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From Nigeria to Norway: can the penal system be done right?

ByAmy Houghton

Mar 12, 2019

Regarding vastly antithetical prison systems one can look no further than the contrast between Nigeria and Norway. Whilst Nigeria uses its prisons as a means of removing ‘criminals’ from the rest of society with little consideration of their welfare, Norwegian prisons put prisoner wellbeing first, with both approaches generating very different results.

The question of whether prisons should be primarily punitive or rehabilitative institutions has been, and remains, a burning debate central to prison legislation decisions across the globe. Increasingly, however, reforms have moved towards the latter. Governments are recognising a prisoner’s capacity to change,  and how encouraging them to take part in schemes promoting societal reintegration can improve the penal system and the wider community. Quoting Pope Francis in 2016, Barack Obama proclaimed that every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted crimes.”

With a notorious history of overcrowding, poor hygiene and ill-treatment, Nigerian prisons, in particular, are frequently cited as being in desperate need of reform. And yet, despite years of pushing, very little progress has been made. Arguably the biggest issue is overcrowding, exacerbated by the fact that a shockingly large proportion of the prison population have never actually been convicted. Rather, they are simply waiting, often for years, for their trial to commence. Many cells are 100 men over capacity, packed like sardines, and 65 per cent are those awaiting trial. This extreme level of congestion inevitably brings disease as well as deterioration of mental health. Having been announced neither guilty nor innocent, they are subject to these horrendous conditions, which have been accused of simply hardening them and heightening hostility towards the penal system. This increases the chance of recidivism. There have been desperate calls for change since 2001, and in summer 2018, the Nigerian National Assembly was set to collaborate with civil society organisations in order to amend the Prisons Reform Act. Rehabilitation and skill-learning are the central goals of this Act, yet progress within these aims is unclear.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, prisons that embrace rehabilitation are at risk of being labelled ‘cushy’. In striking contrast to the harsh and unforgiving prisons of Nigeria, what is perhaps the most clashing comparison is Finland’s ‘open prison’ on the island of Suomenlinna; an institution that plays host to eager tourists as well as a maximum of  100 prisoners. Common across the Nordic region are prisons which appear more like hotels than the uninviting, barred institutions that are circulated through popular media. With low crime and re-offence rates, it is safe to assume that they must be doing something right.

Indeed, this liberal approach has been proven to work successfully, with Norway boasting a recidivism rate of only 20 per cent, one of the lowest in the world in comparison to Nigeria’s 52.4 per cent (2010). Whilst it might require more initial funding, in the long term, the results would justify this and ultimately create a cheaper system. Fewer people re-offend, instead emerging able to contribute better to the country’s economy. Prison is a last resort, secondary to ‘penalties in society’ which most commonly take the form of community service. Within prisons themselves, the inmates have access to the same services available to them prior to incarceration. These include health services, access to libraries and retaining of voting rights. The focus is on treating them as normally as possible with much of their daily routine dedicated to learning trades and skills from woodwork to writing, equipping them for re-emergence into society as functioning citizens.

Although few people dispute the effectiveness of rehabilitative measures,  whether convicted inmates are ‘deserving’ of being given this second chance is an entirely different debate. Rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners and prisons are not only beneficial for the prisoners themselves but civil society as a whole. To dehumanise a criminal through abhorrent conditions – such as those that have been reported in Nigeria – is to turn prisons into anti-establishment factories. Such institutions leave inmates with little to no desire to positively contribute to society upon reintegration.

Despite increasing pressure for change, the Nigerian penal system has a long way to go if ever it wishes to reap the same success as its Scandinavian counterparts. Whilst some might disagree with the liberalisation of the latter, there is clear evidence to suggest that believing in a prisoner’s capacity to change and providing them with the basic facilities to do so can only have positive consequences.

Image credits: Hernán Piñera via Flickr

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