It is trite that the Nigerian prison is a male dominated institution. According to statistics obtained from the Nigerian Prisons Services, it has been shown that female inmates represent two percent of the total number of inmates in Nigeria Prisons. This percentage reflects a figure of 1,500 female inmates out of over 73,000 inmates. Due to this, significant attention has been placed on criminal justice reform on the male side. While this is justified considering the numbers, it is noteworthy that despite the relatively small number of women in Nigerian Prisons today, there is still a general lack of care for both the women and the children which they have to care for coupled with a high rate of sexual abuse. Children brought up in these facilities also face sexual assault from adult prisoners. In an investigation carried out by Amnesty International Nigeria in the Maiduguri Maximum Security Prison in the Borno state of Nigeria, it was observed that “children are kept in the same prison cells as adults. This gave the adults an opportunity to exploit and sexually abuse the children. Officials are aware that this abuse is going on, but they refused to do anything about it. Little boys are frequently sexually abused by other inmates, and women and girls also face similar exploitation”.
The Quagmire of Women and Their Children in Prison
While there are about 2000 female inmates in Nigeria with the numbers rising, there are no official statistics of female prisoners who are mothers in Nigerian prisons. A 2017 survey by a non-governmental organization, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, states that of the 198 female inmates who were interviewed in the Female Prison, Kirikiri, Lagos; Port Harcourt Prison in Rivers State, and Enugu Prison, 30 were with children while 17 were pregnant. This follows a 2010 report by the United States Human Rights Commission which said more than 300 children were in Nigerian prisons, a claim the Federal Government refuted.
Comparisons of male and female prisoners have shown that the children of male prisoners tend to stay in the care of their mothers whilst their father serves a prison term. However, this is not so simple for pregnant inmates or nursing mothers that have their children with them during their term. According to a research published in the African Journal for The Psychological Study of Social Issues, it was found that there was no specific care and support systems for such categories of women in the prison. The pregnant women do not enjoy special privileges aside the ones available to other inmates and their pre-natal and post-natal care is mostly handled by churches and NGOs. There is also frequent harassment by male officers, some of which lead to pregnancy and labour while still being incarcerated, a situation that have further worsened their health problems. There is no serious attention or medical care given to victims of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by prison warders.
Although, it is well documented that the Nigerian Prisons are underfunded whether caused by scarce funds or impropriety, many who have visited these facilities have reported low hygiene and lack of welfare and health services for the female prisoners. This is especially so in relation to menstruation hygiene. Studies show that majority of the toiletries and sanitary items for female prisoners are given by the NGOs and religious organizations.
The Impact of Section 34 of the Correctional Service Act
The Nigerian Correctional Services Bill was signed into law on 14th August 2019 and repeals the Prison Act, Cap P29, Laws of the Federation, 2004. It enacts a Nigerian Correctional Services Act to address issues that were not covered under the repealed Act and improve on prison administration. The act contains several progressive provisions as it moves from the perception of prisons being a center for retribution to a “correctional” facility with a focus on reformation, rehabilitation, reintegration and better treatment of prisoners. For instance, it makes provision for the medical, psychological, spiritual and counseling services of offenders and the deployment of educational and vocational skills training programs that can improve their human capacity.
One of its notable additions is Section 34 which focuses on female inmates and their needs. Section 34(1) mandates separate female institutions for female inmate in every state. Although, not every state in the federation has a prison, the facilities which house female inmates are separate from the male facilities. Subsection 2 mandates the provision of necessary facilities to address the special needs of female inmates such as medical and nutritional needs of female inmates. This includes the needs of pregnant women, nursing mothers and babies in custody. This also includes the provision of a crèche in every female custodial center for the well-being of babies in custody with their mothers and for prenatal, antenatal health care and sanitary provisions for female inmates. This provision acknowledges the role of the mother in the upbringing of their children. Inasmuch as the mother is being punished for her crime, in order to avoid double punishment, the child must be well taken care of and this is the reality that this section recognizes. The future of the child must not be jeopardized by the mistakes of the mother. Also, the section recognizes the urgent medical and sanitary needs in the female prisons. These rights can now be enforced in court both as a violation of the act and a violation of human rights as a whole. Although, one of the impediments of this might be the low funding for Nigerian prisons in general which may affect the ability of the system to provide these facilities. The section can therefore be seen as a step in the right direction and immediate action is needed to achieve this. This is also similar to the First Step Act in the USA which provides that female inmates be provided with free menstrual products to protect their rights of dignity.
Although, Subsection 2 and 3 go a long way to provide for mothers’ and female inmates, Subsection 4 addresses preventive measures against pregnancy especially those that may result from sexual abuse by prison staff. It provides that all female inmates shall undergo pregnancy tests on the first day of admission or at a time not exceeding 14 days after admission. Where the test is positive, such inmate shall be provided with necessary medical care and support. This provision helps the prison officials to have a database of female inmates that need access to natal care. It also helps prison officials to determine whether a pregnancy was gotten before or after admission into the prison. This is important because Subsection 5 provides that where a female inmate is found to be pregnant while in custody, an investigation shall be carried out including DNA analysis where needed to find the perpetrator who shall be prosecuted. This helps to curb sexual assault by prison officials to some extent. However, not all sexual assaults lead to pregnancy and a more comprehensive provision on this is needed.
Finally, the future of all children in Nigeria must be secured even those in prison. While acknowledging that a baby needs its mother in its early days, prolonged stay in the prisons can lead to several problems for a child. The exposure to inmates male or female is enough to corrupt and adult mind hence the separation into medium and maximum security prisons. However, the female facilities are not so separated. This means that all female inmates are incarcerated in one facility irrespective of the crime committed and this can have a major impact of a child. The effect of this can be massive to the child’s mindset and future. Thus, Subsection 6 provides that notwithstanding the provisions of Subsection 3, no baby shall remain in the custodial facilities past 18 months. Such child shall be handed over to the families of the inmate or taken to a designated welfare center in the absence of a family. The provision thereby allows the child to experience motherly care for at least 18 months before being given to family member or a welfare center where such child can be afforded the education he/she needs. This was the practice before although the adoption of this in the Act helps for a more defined system across board. Also, the Act needs more flexibility for special cases where there is the need for prolonged stay of the child with the mother.
Conclusion and Remarks
Although the Correctional Services Act has been seen by experts and human rights advocates as an important step towards reform of the system, there are two areas that still need to be addressed in relation to female inmates namely sexual assault and implementation of Section 34 of the Act. The Act scarcely provides for sexual assault, harassment and rape by prison officials, an incessant practice that needs to end. Section 34 failed to categorically address this problem and it is hoped that this will be done soon. Also, a big question mark remains over the implementation of the provision of Section 34 of the Act. Although, the section is revolutionary and ambitious, there are significant problems of funding and enforcement by prison officials and the government. There needs a clear thought-out plan on how to carry out these provisions and how to obtain funding to do so.
In conclusion, this writer cannot categorically say that Section 34 is a cure for the conditions faced by female inmates in prisons. The section can be seen as more of a foundation for further reform and implementation in order to achieve the sort of healthcare, nursing and sanitary system that is needed by female inmates and nursing mothers.