The role of community leaders in the reintegration of ex-prisoners: UNODC promotes dialogue in North East Nigeria

Borno State, February 2023 – The Nelson Mandela Rules state that the primary purpose of imprisonment or similar restrictions on a person's liberty is to protect society from crime and to prevent recidivism. This objective can only be achieved if the period of imprisonment is used to prepare the individual, as much as possible, for reintegration into society as a law-abiding and self-sufficient citizen. Unfortunately, former inmates, even those who are released without charge, face significant obstacles in reintegrating into their communities due to factors such as stigma, rejection, hostility, and distrust. It was in response to these challenges that UNODC organized the first dialogue between the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS) and community leaders in Maiduguri, Borno State, to foster a mutual understanding of the responsibilities of various stakeholders in the reintegration of former offenders. The dialogue follows an initial meeting between UNODC and the Digma of Borno State at the palace of the Shehu of Borno State in September 2022.

 The role of community leaders in social reintegration

Community leaders, including traditional and religious leaders as well as local civil society organizations, are crucial in aiding former inmates to reintegrate successfully back into their communities after completing their sentences. These leaders have strong ties to their communities and can play a role in mediating between ex-offenders and any individuals they may have wronged, while also encouraging their active participation in the community as law abiding citizens. This was emphasized by a participant in the dialogue who stressed the importance of the Bulamas (Ward Heads) in addressing the stigma faced by former inmates during reintegration, due to their close relationship with local communities and their ability to connect with people at the grassroot level.

 Rehabilitation and social reintegration

During the dialogue, community leaders considered ways to support the successful reintegration of former inmates back into their communities. The strategic dialogue also provided the NCoS with the opportunity to share up-to-date information on the various vocational courses being offered by the service, particularly in Borno State custodial centres. These programs, which include tailoring and masonry, were enhanced by the provision of new equipment and facilities under various UNODC prisons and penal reform projects. Community leaders expressed their appreciation for the NCoS's efforts to rehabilitate inmates and help them reintegrate into society, but also emphasized the importance of providing adequate counseling services.

One representative mentioned an instance in which a former Boko Haram fighter (a boy who had been forced to join Boko Haram but since put down his arms), was confused when he saw people digging a hole and asked if they were going to kill someone. According to the speaker, this demonstrated the trauma the child had experienced and underscored the need for intense psychosocial support for former fighters and inmates. The participants also stressed the importance of extensive rehabilitation for inmates, as failure in this regard would only lead to renewed tensions between the communities and ex-inmates and contribute to repeat offenses.

 Call to action

In his remarks on behalf of the NCoS the Deputy Controller of Corrections, Abdulazeez Mohammed Jibia, reaffirmed the NCoS’ commitment to fulfil its mandate in respect of reforming inmates in their custody through the provision of various vocational and academic courses, which contribute towards the rehabilitation of inmates and enable them to be law abiding citizens upon their release. He called on the community leaders to support the work of NCoS in respect of social reintegration by sensitizing the public.

Joining the call of action, Bulama Musa Abdullahi, the Ward Head of Moromti community in Konduga Local Government Area, stated, “Traditional rulers are now tasked to go back to the community and sensitise them on the mandate of the efforts of the NCoS to reform inmates and prepare them for a productive life upon release from custodial centres.”

Also accepting the call to action, the Borno State Programme Manager of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Mr. Ibrahim Muhammad Sa’ad, stated, “The JNI as a faith-based organisation, will sensitise other Islamic faith-based organisations and religious leaders on the importance of tolerance and forgiveness, especially to the inmates, and will request them to pass it down to their followers. This will cover all Islamic religious leaders, including Sunni and Shia.”

 UNODC in Nigeria

Our work on prison and penal reform aims to improve public safety through enhanced dignity and humane treatment of incarcerated people, in line with the UNODC Strategic vision for Nigeria 2030.

 Thank you

A special thank you to our donor, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the U.S. State Department. This strategic discussion marks the beginning of a series of discussions planned between the Nigerian Correctional Service and community leaders in Borno, Adamawa, and Gombe States under the project titled ‘Strengthening the Capacity of the Nigerian Correctional Service in the North-Eastern States’. The project aims to ensure that inmates have effective access to justice; are treated in line with their human dignity; and are able to support themselves self-sufficiently upon release, thereby reducing recidivism and the risk of Boko Haram and other criminals of recruiting new followers from amongst the (former) prison population.