Prisoners right under the Nigerian law, pathway to its realization and protection
Background to the study
Right is a generic term that confers certain benefits on a person who possesses it. Generally, right, as a matter of fact, can be innate and naturally endowed by virtue of being human; it can also be derived by the operation of law.1 There are basic rights which are both naturally given and protected in the letters and spirit of the law. Some of these rights are regarded as very fundamental to human existence and therefore should not be deprived except in circumstances provided for by the law. Some rights are also given international recognition because they are so important that they have to be addressed at the global level to appropriately secure such from being trampled upon, and for their observance and effective implementation. Before the 1960s, in the United States, a prisoner was seen not only to have forfeited his liberty as a result of crime, but also all his personal rights except those that the law of humanity accords to him; and a prisoner was thus regarded as a slave of the State. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the court began to extend constitutional protection to prisoners.
Courts may confine offenders to prison terms, which ordinarily deprive them of certain freedoms that should be enjoyed if not for the order or pronouncement of the court; such rights include most importantly freedom of movement. Therefore, the prisoners are not precluded from enjoying certain rights as entrenched in the Constitution and other legal documents, which are to be enjoyed by the citizens. This paper, therefore, focuses on the rights of prisoners. The Constitution, local statutes and international instruments protect certain rights that should be available to the prisoner. Gradually, the philosophy of imprisonment is now shifting from using it as a tool of retributive justice to reformation, with the hope of reforming prisoners and absorbing them back into the society as better citizens. It is against this philosophy that prisoners need to be treated as the human beings that they are and should not be subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment which could make them embittered and go back to the society with wounded psyche which will make the society the worse for it.
Accordingly, the prison community, with its culture and way of life, gives a complete design capable of changing the attitudes of the offenders for good or bad depending on the personal experience of the prisoners and the social network action. It is an acceptable fact that operations and administration of the prison system in Nigeria turn the less hardened individuals to more hardened criminals when unleashed to the society due to their experience through the prison. The fundamental cause of post-release problem of maladjustment and recidivism is traceable to the lock-up pattern and content of the prisons.8
Sentencing a convict to a prison term is meant as punishment and not for punishment; therefore, prison authorities have to be accountable for the manner prisoners are treated, especially regarding their wide discretional powers. The Nigerian Court of Appeal held per Uwaifo, JCA in the case of Peter Nemi v Attorney General of Lagos State and Ors that prisoners still have their rights intact, except those deprived by law. He stated further that even a condemned criminal awaiting execution still maintains his rights until properly executed by the due process of law. However, this is not the case in Nigeria, as prisoners are not treated well in prison. The prison officials and administrators truncate many of prisoners’ human rights. It was reported by the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, for instance, that there have been a lot of human rights challenges in the Nigerian prisons and the situation of the inmates is quite appalling. According to the Commission:
The prison environment continues to pose serious threats to the physical and mental well-being of inmates and prison officers alike. Conditions such as overcrowding, lack of medical/health facilities, poor toilet facilities and beddings, and denial of access to justice continues to persist in clear contrast to the requirement of the UN standards for the treatment of persons in Custody. This state of affairs is attributable to action and/or inactions of all players in the administration of justice sector in Nigeria.
The Commission also made an observation that the Federal Government has failed to implement the recommendations of many studies carried out on the prison situation in Nigeria and by presidential committees, and has done only little in fulfilling its promises over the years, which has contributed immensely to the challenges being faced by the prison system.12
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by Article 14 guarantees everyone in the State equal access to rights, without discrimination. The practice of the ECHR has moved away from supporting inherent limitations to the rights of incarcerated prisoners (i.e., deprivation of liberty automatically means loss of other rights and freedoms) to a more liberal approach and wider protection of fundamental human rights during imprisonment. It is viewed that international human rights standard states that prisoners should continue to enjoy access to all rights guaranteed to all persons in the State, “subject only to restrictions that are unavoidable, necessary and appropriate in the context of imprisonment.”
Rule 2 of the European Prison Rules (2006) also states, “persons deprived of their liberty retain all rights that are not lawfully taken away by the decision sentencing them or remanding them in custody.” Similarly, the United Nations Human Rights Committee provides in its General Comment No. 21 that respect for the dignity of such persons deprived of their liberty must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons. It goes further that, such persons shall enjoy all rights set forth in the Covenant, subject to the restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment.
Corrections, Nigerians Prison, Jails Juvenile training schools or reformatories and probation machinery, are the part of the Criminal Justice system that the public sees least and knows least about. It seldom gets into the news unless there is a jail break, a prison riot , or a sensational scandal involving corruption or brutality in an institution or by an official. The institutions in which about a third of the corrections populations live are situated for the most part in Rural and Urban areas or in the police stations or basement of court houses. Corrections are not only hard to see, traditionally, society has been reluctant to look at it. Many of the people, Juvenile and adult, with whom corrections deals are the most troublesome and troubling members of society. The misfits and the failure, the unrespectable and the irresponsible-society have been well content to keep them out of sight. It is time for total and absolute reformation and rehabilitation of our prisons by building modern prisons & providing adequate services & training.
Section 19 of the Prisons Act defines a “prisoner” as any person lawfully committed to custody. By this definition, it means any person who is lawfully confined to prison is a prisoner. This, therefore, means that a person becomes a prisoner on the date first admitted into prison, which therefore qualifies Awaiting Trial Inmates as prisoners because they are normally confined to prison by the order of the court. Pre-trial detention itself does not violate human rights if it takes place under the proper conditions, for a short time and as a last resort. Prisoner’s rights can be divided into two categories, which are prisoner’s rights before conviction and prisoner’s rights after conviction. This dissertation focuses on the latter, the rights of the prisoner after conviction.
Objective of the study
Having considered above background to this study, the general objective of the study is to assess the Prisoners right under the Nigerian law. Therefore this study highlights the origin of prisons in African context, the condition of persons in Nigerian prisons and evaluates the rights open to Nigerian prisoners and how the law protects such rights in Nigeria.
SCOPE OF THE STUDY
The enormity of the subject matter has led to the selection of some aspects of our criminal laws in Nigeria. In general, reference is made to protection of human right in Nigeria prisons and the Nigerian prison act.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
In this regard our significance of study will be both on the theoretical levels and practical levels. Theoretically, this study seeks to highlight and widen scholarly perceptions of the state of Nigerian prisons, practically, the study will be a response to the intellectual challenges involved in human right protection in prisons. Also this study will be of vital importance to scholars on human right affairs, Nigerian law and criminal studies researchers serving as a further take off point for future inquiry in the study under review.
The study is more descriptive than analytical. An assessment the Prisoners right under the Nigerian law and current state of Nigerian prison systems were carried out. The information relied on for these works are sourced from primary and secondary sources. In this connection, criminal justice system among others serve as major primary source. The secondary source include-materials on the internet, books, essays, journals and articles published on the subject matter together with the opinions of the courts in judicial decisions. Information is also sourced from the libraries of other institutions like The Nigerian Prisons Service Headquarters and Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.