THE ETHICAL CHALLENGES AND PROSPECT OF PRISON PROJECT



INTRODUCTION TO LAW PRACTICE IV  
Before delving into the discussion on the challenges and prospect of prison project, it is apposite to understand what prison project is all about. Prison project is an annual pro-bono (free) outreach programme of the legal Clinic of the faculty of law, Ebonyi state university. It is a visit to the prison conducted by law students that provide free legal service to indigent persons. It is conducted for the purpose of ascertaining the conditions of the inmates in the prison, the conditions of the various prisons in Nigeria. It is also done for the purpose of decongesting the prisons in Nigeria.

            It is trite that the prison inmates consist of both those awaiting trial and those convicted of their various offences. In most case the awaiting trial inmates in prisons outnumber those already convicted. And due to the fact that those awaiting trial are and remain innocent until they are convicted by a court or tribunal for committing an offence under the law[1]. Thus, being in prison does not confer a status of “awaiting death” on the prisoner[2]. They are entitled to live like other citizens after the determination of their case[3]. Therefore, prison project is aimed at ensuring access to justice to this categories of prisoners. This is because trial cannot be regarded as “fair” if defendants lack legal representation and therefore unable to participate at the trial on an equal footing with the prosecution.
Having considered the meaning of prison project, let us now consider most of the ethical challenges faced in the course of this laudable programme.
1.         Lack of fund by the student:  By virtue of the fact that most students find it extremely difficult to cope with the demand of studying law in the university. Such student often always find it difficult in raising money so as to follow-up his client case. For instance, calling and visiting the families of the inmate in order to ascertain more fact that will be required in defending the client is often a difficult task to the student, especially if the family members of the inmate reside out side the state. Without fear of contradiction this particular problem has forced most students into staying in their rooms to cook facts in their reports, thereby harming the inmate in stead of saving him or her.
2.         Lack of public confidence on the student: This is another great challenge being faced by students engaged in prison project. By virtue of the fact that in Nigeria unlike many other countries, law students are not allowed to appear before any court until they are called to the Nigerian bar. The public are always skeptical about the ability of the student to release their family members who is in prison. This has resulted in a situation where the maximum co-operation needed by the student in following up his client case is denied. Also, this particular challenge has resulted in telling the inmate lies that such law student is a practicing lawyer, in a bid to enable the inmate disclose the whole fact of his case.
3.         Theoretical methods of teaching by most law lecturers: With due respect, the major challenge often encountered during prison project, is the difficulty of facing real life cases. This is due to the fact that Nigerian law faculties are dominated by traditional and theoretical methods of teaching. Most law teachers are used to the practice to dictating notes or issuing handouts to student who are used to being passive learners. For instance courses like criminal law and law of Evidence should be made a practical and interactive activity. A situation where a student of law cannot examine, cross-examine and re-examine after studying legal system, and law of evidence is due greatly to the method adopted in teaching such student. The implication is that such a student will be handicapped in interrogating hic client to determine whether or not such client is a liar.
4.         Lack of Staff Development Programmes:
            Due to the fact that law clinicians who engage in prison project lack the requisite competence in handling real life cases, qualified legal practitioner are often attached to the clinic in order to monitor and supervise the student activities. But it is unfortunate to observe that lack of incentive have over the years discourage this initiative. The universities often do not invest in staff development by providing scholarships and paid leave opportunities for these staffs. Also the law faculties, owing to poor pay, are unable to retain the services of many of it capable hands that are attracted to the banks, oil corporations and other greener pastures. Thus, in introducing law clinics, the faculties should deliberately embark upon staff development programmes as well as the provision of reasonable allowances that can encourage the members of staff to put in the extra efforts required by clinical programmes.
5.         Lack of Co-operation by most practicing lawyers:
            It is unfortunate to observe that most practicing lawyers do not welcome the activities of law student in the course of their prison project. It should be emphasized that law clinicians provide an important supplement (not a replacement) for the provision of the needed legal services to persons who would otherwise not have access to the legal system. With due respect most lawyers had erroneously believed that law clinician are competing with them. In this regard, if for instance the inmate visited by the student had already briefed a lawyer, and such an inmate obliges  the student the lawyer’s phone number, experience have shown that the lawyers are always not friendly in attending to such students. Thus, this is a challenge to the student in ascertaining the current position of such an inmate trial.
            From the above challenges identified, the followings are the prospect for an effective and efficient prison project:
1.         The rendering of pro-bono service should be encouraged, so as to enable law clinicians refer most of their client case to such persons for the follow-up. Pro-bono legal work, refers to the provision of legal assistance to indigents by attorneys without compensation but for the ‘public good’. The attorney General of the Federation and  minister of Justice, Chief Akin Olujinmi, SAN in September 2003, announced his plan to make the rendering of some pro-bono service one of the conditions for elevating lawyers to the prestigious rank of senior Advocate of Nigeria.[4] This is in agreement with the plan of the Nigerian Bar Association, the body of all practicing lawyers in Nigeria, to encourage its members to take up pro-bono cases as a way of fulfilling their social responsibility to the society[5].
2.         Establishment of Public interest law firms should also be encouraged. With this also, student clinicians can equally refer their client cases to them. These can play an important role in providing legal aid to poor people. In Nigeria, Public interest law bodies include the civil liberties Organisation, Constitutional rights Project, real Resources Consortium and Legal Defence And Assistance project (LEDAP). In Ebonyi State we have the public interest Law firm of Prof. Amaria Omaka located in Abakaliki.
3.         Efforts should be made in order to allow Law clinicians access and audience in court to defend their clients. The experience of the clinicians in other countries should be encouraged here in Nigeria. In the United States for instance, Law students have the right to appear in the courts of law under the supervision of their teachers or attorneys hosting them for internship[6]. In Nigeria, there seems to be no reason why law students, under supervision cannot handle small claims in the Magistrates and similar Courts once the relevant guidelines are put in place.

CONCLUSION
            The increase demand for greater access to justice by the poor and other vulnerable persons who cannot afford the services of legal practitioners, necessitated the prison project by Law clinicians. Thus, the great majority of the poor and disadvantaged people have no means of accessing the formal justice systems or of enjoying the human rights provisions of the constitution and international human rights instruments which are meant to protect them. One of the options available is the provision of assistance through legal aid clinics in the universities. Therefore, effort should be made to curb the challenges that have been identified in this work, in order to ensure effective and efficient prison project by law clinicians.                                             


[1] Section 36(5) of the 1999 constitution (as amended).
[2] See D.U. Ekumankama; “Criminology and Penology” (Jos New world publishers, 2007) p.211.
[3] Ibid.
[4] See Akinlolu Olojinmi, reforming the Justice sector in Nigeria- my Agenda (Federal ministry of Justice, Abuja, 2001)
[5] The N.B.A. has launched a scheme for the provision of legal assistance for indigent persons. It appears that if this scheme is operated in collaboration with the faculty of Law clinic better sustainability might be achieved.
[6] The same thing happens in Philippines.
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