Olayinka Lawal is the Executive Director of Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), a non-profit making organisation. He was called to Bar in 1992. In this interview, he speaks on the prison system, death penalty among other issues. Excerpts: To what extent has PRAWA fulfilled its mission?
PRAWA was established 22 years ago and that was informed by the founder, Dr Uju Agomoh’s experience during her youth service days when she was privileged to see the situation at the prisons which was sub-human. PRAWA started engaging with the Nigerian Prison Service and in the course of our work we have had occasion to work with other stakeholders in the criminal justice system. Prison is at the receiving end of the process where you have to arrest and take people to court and they end up in prison whether during or at the end of trial. Those who are found guilty end up in prison but then we have an aberration in our country and in other developing countries – the problem of awaiting trial persons.
Ideally, somebody going through trial is presumed innocent constitutionally and such a person should be processed timorously under the law but the criminal justice process is slow. So we see a situation where people languish in prison as ATI for between five to 17 years. About three years ago, through one of our interventions in Enugu, we secured the release of the longest ATI in that state, one Living us, who spent 17 years awaiting trial. That was unfortunate and for PRAWA this is what we have been doing.
Which are the four most populated prisons in Nigeria and do we need to have more prisons? We have Port Harcourt, Enugu, Ikoyi and Kuje prisons.Many of the over populated prisons are in the urban centres and this is a thing that comes with urbanization – crime and vice. In one sense we may need to build more prisons but in another we don’t need more prisons because the over populated prisons are in the urban centres whereas the prisons in the rural areas are not even used to capacity. Today we have over 200 prisons, so many of them are even under populated and many of them were built in the colonial days, so they cannot meet up with facilities to take care of current needs. So the need is to strengthen the infrastructure. The best way to approach the issue is to tackle the issue of ATIs. That is where the new law – Administration of Criminal Justice Act ACJA 2015 – has given us the framework to tackle the issue effectively. But the implementation of the law is another thing, for example the law provides for non-custodial sentence in which convicts can be sentenced to communal service instead of prison term. So people convicted for hawking or traffic offences may be sentenced to clean the streets. Can we say that Nigeria’s prisons are reformative?
The NPS is given the mandate to reform prisoners. Essentially when people pass through the prisons they are to be reformed, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society except for those condemned. People who go to prison are there to serve term and they will still come back to the society, so prison is meant to make them changed people but then due to our peculiar challenges in prisons in Nigeria, that is contestable. The ATIs in the eyes of the law are presumed to be innocent and there is no provision for them in the prison system because they are just passing by; they are not residents of the prison yard. So the reformative programme in the prison is intended for the convict. There are several of them – we have prison farms and many workshops to learn leather work etc but over 70 per cent inmates in the prisons are ATIs. In some prisons they are up to 90 per cent and this throws up a number of other challenges.
The prison programme is not able to engage these people because they are not convicted, they are not even presumed to be inmates of the prison in the eyes of the law while at the same time they occupy space meant for the convicted prisoners. So, majority of the people in the prisons today are just whiling away, which is rather unfortunate and that is what we are tackling in conjunction with the foreign office of the UK government to try to bring down the number. What is your take on what happened at the Owerri High Court when prisoners were attacked on getting to court recently? It is rather unfortunate but it shows the lapses in our system, for the prison authorizes to carry 58 prisoners to court in one vehicle and the escort was not adequate.