On June 24, 2016, there was a successful jailbreak in the Kuje Prison, Abuja, wherein two awaiting-trial inmates, identified as Maxwell Ajukwu and Solomon Amodu, escaped.
Twenty-six days after this, on July 30, another jailbreak happened at the Koton Karfe Prison in Kogi State. This time, 13 inmates successfully scaled the prison wall.
Eleven days after the Kogi jailbreak, on August 10, 25 inmates also escaped from the Nsukka Prison, Enugu State, in another successful jailbreak.
On August 18, the Abakaliki Prison, Ebonyi State, was thrown into pandemonium following a foiled jailbreak. The ensuing riot resulted in the death of six inmates while four prison officers were injured.
On August 29, mayhem broke out in the Kuje Prison, as inmates resisted a move by the prison officers to search their cells for illegal items. The riot happened 11 days after the attempted jailbreak at the Abakaliki Prison.
In response to the Kuje and Koton Karfe jailbreaks, authorities of the Nigerian Prison Service, led by the Controller-General of Prisons, Ahmed Ja’afaru, dismissed 17 prison officials in August.
Similarly, the Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services Board, in a letter signed by its Secretary, Alhaji A. A. Ibrahim, also dismissed another six prison officials in relation to the jailbreaks.
The immediate aftermath of the Nsukka jailbreak was the suspension of 11 officers, including the prison’s controller, to pave the way for investigation.
Some human rights lawyers, working closely with the prison service, by virtue of their criminal defence activities, told our correspondent that the successive jailbreaks were a product of the deep rot in the Nigerian prison system begging to be urgently addressed.
They described the sacking of the 23 complicit officials in the recent jailbreaks as only a face-saving or superficial effort, which would not be enough to fix the inherent problems in the Nigerian prison system.
The problems with the Nigerian prisons are myriad and notorious.
Experts, who spoke with our correspondent, summed them up as mostly a product of under-funding, outdated legislation and inefficiency, which reflect in the form of old and dilapidated prison structures, overcrowded cells, gross shortage of prison vans to convey inmates to court for trial, poorly paid and unmotivated prison officials, to mention but a few.
A former Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Ekiti State, Mr. Olawale Fapohunda, said, “Our prisons have, over the years, been a source of concern due to overcrowding, understaffing, lack of adequate medical care, inadequate provisions for female and juvenile detainees, poor administration, long detention of those awaiting trial and limited access to legal advice and representation. These have frequently led to poor health conditions including frequent jailbreaks.”
Fapohunda, who is the Chairman of a joint committee of the Nigerian Prisons Service and the National Human Rights Commission on the Review of the Prisons Act, noted that while Nigeria had 240 prison facilities across the country – comprising 138 main prisons, 85 satellites, 14 Farm Centres and three borstal institutions – the Nigeria Prisons Service could only boast of 28, 065 officers.
“With the imminent retirement of many officers in the period between 2014 and 2016, this number may drop by as much as 4,000,” he added.
For the Director of Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative, Ahmed Adetola-Kazeem, the recent jailbreaks were an indication of institutional failure.
He said, “The recent jailbreaks in the country are clearly an indication of institutional failure. They are an indication of the failure of the Nigerian state. Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, ‘The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.’ Some of the factors responsible are neglect of the prisons by the Federal Government, overcrowding, understaffing, dilapidated prison structures and high level of corruption among prison officials amongst other factors.
“Sacking of prison officers is not a solution to jailbreaks. There is need to tackle the root cause of the jailbreaks.”
The NHRC had in a 2012 audit of the Nigerian prisons, submitted that prison structures across many parts of the country were old and dilapidated as most of them were built in the 19th Century by the British colonial masters.
The Azare, Bauchi, Ningi and Misua prisons built in 1816, 1820, 1827 and 1831 respectively were ready examples.
According to the NHRC report, on account of poor sanitary condition, absence of recreational facilities, overcrowded cells among other acute failures, the Nigerian prisons have remained “punitive centres” rather than being “reformatory homes, where persons who come in conflict with the law are sent for reformation and eventually reintegrated into the society as better persons.”
Fapohunda told our correspondent that as of June this year, the population of inmates in prisons across the country was 63, 142. Out of this number, 45, 623, representing 72.3 per cent were awaiting-trial inmates, while only 27.7 per cent had been convicted, he added.
“The rate of overcrowding in Nigerian prisons in general is 70 per cent, however, there are specific prisons with overcrowding rate of 90 per cent,” Fapohunda said.
It is instructive that as of the time of the Koton Karfe jailbreak on July 30, the prison facility with a holding capacity of 180 inmates was accommodating 263 inmates.
The July 30, 2016 jailbreak at Koton Karfe was the third between 2010 and this year.
The National Coordinator of the Legal Aid Defence and Assistance Project, Mr. Chino Obiagwu, said jailbreak was inevitable when people, who had a brush with the law are kept in prison awaiting trial in perpetuity.
He said, “People are agitated. You lock up somebody who is presumed innocent for so many years and nobody is talking about trial and nobody is giving them information, it’s natural for people to become violent in such a situation especially in our prisons with institutional lapses.
“It is a failure of the entire justice system not to respect people who come in conflict with the law, not to recognise that they are presumed innocent and to treat their cases expeditiously.
“There are people who were arrested for terrorism and have been there for five years without trial, it’s natural especially for such people to revolt. And that’s exactly what we are seeing. And of course, one successful jailbreak motivates another; it has a ripple effect. It is a call on the government to do something right away. The government should embark on a prison audit to identify people who have stayed for more than a year in the prison, to give their cases urgent attention.”
Obiagwu said the problem of overcrowding and jailbreak could not be divorced from the undue delay in the nation criminal justice- system, resulting in a huge number of awaiting trial inmates.
Fapohunda noted that over the years, while the number of states and local governments areas in the country were increasing due to creation of new ones, with attendant multiplication of police and courts’ jurisdictions, there was no corresponding increase in the number of prison facilities.
He said, “The prison facilities did not multiply by same geometric proportions in which police, courts and ministries of Justice, which are components of the criminal justice system, expanded during the creation of states and local governments. This political development increased the scope and operations of the police and the courts and led to an increase in the number of suspects and convicts committed to prison.
“The majority of persons in prisons are remand prisoners. The inability of the courts to process cases of persons charged with criminal offences quickly has led to congestion in our prisons.”
According to him, one of the main reasons for the inability of the courts to expeditiously process criminal cases was shortage of prison vans to convey inmates to court for their trials.
He said, “Specifically, the total number of vehicles available for the NPS to transport offenders to courts nationwide is 268, with a coverage area of 774 local governments areas and 5,022 courts across the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory.”
Under poor conditions such as are found in the Nigerian prisons, the chances that an inmate would be reformed are slim or non-existent.
It is not unnatural for a prisoner who feels hopeless and dehumanised to resort to jailbreak, especially because the system that is supposed to rehabilitate them has rather broken their spirit.
In Fapohunda’s view, the Nigerian Prisons Service is not living up to its mandate of providing secure custody for those committed to its care by the courts.
He said, “Inmates are housed in squalid and congested cells due to lack of structures. Most of the prisons in use are pre-colonial and colonial prisons built almost 100 years ago.
“In recent times, cell blocks have been built in some of the prisons but they are quickly used up. Out of the 47 prisons proposed by the Federal Government in 1980 to expand prisons in 10 years, only 20 have been completed 35 years after. None of these are modern in any sense.”
As long as Nigerian prisons are overpopulated, Fapohunda said they would never attain the dream of turning out truly reformed prisoners, ready to be reintegrated into the society.
At the root of the uproar at Kuje Prison on August 29 was corruption among prison officers, who aid and abet inmates in smuggling contraband items into the cells.
The lack of professionalism, said to be rife within the Nigerian Prisons Service rank on account of corruption, is also a bane of the institution.
Fapohunda said, “Corruption is one of the factors that have adversely affected the prisons service. The non-investigation of allegations of graft in the appointment and promotion of prison officers and the pervasiveness of forged birth and education certificates have been an obstacle towards achieving professionalism and efficiency in the administration of prisons.
“The effect of this is general loss of morale and widespread lack of confidence in the service. This last factor is at the root of the disloyalty displayed by staff in recent times.”
The experts who spoke with our correspondent said the successive jailbreaks recorded in recent times should be a wake-up call for the government to address the problems with the nation’s prisons.
The danger of having unreformed criminals released into the society from the prisons, they said, was real.
Fapohunda said prison law reform was the first step in tackling the rot in the system.
“The Prisons Act 1972 is palpably outdated. The Act does not provide for the proper and efficient administration of prisons, protection of human rights and upholding of international standards. The need, therefore, for a new Prisons Act that would bring the prisons regime in line with constitutional and international human rights standards cannot be overemphasised,” he said.
The law reform that Fapohunda talked about, Adetola-Kazeem said must include the review of the law which placed the Nigerian Prisons Service under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior alongside the Nigeria Police and paramilitary services like the Fire Service, the Immigration Service and the Civil Defence Corps.
He said, “The board overseeing the activities of the prison presently is the Immigration, Custom and Prisons Services Board. The prison, which holds the deadliest of criminals and which is a reformation centre for evil-minded individuals, is too important to be lumped together with other agencies, hence a need to have a separate Prisons Board, which will ensure quick resolution of the problems bedevilling the prisons.
“There is a need to increase the funding of the prisons and to ensure the money allotted is judiciously spent. The funds will ensure the building of modernised prison and rehabilitation of old ones in order to combat overcrowding and also making it difficult for jailbreak to occur.”
Fapohunda and Adetola-Kazeem hold the common view that the prison officials should be trained, equipped and well remunerated.
Fapohunda said, “Any improvement in conditions for prisoners will be dependent on prison staff having a pride in their work and a proper level of competence. The conditions of service under which the prison staff work are grossly inadequate. The pay is poor and cannot match the dangers, emotional stress and social isolation to which prison officers are exposed. It is obvious that inadequately motivated staff cannot find satisfaction in their jobs neither can they be expected to perform optimally.”
Adetola-Kazeem added, “The government should employ more adequately trained prison officials who should be provided with sophisticated equipment and weapons to combat crimes and security threats in the prisons.
“There should be zero tolerance for corruption of prison officials who extort money from inmates and senior officials who divert funds meant for the welfare of prisoners and prison officials.”
To tackle the problem of jailbreak and other challenges in the Nigerian prisons headlong, Fapohunda recommended:
- Modernising prison facilities.
- Procuring additional vehicles for the NPS.
- Better endowment for prisons education, vocational training and rehabilitation programme.
- Improving physical structure of prison officers’ accommodation and training facilities .
- Review of training curriculum for prison officers.
- Use of IT in prisons.