Government should stop employers from discriminating against ex-prisoners – Iwuagwu

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Mr. Benson Iwuagwu is the Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Nigeria. In this interview with OLADIMEJI RAMON, he speaks on the objective of the organisation and the motive behind its campaign for restorative justice

What is the idea behind the founding and activities of Prison Fellowship Nigeria?

Prison Fellowship Nigeria is essentially a faith-based organisation that has the primary mission of reaching out to prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims and their families with the love of God through Christ because we think and do believe that true change comes from the inside. There are a lot of factors that predispose people to crime but we’ve not seen any person who despises love, so, we carry to them God’s love. This is our first mission.

The other thing we do, which is very critical, is to assist the government is proffering solutions to criminal justice issues or penal reform issues that help to promote justice, peace and harmonious coexistence of citizens. The Prison Fellowship Nigeria is a chartered affiliate of the Prison Fellowship International, which has 120 member countries with Category 2 Consultative status with the United Nations Social and Economic Office.

Lately, the PFN has been on a campaign to shift the focus of the criminal justice in the nation from retributive to restorative. What is the motivation for this?

Restorative justice is a response to the rigidity and the overwhelming negative effect of the justice system that we presently run. Our present criminal justice system is two-partied – the offender and the state. It is very adversarial, it is exclusive and so, it does not, in itself, quite take into account the interest of those who are affected by crime.

For instance, my car is stolen, I make a report, and possibly the culprit is apprehended and charged to court. It will be  the Commissioner of Police versus the suspect in court. Most times, I am not taken into consideration, nobody asks me what  my idea of justice is because it’s relative to what will satisfy me, what will restore me to what I was before the crime happened but that is not happening under our present criminal justice system. The state takes over, the best that happens is that the victim is called as a witness. At the end of the day all that the criminal justice system is asking is: What law has been broken? For instance, a case of robbery is established, the culprit is convicted and sentenced to prison but what happens to the victim? Nobody is interested. So, restorative justice has come to say before you can really talk about true justice that brings peace, we have to recognise and carry along all the parties involved – the offender, who committed the act; the victim, who was directly affected; the community and then the government, which is concerned about the maintenance of law and order. The community wants peace but the victim wants validation, possibly the reparation or return of what he has lost and the offender wants to be heard. He wants to be punished, yes, but he also wants to be assisted, so that he doesn’t go back to a criminal life. But our present criminal justice system is so overly narrow that it excludes those who are critical.

Practically speaking, how is the restorative justice supposed to work?

Restorative justice works at every stage of the criminal justice system. It can work at the police station, pre-charge. When a complaint is received by the desk officer at the police station, the case is assigned to an Investigative Police Officers, who then brings the offender and the victim together. He looks at the protocol and interviews them and discovers that rather than charge this matter to court, he asks the complainant what he wants and the complainant says, for instance, he wants his stolen property back; and he asks the offender why he stole, and he would either say he is sorry or gives one reason or the other. Now, he asks the offender if he is ready to restore what he stole and he says yes. So, at that point, restorative justice protocol provides a platform for the IPO to get the parties to a restorative justice officer, who now conducts proper interview, documents it and once the parties agree, he refers the case to a higher officer, who then draws up a restorative agreement and once that happens, then the agreement goes to court. The police then tell the court: This is the complaint that came up but these people have gone through the restorative justice system and this is how they have agreed to resolve this matter. So, we need the consent of the court.  The court then says: This is the decision of the court in this case.

And the good thing is that no plea would have been taken; it will just be a question of complaint and resolution of that complaint. There will not be a convict.

But even if restorative justice fails pre-charge, it can still work at the level of charge. When the administrative magistrate or judge looks at the file, he can say let this go to restorative justice. And once it is resolved there, it comes back with a restorative agreement and the good thing about restorative justice, like I said, is that the interest of all the parties is taken into account. The government for order, the victim for reparation, the offender for reintegration and rehabilitation. And that way we will be cutting our cost and our losses.

But even when you have charged to court, trial has been concluded and the offender has been convicted, at the point of sentencing, restorative justice still works. Rather than sentence the convict to a jail term, the magistrate or judge can sentence him to community service, or order him to go and meet his victim and make up.

From your explanation, it appears that this restorative justice is targeted at minor offences.

For us here, that is where we want to start but it can be applied in cases of murder, sexual offences e.t.c. To any kind of offence, restorative justice can apply. In fact, research has shown that restorative justice works best in serious offences. But you know our society, there might be a notion that we want to play soft on crime; but, no, restorative justice is even harder, when the offender has to go and say sorry to the victim and pay back; the public shaming is something that is not quite there in the retributive justice system.

But will this not breed a sense of ‘after all, if I am caught, all I will be asked to do is say sorry or pay back and if I don’t get caught, I will get away with it’?

No, it wouldn’t much more than the present system is doing. Before someone goes on an armed robbery operation, he believes he will not be caught, that is why they are armed not only with guns but also with charms and other weapons. But ultimately they get caught. The thing in restorative justice is that it appeals to your humanity, it appeals to your emotion and these are factors that you cannot underestimate their influence. So, retributive justice will not encourage or give rise to an indifferent disposition to crime. Rather, it brings people to face their crime and take responsibility. And I have not seen a sane person, who having apologised over a thing to a person, will ordinarily go back to that thing; it is difficult. Quite unlike what we have now, people commit crime and say the worst is that I will go to jail.

The prisons are populated mostly by able-bodied young men lying idle and without a form of capacity building. Does your campaign for retributive justice have a component for inmates’ empowerment?

We have a programme that predates the restorative justice. In the Prison Fellowship Nigeria, we try to do a holistic intervention when we deal with inmates and the things that take them to the prison. We have this programme that we started in 2009, called, ‘Life Recovery Pre-release Empowerment Programme’, aka, the Onesimus Project. It’s an 18-month project, six months pre-release and 12 months post-release. It’s one we run in partnership with Covenant University; Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria. And it’s because we recognise that most of the inmates are in prison owing to circumstances beyond them; it could be psychological, emotional or economic, so, while Prisons Fellowship handles the spiritual aspect to let them know the love of God and recover their dignity, SMEDAN comes in to empower them with business and entrepreneurial skills, now the Covenant University sends its clinical psychologist who has one-on-one interaction with the inmates that have been admitted into the Onesimus Project. Because of resources and space, the yearly admission into the Onesimus Project is limited. The maximum we take at a time is usually between 30 and 50. It is currently only in Lagos but our aspiration is to replicate it in all the states of the federation. We want to equip them so that when they come out, they won’t go and be idling under trees, marketplaces or motor parks and mingle with people that will lead them back to crime. We’ve not done a detailed research, but from our casual observation, the recidivism rate among those who have gone through that programme is around 20-25 per cent, whereas the general rate of recidivism is around 70 per cent. So, we are recording a huge success but the gap remains funding. We do not have funds to consolidate or solidify the post-release support, what we give them now is just seed money, to start, but it is beyond seed money. Some of them may not have accommodation, so we’ve been thinking of getting a half-way home. We got a parcel of land in Abuja for over five years now, but we’ve not had the fund to develop it because housing is a critical need for an inmate who leaves the prison. In Prison Fellowship, we have these good programmes in place but lack of fund has not allowed them to blossom the way they should. But the good thing is that we are managing the seeds and we believe that with public support, at least in appreciation that an inmate who has paid his price, needn’t be stigmatised and this involves the government as well. Because the government is, in one breath, saying let us move forward and in another breath, is saying, no, you can’t go. We need to remove from the statute book that requirement when you are applying for a job and there is that question: Have you ever been convicted? And once you say yes, that is the end. So, if after sentence he comes out and you are refusing him job, where are you sending him? You are sending him back to crime and prison. So, restorative justice is to check the flood into the prison, Onesimus Project is to check recidivism by empowering the inmates.

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