The prisons need more attention

The number of jailbreaks across the country increased last Sunday night with an attack on Minna Medium Security Prison which led to the death of a prison officer and a motorbike rider as well as the escape of several of the inmates. That we have lost count of the number of jailbreaks in the country in recent years not only tells a compelling story about the state of insecurity in our country, it also depicts the level of laxity in the system. Therefore, beyond investigating the Minna jailbreak and making efforts to re-arrest the prisoners who have escaped, it is also important to review the conditions that encourage such morbid desperation.

Indeed, as we have argued in the past, the series of jail breaks reflect the lack of attention to the prison system in general and its infrastructure in particular. While 182 of the escaped prisoners from Minna are still at large, Minister of Interior, Lt.-Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd) who visited the prison on Monday attributed the attack to a serious security breach. “Among the escapees were two condemned criminals whose death warrants were supposed to have been signed by a governor today (Monday). That is probably part of the motivation for this prison break”, said Dambazau.

Nearly all our prisons in the country 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 explains why in the 60s, unarmed prison wardens would escort prisoners out for community service and watch them sing 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.

More importantly, the horrific conditions prevailing in Nigerian prisons are scandalously degrading to humanity such that after spending long jail terms, inmates come out as hardened criminals and terrors to the society. Meanwhile, most of the prisons are archaic with statistics and profiles of prisoners kept in old and worn out files. Therefore, finding themselves in the hell hole without speedy trial, the prisoners are so desperate to do anything, including the risk of being killed, to regain their freedom through jailbreaks.

Tackling such a challenge requires fresh thinking. 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.

What this ugly scenario 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.