Mr Sylvester Uhaa is the Nigerian Director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), an international organization that advocates the right of prisoners and respect for the rule of law. In this interview, Uhaa speaks about prisons and justice reforms in the country, jail breaks, juveniles and deaths in prisons, and the proposed NGO Bill among others.
What does your organization do?
CURE-Nigeria, being a justice reform and human rights organisation, advocates the right of prisoners and respect for the rule of law. Also, we train law enforcement and judicial staff on human rights, the alternatives to incarceration; provide legal aid for indigent detainees, speak truth to power, protect the poor and the weak, and support education in prisons and schools.
Do you say you are making any progress in your quest to achieve you set objectives?
Our achievements are in the areas of legal aid, establishment of libraries in prisons, advocacy, training, protection of human rights and dignity. Also, we have succeeded in putting justice reforms on the front burner in Nigeria, with the support of the media and foreign partners.
Also, in 2013, due to our sustained advocacy against prison construction, the Federal Ministry of Justice withdrew its support for the proposal by the Ministry of Interior to build new prisons, and the plan failed. We believe that what we need is to de-congest prisons and reform the justice system, and not to build more prisons.
That government rejected the plan to build new prisons was a huge achievement for us. Don’t forget, we are not against the building of modern prisons or renovation. The issue is if it does not go together with prison reforms.
So what we are saying is that the plan to build more prisons must go together with prison reforms in such a way the number of people going into prison will be reduced. If we don’t do that, the essence of the new prisons will be defeated because they will soon be filed up with awaiting trial inmates just like the existing ones.
We cannot secure public safety by simply building new prisons and sending more people to prison. Any sustainable public safety strategy must address the root causes of crime. A 21st century approach to crime has to offer more to people in prison and the community than simply secure custody. Our current focus on secure custody has failed miserably for offenders, victims and the nation and we have to do something different.
All levels of government most join hands to achieve this. Our prisons have become a dumping ground for the poor and the marginalised, those who cannot offer a bribe or has no one to help them out. Our justice system is no longer a justice system because it lacks the basic elements of justice. This has to stop.
So, you must be very happy about Mr. President’s directive to the judiciary to decongest the prisons.
Well, I am not sure it was a directive. And I hope it was because prison congestion deserves urgent attention. But it is not just prison congestion; it is the entire criminal justice system that needs urgent reforms. Because what we are seeing in the prison is just a reflection of the failure of the criminal justice system, and only a holistic approach can provide cure.
So, I call on the Chief Justice of Nigeria to take immediate steps to decongest the prisons and work with the pillars of the criminal justice system to put things in order. I want the reform efforts to focus on the poor because they are more vulnerable than the rich.
So, the establishment of courts in the prisons to fast track hearing should target indigent detainees first. We must give the poor a sense of belonging to this country. The first test of any government is in its ability to provide and protect the poor, not the rich.
Prolonged pre-trial detention is one of the greatest forms of human rights violation, which is often ignored. The government must address this now.
Nigeria has experienced a lot of jail breaks in recent time. What do you think is the solution to the challenge?
The major cause of jail breaks is prolonged pre-trial detention.
So, no one should deceive you that we need higher walls and engaging gun- toting security operatives to prevent jail breaks. The solution is lower number of prison inmates.
Findings related to jail breaks worldwide showed that they are spearheaded by awaiting trial inmates; the case of Nigeria, which has 80 per cent of prison inmates on pre-trial, is no exception. The challenges of inadequate uniforms, food, water and bed spaces in the prisons, which are caused by over population, are sufficient to breed discontent and jail breaks.
Jails breaks are a common characteristic of a congested prison system, as it is the case in Nigeria, where prisons are holding thrice their designated capacities, people take turns to sleep and most of them are innocent of the alleged offences. They are revolts against an unjust system.
Currently, Nigeria ranks 5th among countries with the highest pre-trial detention population in Africa, trailing Libya, Benin Republic, DCR, and Central African Republic. That is not a good company to keep.
In addition, congestion poses significant health, economic and social consequences for the inmates, their families and the states, it also constitutes a serious security and health threat to the host communities and the nation at large.
Recently, the Attorney General of the Federation was quoted as saying that the Federal Government would decongest prisons in two years. What’s your take on that?
I dismiss the statement as more political than realistic because there is nothing on the ground to support it. We are already in the third quarter of the year and, by this time next year, political campaigns would have started for the 2019 general elections, so when is the AG going to decongest the prisons?
My greatest disappointment currently is the lack of implementation of the beautiful laws we have. For, example, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 provides for alternatives to incarceration such as probation, community service, etc.
But its implementation is zero. Section 30 of the Act provides for detention time limits which, if implemented, would have decongested the prisons. I want the CJN and the AG to reactivate this provision to decongest the prisons.
What is your position on juveniles in prisons?
The detention of juvenile in adult prison is a total violation of international and domestic laws that protect children. In the course of my visits to prisons across the country, I see juveniles in adult prisons. Just recently, the Chief Judge of Lagos State released over 80 of them from Badagry Prisons and another 60 from Ikoyi Prisons. I call on Chief Judges to order the release of juvenile who are incarcerated in adult prisons or have them transferred to juvenile facilities.
Another worrying phenomenon is the detention of mentally-ill persons in prison. The Mandela Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners are very clear that mentally ill people have no place in prison. They are supposed to be moved to psychiatric hospitals where they are to be treated, but not in prison. We urge the Federal Government to remove these persons from prison to psychiatric hospitals for treatment. A mentally-ill person cannot stand trial, so what is he/she doing in prison?
According to recent media reports, over 900 inmates died last year in prisons. What do you have to say about that?
It was very shocking. But before that, there were reports that 32 inmates died in a Lagos prison in 2016 due to lack of access to medical care, and we wrote the Hon. Minister of Interior, demanding investigation into the deaths.
We reminded the Minister that prisoners have the right to medical care and everything should be done to ensure that they have access to medical care to prevent further deaths. But up till now, we are not aware of what has been done to address this issue and we are concerned that inmates may continue to die.
But I also want to remind Nigerians that the House of Representatives Committees on Interior and Health Services were mandated by the House in May this year to visit the prisons together with the Ministers of Health and Interior and the Comptroller General of Prisons, to assess inmates’ access to health and report back to the House.
But as I speak to you, we are not aware that those Committees have embarked on those visits. We have written to them about the urgent need to carry out the visits so that we don’t have more deaths in our prisons, but no one has said anything. So, we are using this medium to remind them to conduct these visits without further delay. Also, we are calling on the Federal Government to direct the Minister for Health to ask all public hospitals to treat inmates without demanding upfront payments.
At the moment, hospitals demand money from prisons to treat inmates and because the prison service does not have money to pay for these treatment, inmates cannot access medical care even those with life-threatening illnesses. This may have contributed to the high number of deaths in prisons. I want to remind the Federal Government that prisoners have the right to medical care, and that the government has an obligation to fulfil this right.
What is your take on education in prison?
Education in prison should be at the centre of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. Giving inmates basic skills in barbing, tailoring, etc, as good those are, is not enough because those skills hardly earn enough income for ex-prisoners. Recently with the support of the Australian High Commission in Abuja, we shipped in a 40 –foot container of books at the cost of over N4million and donated them to about 18 prisons across the country. Also, we partnered the US Embassy and donated educational materials worth over 10,000 US Dollars to the prisons in Benue State, including the Remand Home in Gboko this year.
What we expect the federal and state governments to do is to establish education programs in prisons as it is done elsewhere. In 2009, I visited a prison in Maryland, US and one of the teachers there was a former lecturer at University of Calabar. He now teaches full time in that prison. We should do that here.
Many detainees in Nigeria do not have access to lawyers. Is this not a source of concern to you?
Lack of access to a lawyer is one of our biggest concerns, and we have spoken so much about it. Lack of access to a lawyer means lack of access to justice and fair hearing because you and I cannot defend ourselves in the court, not to talk of detainees, most of whom are illiterate, intimidated and brutalised by the law enforcement.
So, we continue to ask the Federal Government to increase its funding to the Legal Aid Council to provide assistance to those who cannot defend themselves. Also, the Federal Government can support the efforts of NGOs who have demonstrated commitment to legal aid for the poor.
With the partnership of the National Endowment for Democracy, we have provided legal aid for hundreds of indigent detainees in the FCT, Nasarawa, Benue and, recently, Enugu State. We have concluded 143 cases, resulting in the release of 131 detainees, while 12 detainees have been convicted.
We have 37 cases on-going, and we plan to expand this service. But we remind the Federal Government that it has the obligation to provide legal services for all detainees. It is not our obligation; we are only supporting the efforts of governments.
What is your position on death penalty?
Capital punishment is nothing more than emotional response to crime; it does not solve crime. Studies have proven that the death penalty does not solve crime. What we need to do is to address the root causes of crime. The right to life is sacrosanct; no one should take it, not even the State because you do not take what you did not give. At best, the death penalty only perpetuates crime and teaches violence and vengeance, if the State can take life, why can’t I.
Those who advocate the death penalty are usually politicians who want to create a false impression that they are serious about fighting crime. But if they are serious about fighting crime, let them be serious about investing in crime prevention. That is the best way to fight crime. So, I call on government to heed the global call to abolish the death penalty and commute death sentences to life imprisonment and consider amnesty for deserving death row inmates.
Recently, the House of Representative moved a motion, calling on the Federal Government to build more Borstals (custodial institutions for young offender). What’s your take on that?
That is ridiculous so far as I am concerned. It does not make sense to ask the Federal government to build more Borstals because the existing ones have not accomplished the purposes for which they were established – to reform and rehabilitate juveniles in conflict with the law. Yes, we have campaigned vigorously against the imprisonment of children in adult prisons. But building more Borstals is not the way to address that.
We do not need more Borstals, we need to invest in diversionary measures for children in conflict with the law; we need to develop and implement a comprehensive child-justice system that is child-friendly and sensitive to the needs of children and that focuses on reformation and rehabilitation, as well as on the best interest of the child, consistent with the international norm that the deprivation of liberty of children shall be a matter of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
Also, the building of more juvenile prisons is inconsistent with the federal government’s commitment to fight poverty, reduce inequalities and increase equal access to education.
What is your opinion on the NGO Bill?
That is a waste of energy and resources.
The Bill is an act of war against NGOs and civil society which contribute so much to Nigeria’s economy, and provide vital services to the poor.
I urge President Muhammadu Buhari to refuse assent to it if the National Assembly goes ahead to pass it because it is intended to cripple civil society organizations and undermine the ideals they uphold. I read the bill and listened to the sponsor’s argument. If he has evidence against any NGO of diverting funds, let him bring it forward, not a sweeping condemnation of all civil society in Nigeria.
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