The Prisoners’ Right to Dignity

The subject of prisoners’ human rights, whether awaiting trial or convict, remains both contentious and controversial. It poses a contemporary challenge to the criminal justice administrators and the legislative authorities. It is well, a poignant reflection of the level of social advancement of a people.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights both conduced in chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, all clearly convey those rights which are natural, inalienable and personal to every human being including the prisoner: right-to-life, dignity, liberty, fair hearing, freedom of conscience, religion, association, private and family life et all.

Are prisoners (awaiting trial and convict) human beings? Of course they are! The big question then is, if they are human beings, what about their human rights, basic of which I would say are the rights to life and dignity?

Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution provides “Every person has a right to life and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence for which he has been found guilty in Nigeria”. The derogations are clearly stated in the sub sections.

Section 34 provides “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly (a) no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment…” This right has no provision for derogation.

The right to dignity is the central theme of prisoners right, a cardinal compliment of the right to life. The right to dignity abhors inhuman or degrading treatment. How much dignity does a prisoner have particularly, with respect to the custodial conditions and nutrition? From Ikoyi prison in Lagos to Jos prison in Plateau State, from the Wukari prison in Taraba State to the Isele Uku prison in Delta State, from Abakaliki prison in Ebonyi State to Ibara prison in Abeokuta, what you have is monumental overcrowding and the resultant poor hygiene, disease, squalor, malnutrition and often death. diseases spread easily making life behind the prison wall bitter and painful.

The situation remains as Alhaji Ibrahim Jarma, the retired Controller General of the Nigerian Prison Service said at page 17 of 2, August 1998 edition of the Daily Champion Newspaper that “Nigerian prisons are not correctional institutions yet… what you find in the prison set-up is that you have accommodation for say 200 people, instead of that 200, you will find as many as 1000 people. Out of this 1000, as many as 800 will be those awaiting trial packed like Sardines.

Since there is nothing else to do when any one of them is ill, and because of the over-crowding, the infection spread rapidly. That is why you find so many of them having tuberculosis. You know Tuberculosis ravages a man’s body very rapidly”

In the circumstance, you can hardly talk of any kind of reformation rather, what you have is an embittered lot and the reign of the Darwinian theory of the species. The government, time and again has responded to the plight of prisoners by setting up one committee after another, all of which have made no substantial difference.

The present prison descongestion, reform and reentry policy it is hoped will herald a positive dawn. Various judicial decisions have emphasized that a prisoner retains all his fundamental rights, except those rights expressly or impliedly taken away by the fact of imprisonment.

In Robinson Wabah & 2 ors V COP Rivers & 3 ors (1985) 6 NCLR, it was held that “…to detain a person under deplorable prison conditions constitute an infringement of the fundamental right of every man to respect for the dignity of his person”. These rights however, have continued to elude the prisoner in spite of many years of governmental promises for improvement.

The dehumanizing conditions under which prisoners are held constitute a cancerous clog in the wheel of reformation of the prisoners, producing rather, embittered and hardened “avengers” who on release, and confronted with the disdain and rejection by society and friends, have not much option but to return to crime. Then we shout recidivism!

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