 1872, the Broad Street prison was established with an initial inmate capacity of 300.
However, the progressive incursion of the British into the hinterland and the establishment of British protectorate towards the end of the 19th century necessitated the establishment of the prisons as the last link in the Criminal Justice System. Thus by 1910, there already were prisons in Degema, Calabar, Onitsha, Benin, Ibadan, Sapele, Jebba and Lokoja.
The Prison regulation was then enacted in 1917 to prescribe admission, custody, treatment and classification procedures as well as staffing, dieting and clothing regimes for the prisons. These processes were limited in one very general sense. They were not geared towards any particular type of treatment of inmates. Instead, they represent just policies of containment of those who were already in prison. R. H. Dolan (1946 – 55) introduced progressive earning schemes for long term first offenders. founded the Prison Training School, Enugu in 1947. And saw to the appointment of educated wardresses to take charge of the female wings of the prisons and he generally tried to improve the service conditions of the prison staff. Later on, the British left a two-tier system (Native and Federal) of prisons which became unified into one prison system in 1968. Since then, there have been various developments in the Nigerian prison system.
The Prisons Act of 1972 was subsequently enacted and served as the governing law for the Nigerian Correctional Service prior to the Nigerian Correctional Service Act of 2019 (NCSA). States who wanted to alter how their correctional institutions were run were constitutionally prohibited from doing so since prisons is one of the items on the Exclusive Legislative List as contained in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The primary goal of the Prisons Act of 1972 was to establish a set of guidelines for the meticulous management of the correctional facilities built for people who broke the laws of the States and the Federation as well as the complete administration of prisons in Nigeria. Notwithstanding, there were several challenges facing the prison system in Nigeria. For instance, as of August 2018, the Port Harcourt jail, which was originally intended to house 800 inmates, now has 5,000, while the Kirikiri Maximum Prison in Lagos, which was initially intended to house 956 people, now houses 2,600 inmates. Poor inmate nutrition, insufficient medical care for convicts due to inadequate facilities, and a lack of leisure and job training for offenders are additional contributing factors. Additionally, the service was left battered with an unfulfilled ambiguous purpose due to cascading congestion in the aging Nigerian prisons, inhumane treatment of prisoners, and weak and inadequate human and material resources (qualitatively and quantitatively). In these situations, the jails’ focus was confinement rather than actively engaging the inmates, which dehumanized and enraged them.
The Nigerian government recently enacted the Correctional Service Act, 2019 (the Act) to repeal the Prisons Act, 2004. The measure was signed because of numerous factors, including the deteriorated and crowded conditions of the facilities. Hence the 2019 Act seeks to address these issues. According to Section 2 of the Act, the objectives include to guarantee adherence to international human rights standards and good correctional practices, provide a platform for the implementation of non-custodial measures, increase the emphasis on corrections and promote the reformation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of offenders. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the Act also established institutional, systematic, and long-lasting mechanisms to address the large number of people who are awaiting trial.
The Act serves as a model for legislation that is bold, innovative, and problem-solving. For instance, by virtue of section 12(10), it gives the Controller of a Correctional Center the authority to refuse inmates sent to the Center in two main situations: when the Center has reached its maximum capacity and, when the proposed inmate has sustained severe physical harm, is mentally ill, is unconscious, or is under the age of 18. This is an improvement on the status quo. Significantly, the Act has now established specific Custodial Centers for women for the first time in Nigerian history. It further stipulates that the Correctional Service must provide separate facilities for female inmates in all States, along with the facilities necessary to address the special needs of women, such as medical and nutritional needs, including those of pregnant women, nursing mothers, and babies in custody, according to Section 34(1) of the Act, which is a complement to the provision under review. The foregoing is just some of the many innovations introduced to correctional services in Nigeria by virtue of the Act.
While this article has considered the various developments of the correctional services in Nigeria, it is important to note that a wide gap exists between the existence of these legal prescriptions and their implementations. There remains a huge work to be done in the aspect of sensitization and reorientation of stakeholders and correctional officers on the introductions and modifications made by the Act. This should be the focus and not the facts concealment and access denial techniques being employed by some correctional officers to control damage. It is also recommended that certain improvements be made especially in respect of other extant legal frameworks to further make possible the full actualization of the intendments of the Act. For instance, Parole, Probation, Community Service, and Restorative Justice should all be clearly specified in the Act at the earliest opportunity for revision to remove any ambiguity regarding their significance. In addition, section 37 of the Act should explicitly include “Suspended Sentence” in the list of non-custodial sentencing among others. Also, other relevant laws like the Administration of Criminal Justice Act should be amended appropriately to bring them in tune with the wording of the Act.