There is urgent need to reform the prison system in the country
A fortnight ago, the Nigeria Prisons Service (NPS) confirmed that six prisoners who attempted to escape from the Abakaliki Prisons were shot dead by security operatives while 10 others were injured. Six NPS officers were also declared severely injured in the tragic incident, which came after earlier jailbreaks in Kuje, Nsukka and Koton Karfe prisons. Not only did it tell a compelling story about the state of insecurity in our country that there would be four jailbreaks within two months, it also depicted the level of laxity in the system. Therefore, beyond investigating the jailbreaks, it is also important to review the conditions in our prisons that encourage such morbid desperation.
Indeed, the series of jailbreaks reflected the lack of attention to the prison system in general and its infrastructure in particular. Nearly all our prisons were built by either the colonialists or First Republic politicians and they were designed for smaller population of inmates and a different type of criminals. These were originally prisons for petty thieves of livestock, minor infractions and light felonies. Their populations were also meant to be small and more manageable. That perhaps explained why in the 1960s, unarmed prison wardens would escort prisoners out for community service and watched them sang as they cut the grass in hospital premises. The wardens then carried only batons!
However, the sociology of crime and punishment has been altered by the realities of the times. Criminals are now many, varied and generally hardened. The nature of crime has also changed from stealing goats and chickens to robbing banks, emptying state treasuries and kidnapping for ransom, etc. With that, our notion of punishment has migrated from correction to something more punitive while most of the prisons are now overcrowded and ill-maintained. It is therefore no surprise that inmates who should have served their term, content that the state would at least cater for them while it lasts, are forced to revolt and seek escape to the uncertainty of the outside world.
Tackling such a challenge requires fresh thinking. As things stand today, Nigeria is wasting scarce resources on the maintenance of a prison system that has collapsed under a distorted federalism. Whereas no fewer than 95 per cent of inmates are alleged to have breached state laws, the prisons housing them are owned and maintained by the federal government without any contribution whatsoever from the state governments. Out of 55,000 inmates currently within the Nigerian prison system, only 12,000 have been convicted. Even at that, some of those who have been condemned to death have been waiting for the hangman for over 20 years!
In Nigeria today, a detainee who carries the toga of Awaiting Trial (AT) may well spend a decade waiting for a prison term that could have lasted for less than 12 months. This is due to a combination of poor investigation by police, delays by counsel, lack of firmness on the part of the magistrates and judges, as well as the dysfunction that hampers the prison efficiency in transporting the inmates to and from the courts for their trials. More importantly, the physical structure of most of these colonial era prisons has become so dilapidated that all that a group of determined prisoners and detainees need do is give the flimsy wall a little nudge and it would collapse.
To compound these challenges, the corruption within the prison system is mind-boggling. As there are no rich people among prison inmates, the few who are usually brought in for a few days to await rulings on bail applications are kept in special apartments upon payment of fat bribes. Meanwhile, poor inmates pay to be taken to hospitals when they are sick, pay to make phone calls, pay for diesel to power the prison generator and they are denied access to families, friends and lawyers. On top of it all, the contracts for supplying food to feed all prisoners in the 36 states of the federation are centrally awarded in Abuja!
What this ugly scenario therefore presents is the need for the relevant authorities within the judiciary, the legislature, the police, the bar and other critical stakeholders to come together and find a better framework for reforming our prison system. • To be concluded on Tuesday
The sociology of crime and punishment has been altered by the realities of the times. Criminals are now many, varied and generally hardened. The nature of crime has also changed from stealing goats to robbing banks and kidnapping for ransom. With that, our notion of punishment has migrated from correction to something more punitive while most of the prisons are now overcrowded and ill-maintained