NIGERIA’S piecemeal journey to workable federalism appears to have received a boost, with the Senate’s move to remove the prisons from the exclusive federal list and make it a concurrent matter, between the Federal Government and the states. The bill to that effect just scaled its second reading.
This is a welcome move. It is rather absurd that a state that has a court system, parallel to federal courts, does not have a corresponding prison system.
What that means is the absurdity of trying suspects in state courts, yet shipping felons to federal prisons. That partly accounts for prison over-crowdedness, with an intolerably high number of those awaiting trial.
True, freeing the prisons from a central vice-grip is only one step in righting the non-federalisation of the criminal-justice system. At the end of the reforms to truly federalise, every state must have its own police (which still appears a long way off), its own court system (already a reality) and its own prisons (which the Senate is now trying to achieve). Until these tri-goals are achieved, there cannot be talk of a full federalisation of the law-and-order system.
Reports say the three senators led separate debates to convince their colleagues at plenary on the desirability of their bills. The Senate, for once, should be commended for being dutiful on this one.
Senator Tinubu too is deserving of praise for her insight into the plight of pregnant and nursing mother-prisoners; and how the state could care for their neo-natal and post-natal needs. She also deserves praise for looking out for Nigerian children born in prison, and why everything should be done not to stigmatise them for life. New thinking about the prison is, after all, reformative, instead of punitive. Besides, these children are innocent souls born in unfortunate circumstances.
These are progressive ideas that should not only drive the prison systems of the state when they eventually birth, but should also permeate the new designs and management of federal prisons, since there are ripe talks about relocating and modernising some prisons.
Still, from the Senate debate, there appears a likely provision for private investment in prisons, in which the system is so liberalised citizens, apart from the state, can invest in it as business. If that happens, there must be rigorous guidelines to direct such investments, even if not a few would appear to develop some dissonance, simply because such a move is novel.
But aside from all these, it is pertinent to know that the prisons service had not always been centralised. So, was the police. But somehow, brazen abuses in the First Republic, when in the North there were even Native Authority Police and Prisons, forced a mass antipathy that pushed the system to the extreme we now decry today.
It is time to go back to the decentralisation of those pristine years of shortly before and after flag independence in 1960. But desirable as that might be, we must eschew those abuses that short-circuited the system to birth the present monstrosity, which however, is replete with own abuses.
So, as new reforms birth with the prisons as well as the police, a deliberate policy must be put in place to ensure the operators birth with new attitudes, befitting those federalist reforms.
That is the only way to avoid taking one step forward, but two steps backward.