Prison staff need to be properly trained and equipped to withstand the pressure from all sides

The recent jailbreak at the Kuje Maximum Prison in Abuja, in the course of which two notorious suspects escaped, has once again brought into sharp focus the challenge of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS). That 14 officers would be suspended over the development is very telling of its gravity. While the Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services Board (CDFIPB) approved the suspension of four senior officers, the Comptroller-General of Prisons has also suspended 10 junior staff over the incident.

However, beyond the punishment meted to certain officials, no tangible lessons would be learned if the Kuje jailbreak is treated as an isolated incident. It is not. Across the country, the prisons where convicts and suspects are sent for punishment or custody have over the years become sources of internal security threats thanks to fire incidents, jailbreaks and armed terrorist attacks. In recent years, some of the places affected include Maiduguri, Kano, Bauchi, Enugu and Koton Karfe, amongst others.

While jailbreaks are not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, they assumed a dangerous dimension during the height of militancy in the Niger Delta when gunmen would break into some prisons to free their members. But that era paled in significance when compared to the orgy of violence, notoriety and impunity with which the actors in the present jailbreaks operate in different parts of the country.

In one particular incident three years ago, gunmen invaded Oko Prisons in Benin City, Edo State and reportedly freed about 12 inmates many of whom are still at large thereby constituting a grave security risk to the country. At about the same period, some armed hoodlums invaded Koton Karfe Prisons, Kogi State, and freed 119 inmates who successfully escaped, and only 43 were said to have been re-arrested.

As we have repeatedly argued on this page, the rise in prison attacks could be traced to the increasing wave of crime in our country—from armed robbery to kidnappings and of course the Boko Haram insurgency. Prisons that have been neglected over the years are now over congested as there is little or no infrastructure development to match the increase in the number of inmates.

However, the most dangerous development is the complacency or connivance of some prison staff in aiding these criminals to execute their evil acts with military precision. We assume that some form of collusion happened in the Kuje incident and that may have accounted for the suspension of some officials but we do not believe that was enough deterrence. Anybody found to have colluded with prisoners to escape should face prosecution.

Indeed, without prejudice to whatever may have been the findings of the committee established to investigate the Kuje incident, we believe that jailbreaks are difficult without some form of internal collusion. A former Interior Minister, Mr. Abba Moro, alluded to this ugly trend when he warned after the Koton Karfe’s prison break three years ago that comptrollers of prison would henceforth be held responsible for jailbreaks in their respective commands. Moro observed that officers were not doing enough to safeguard the prisons, and pointed out that the ease with which inmates in Bauchi, Port Harcourt and Koton Karfe were set free by hoodlums posed a serious challenge to the service.

However, the sophistication with which some of these armed groups carry out their attacks also seems to overwhelm the prison guards who might not have been well trained in intelligence gathering and weapon handling. To that extent, we call on the authorities to equip and retrain those who man our prisons. Since most of the jailbreaks are both a reflection of the growing sophistication of criminals and the apparent inefficiency of prison officials, it is time to find a lasting solution to the problem.