Gbarnga, Bong County - Former Gbarnga City Magistrate, Alfred Managborlor, is undoubtedly a tough professional who still cherishes his job, although he no longer serves in that capacity.
But Managborlor, who had been trained not to succumb to his emotions, buckled while on a visit to the Gbarnga Central Prison and expressed shock at what he saw.
Confronted by one of the inmates who had summoned courage and told him that some of his colleagues had been awaiting trial for over three years, blaming their woes on the country’s judicial system and the tough conditions required for bail, Managborlor, who was touched by the plight of the prisoners, was left with no choice but to apologize to all on behalf of the government.
He also promised to liaise with the Resident Circuit Judge of Bong County, Boima Kontoe, to find a lasting solution to the congestion.
Also, members of the Nigerian contingent of the United Nations Mission (UNMIL), who also embarked on a tour of the prison, were shocked by what they saw as they decried the dilapidation of the prison, concluding they were no longer fit for human habitation.
In their report, they said that “a majority of the cells leak during the rains and the perimeter walls and some cells have, in some cases, collapsed.”
Prisons, the world over, are set up by law to provide restraint and custody of individuals accused or convicted for crimes by the country.
At the Gbarnga Central prison, the prison system dates back to the colonial era and it is a system that lays emphasis on punishment and deterrence. The noble goal of prisons service is to reform those who pass through the prison gates and also to protect the society from convicted felons.
It also has a duty to keep in safe custody persons legally sentenced to jail and identify the causes of their inherent anti-social behavior, and treat and reform them to become law-abiding citizens.
A prison also has the responsibility to train inmates in trades that will make them useful to themselves and the society at large.
Inmates appear physically and psychologically damaged
But a FrontPageAfrica recent tour of the prison facility established that the objectives are not being met. Prisoners who spoke to our reporter say instead of reforming them, the prison system is hardening them and subjecting them to horrible, degrading conditions and punishment, sometimes exceeding the crimes committed, and in the process, rendering inmates physically and psychologically damaged, unwanted, unloved and abandoned in an uncaring environment.
FrontPageAfrica tour of the prison facility also established that some of the prisoners have not been convicted of any offence; instead, they wait years for their trial in appalling conditions.
From genuine cases of major crime to minor misdemeanors such as petty theft and environmental issues, the number of persons awaiting trial at the Gbarnga Central prison alone is indeed astronomical.
While many observers maintain that cases of un-convicted felons make managing the prisons unbearable, others add that it goes against the gains of the much touted reform policy of the Ministry of Justice, something the Superintendent of the prison, Feshell Dean, refuted and dismissed as off the mark.
In addition to the many cases awaiting trial are the deplorable conditions of the Gbarnga Central Prison which has become worrisome over the years with no serious attempt being made to improve the plight of the inmates.
According to many who spoke to our reporter, this has casted doubts over whatever claims of successes that are touted by the prison authorities in Gbarnga through the reform agenda and reintegration program.
Records show that the Gbarnga Central Prison is overcrowded by 250 prisoners. The prison, which was built for 600 inmates, is occupied today by over 1000 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial.
One of the cardinal reform programs at the Gbarnga Central Prison is re-integration of inmates back into the society after serving their jail terms.
Having taken cognizance of the difficulties and uncertainties faced by inmates on discharge, Dean told FrontPageAfrica the prison service has programs to help ease them back into the society as reformed citizens.
Again, the question is if the regime is followed judiciously and not done haphazardly.
To this, Dean said the prison has recorded successes that have helped keep discharged persons on the straight path instead of going back to a life of crime. “On discharge, we have the ‘After Care Services’ whose duty is to follow up the discharged persons,” he said.
“Assuming an inmate was incarcerated for five years and has served for three years, he will write the ‘Trade Test’ through the Ministry of Labor and they will give him a test from grade one to three, in accordance with the number of years the inmate has spent in prison. The test is to help him prove his/her mettle outside prison.”
Continuing, he added: “The reason for imbibing skills acquisition in them is not to make money for government even though we pay revenue, but to help ease them back into the system. Essentially, this is what we mean by reform and rehabilitation before re-integrating them back into the society.”
When asked if the settlement and set up of the discharged prisoners was done primarily from government funds, he answered in the affirmative.
According to him, the funding comes basically from the government and has sustained the program so far. He, however, added that some NGOs have responded in part with equipment and materials to assist in setting up the discharged prisoners.
He noted that some organizations too were not left out in providing assistance to the discharged prisoners, as they absorb them into their companies without any discrimination whatsoever.
Despite Dean’s spirited defense of the Ministry of Justice, it is widely acknowledged that the Gbarnga Central prison system has been bogged down by considerable challenges and funding has always posed a major challenge for the service.
Dean attested to this, saying the challenge has always been how to fund the reforms of the current administration.
“The Ministry of Justice has always said we need a lot of money to achieve the reform agenda because it involves infrastructure development, training and re-training. We need the assistance of NGOs and institutions to partner with the Ministry of Justice. The MOJ is the major engine of security because even if other security agencies arrest criminals, they are better than the ones that have not been arrested.”
Faulting the Reforms
However, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) Regional Coordinator, Jesse Cole, disagreed with Dean’s perspective that the reforms have been effective.
Cole said the Gbarnga Central prison is characterized by overcrowding, poor staff morale, inadequate funding, need for new rights for prisoners, right to food, clean environment and human dignity and need for other alternatives to imprisonment.
He maintained that as laudable as the cardinal objectives of the Ministry of Justice reform agenda are, they were far from the reality on the ground.
“The philosophy of the prison staff is that treatment and rehabilitation of offenders can be achieved through carefully designed and well-articulated administrative, reformative and rehabilitative programs aimed at inculcating discipline, respect for law and order, and regard for the dignity of honest labor,” he said.
According to him, it was beyond doubt that when more than 60 percent of the total prison admissions were awaiting trial, an indication that the administration of criminal justice must be faulty. “It is also clear that imprisonment has been overused as a means of punishment. Consequently, there is need for other alternatives to imprisonment,” he said.