‘They are over 15 mentally ill people in this prison’
From Emmanuel Uzor, Abakaliki
In the past, the Federal Prisons, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, played host to many heavyweight politicians, prominent among them being the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, elder brother of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Then, nobody knew that being incarcerated in Abakaliki Prison was one of the greatest punishments one could get, until recently when the inmates took the law into their hands to force the iron bars open to regain their freedom.
During the jailbreak that occurred on August 8, 2016, many lives were lost and scores were injured.
The incident exposed the dehumanising conditions in which the inmates served time in the prison.
The prison in Abakaliki was established in 1946 to hold a maximum of 387 inmates, but today over 1,000 inmates are crammed in the facility, making it a congested and volatile facility where the condition of the inmates is pathetic and miserable.
Located in the heart of the capital city, a short distance away from Government House, Abakaliki, the state police headquarters and the Federal Teaching Hospital, the condition of the inmates in the prison depicts a death sentence before an actual death sentence, for those who survive to tell their story.
Recently, when the special team from the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC), led by Executive Secretary, Prof. Ben Angwe, visited the prison, most of the inmates were awaiting trial with the majority of them being mentally sick, under-aged and even innocent children who should be in school.
The cells are not only inadequate to accommodate the inmates but a large part of the structure was built with mud which has given rise to various health problems among the inmates.
The only building built with cement or modern materials was the security fence that was meant to prevent jailbreaks and keep the prisoners inside.
Other areas that depict decay and neglect are the septic tanks and soak-away pits, which have become death trapsm with some of them on the verge of collapse.
The pits, which were covered with concrete slabs, were constructed at strategic spots in the prison yard, making it a must for one to walk over them to get to the other side of the prison.
Oriental News gathered that over 811 inmates in Abakaliki prison are awaiting trial, while about 200 have been convicted.
Among the inmates awaiting trial was a woman who made the headlines recently because it was revealed that she was accused of stealing cocoyam worth N400.
She has been there for a very long time with her two children.
Though Governor David Umahi, through the advocacy of the NHRC has ordered the release of the woman, some other inmates who were not as lucky are still languishing in the jail over minor offenses.
In the case of Abakaliki prison, according to Angwe, a worrisome favtor was the stringent bail conditions given by magistrates in the state for various minor offences, such as the magistrate who gave the woman who accused of stealing cocoyam bail conditions that included two sureties on Grade Level 16; he wondered where a woman who could be tempted to steal N400 worth of cocoyam could get such person from.
Angwe, leading the delegation from the NHRC on a courtesy call to Umahi at Government House after inspecting the prison,disclosed that more than 15 inmates awaiting trial in the prison were now insane and require urgent medical attention.
“Two weeks back, when I led a team of the commission on an assessment of the situation in the Abakaliki prisons, we found very a pathetic situation. The situation was that the inmates awaiting trial are more than 80 per cent and that has been the situation for years.
“Sadly, if you enter any of the prison cells, you find out that the inmates have nowhere to sit, lay or squat. In the night, they take turns to sleep; some of them sleep for two hours and they are woken-up for other inmates to sleep. So many cases there are very pathetic.
“We saw a woman with two children in the prison. She was accused of stealing cocoyam of N400. They refused to grant her bail. They made difficult the bail condition for her that required two sureties who are on Level 16 in the civil service. You can imagine somebody who was accused of stealing N400 worth of cocoyam, what access will she have to a Level 16 official of government?
“There were some other women there with children who have this kind of pathetic conditions. There is an old man who has been there for 11 years without trail and if the person is discharged, what amount of compensation will be adequate for someone who has been there for 11 years without trial?
“There are more than 15 persons there who are mentally sick. These are our brothers who require medical attention and they are there. Something urgent must be done to save their conditions”, he said.
Responding, Umahi regretted that the prisons service authorities have not paid attention to his letters on the need to rehabilitate the facility.
He said if after seven days the authorities refused to do something, the state government would be forced to embark on construction of a befitting prison for the inmates and directed the Commissioner for Lands and Survey to immediately commence the process of re-constructing the prison.
Umahi noted that the bad condition of the prisons contributed to the inmates becoming mentally deranged, adding that the inmates were mentally sound before coming to the prisons where they developed the mental illness, describing the prisons as not habitable.
The Ebonyi State Comptroller of the prisons, Mrs Emilia Oputa said that lack of adequate staff was threatening the prisons, noting that “we don’t have enough staff but we have collapsed shift. We used to have three shifts; we have morning, afternoon and night, but we have made it to be two so as to manage the inmates very well.”