After reading Erwin James’ beautiful and didactic piece on Bastoy Prison in The Guardian newspaper of the UK on February 25, 2013, I was sunk in reverie. I thought of a scenario where it is possible for a convict to choose where to serve his or her jail term. Imagine a suspect saying: “My Lord, I plead guilty to all the crimes for which I have been charged by the prosecutor. My allocution is however that in sentencing me, temper justice with mercy by sending me to Bastoy Prison in Norway.”
Norway has a population of slightly less than five million compared to Nigeria’s approximately 170 million. It has fewer than 4,000 prisoners while Nigerian prisons housed 54,156 inmates as of October 31, 2012. Of this number, only 15, 804 were convicted persons while 38, 352 were awaiting trial persons. In terms of prison and prisoners’ management, the Nigerian Prison Service has a lot to learn from their Norwegian counterpart.
According to the reporter, in Norway, the loss of liberty is all the punishment prisoners suffer. Cells have televisions, computers, integral showers and sanitation. Some prisoners are segregated for various reasons, but as the majority served their term – anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) – they were offered education, training and skill-building programmes. One of the prisoners interviewed by the reporter was quoted as saying, “It’s like living in a village, a community. Everybody has to work. But we have free time so we can do some fishing, or in summer we can swim off the beach. We know we are prisoners but here we feel like people.”
In Bastoy, there are 70 members of staff on the 2.6 sq km island during the day, 35 of whom are uniformed guards. Their main job is to count the prisoners – first thing in the morning, twice during the day at their workplace, once en masse at a specific assembly point at 5pm, and finally at 11pm, when they are confined to their respective houses. Only four guards remain on the island after 4pm. Bastoy prisoners live in houses that accommodate up to six people. Every man has his own room and they share kitchen and other facilities. Only one meal a day is provided in the dining hall. The men earn the equivalent of £6 a day and are given a food allowance each month of around £70 with which to buy provisions for their self-prepared breakfasts and evening meals from the island’s well-stocked mini-supermarket.
Prisoners in Norway can apply for a transfer to Bastoy when they have up to five years left of their sentence to serve. Every type of offender, including men convicted of murder or rape, may be accepted, so long as they fit the criteria, the main one being a determination to live a crime-free life on release. Bastoy prisoners work on farmland where they tend sheep, cows and chickens, or grow fruit and vegetables. Other jobs are available in the laundry; in the stables looking after the horses that pull the island’s cart transport; in the bicycle repair shop, (many of the prisoners have their own bikes, bought with their own money); on ground maintenance or in the timber workshop. The working day begins at 8.30am. There are phone boxes from where prisoners can call family and friends. Weekly visits are permitted in private family rooms where conjugal relations are allowed. So you can have sex and make babies while in prison! There are three golden rules on Bastoy: no violence, no alcohol and no drugs. It takes three years to train to be a prison guard in Norway. For these humane treatments of its prisoners the reoffending rate for those released from Bastoy is just 16 per cent which is the lowest in Europe.
Now let’s do a quick comparison with what obtains in any Nigerian prison. Our prisons have a total carrying capacity of 47,284 but as of October 31, 2012 was accommodating 54, 156. That is 6,872 more than the carrying capacity. However, as earlier pointed out, majority of inmates in Nigerian prisons are Awaiting Trial Persons.
This is an indictment on our criminal justice system. Many a time, these ATPs spend more time than they should have served if found guilty of the offences for which they are charged while others are found to be innocent after several years of incarceration. Indeed, justice delayed is justice denied. The police, prison authorities and the judiciary are reprehensible for this untoward situation. Judges adjourned cases too frequently, police do not finalise their investigations on time while the prison authority complained of being poorly trained and lacking in modern equipment including not having vehicles to convey ATPs to court for their trials.
The Federal Government through the Ministry of Interior needs to fund our prisons better. As the example from Bastoy Prison shows, prisoners have rights and privileges which they ought to enjoy in order to be properly reformed. This includes the right to vote at elections provided you are not on death row. The animalistic ways prisoners are treated in Nigeria make the whole concept of prison system warped and disorientated. The poor feeding, sanitary and living conditions in Nigerian prisons are what make the country to experience recurring cases of jailbreaks.
Pray, who will want to escape from Bastoy prison with the ‘royal’ treatment being meted out to inmates there? As the National Assembly works to amend the obviously anachronistic Prison Act 1963 and Immigration Act 1963, it is imperative to take a holistic look at how to reform the country’s prison system. It is a matter of urgent national importance to decongest Nigerian prisons by looking at other forms of punishments like suspended sentence, weekend sentence, community service, options of fine, prerogative of mercy, etc.I could not agree more with the submissions of Erwin James and Arne Nilsen in the report on Bastoy prison.
Erwin summarises his experience thus: “Bastoy is no holiday camp. In some ways, I feel as if I’ve seen a vision of the future – a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair. I believe all societies will always need high-security prisons. But there needs to be a robust filtering procedure along the lines of the Norwegian model, in order that the process is not more damaging than necessary.” For Arne, “Justice for society demands that people we release from prison should be less likely to cause further harm or distress to others, and better equipped to live as law-abiding citizens.” I do hope that the Nigerian government and relevant agencies will draw the needful lessons from Norway.