The Unending Prison Tensions

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The federal government should take deliberate steps to address the living conditions in the prisons and improve security around them to check unrest among inmates and jailbreaks, which are threatening the corrective purpose of the prisons. Vincent Obia writes

Given the difficult and unpleasant conditions in which they live, it is hard not to feel a certain sympathy for prison inmates each time there is a jailbreak or unrest in the prisons. Yet the danger such incidents pose to society cannot be overestimated. In the last one week, there have been at least two violent incidents in the prisons, with one resulting in the escape of some notorious suspects.

Penultimate Friday in Abuja, two culpable homicide inmates of the Kuje prisons, Maxwell Ajukwu and Solomon Amodu, reportedly, escaped in a jail break that caught the prison officials and security agencies napping. All attention had been focused on a high profile inmate, the suspected mastermind of the 2010 Independence Day bombings, Mr. Charles Okah, when news of the incident broke. He was later found to be in custody.

One week later, in Enugu, there was tension within the Enugu Prison following a protest by the inmates. They were said to be protesting against their bad treatment by the authorities of the prison. Though, there was no reported case of escape during the incident at the Enugu prison on Friday, many inmates were injured in the protest as prison and security officials tried to contain the unrest.

The federal authorities have ordered a beef up of security in and around the prisons in the wake of the recent incidents. There have also been reports about punitive measures against those in charge of the prisons where the latest cases occurred. But the effect of such reactions has always turned out to be, at best, tenuous. Nigeria requires fundamental policy and attitudinal changes to prevent the incidents that are threatening the corrective purpose for which the prisons were set up, and endangering the society.

That the living condition of people in the country’s prisons is inhuman and a great stimulus for restiveness among inmates is no longer news. What is worrying is the seeming indifference of the authorities to the abnormality.

The Nigeria government is alleged to spend a miserable N3.50k per day to feed a prison inmate in the country. The Legal Defence and Assistance Project, which disclosed this at a function in Lagos last year, said it was even the then new Comptroller-General of Prisons that raised the money devoted to each prisoner’s feeding from a previous N2.10k to N3.50k.

Yet Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Dambazau, told a town hall meeting in Kaduna last month that the federal government was spending N10 billion annually on feeding of prisoners in the country. With the country’s estimated prison population of 57,000, the government spends N14, 000 to feed a prisoner each per day on paper. But there is no evidence of this in practice, as the conditions and experiences of inmates show. Like in many public institutions in the country, appropriated funds hardly get to the prison inmates, obviously, due to corruption at various levels.

Add the bizarre feeding experience of prison inmates to the dirty and nasty conditions in which they live, and what do you get? A punitive consignment to a life of doom and gloom. This is unacceptable, it is a clear incentive for unrest and disorderly behaviour.

Some experts have also raised the issue of locating prisons in residential areas, which allows easy access to such facilities and often facilitates security breaches. “When prisons are located within towns or cities, inmates are bound to have frequent and unwarranted visitors, who can infiltrate the prisons with substances that could aid jailbreaks,” a prison official, Mr. Patrick Ani, said in March last year in Abuja at a stakeholders meeting organised by the National Human Rights Commission. The meeting was to discuss ways of reducing congestion and insecurity in the prisons.

The federal government should make conscious effort to address the living conditions of prisoners and fix the infrastructural decay in the prisons. It is the harsh conditions that have inadvertently turned the prisons to a place where citizens are hardened in criminality, rather than corrected.