By enyeribe ejiogu ([email protected])
These are not the best of times for officials of the Nigerian Prison Service, who must now be more vigilant and keep their eyes peeled, to detect the slightest indication of plans by prison inmates to break out of custody.
The reason, is the desire rumbling in the hearts of several of the 45,263 prison inmates awaiting trial. Among this huge population of inmates are diehard criminals arrested by the police and arraigned in court before they were remanded in prison following the adjournment of cases. While in custody, they form new gangs and begin to recruit new members and constantly probe the workings of the internal security systems of the prisons, seeking to identify loopholes they can exploit in their desperate bid to break out and evade justice. Such inmates have consistently been linked to jailbreaks in the country as happened recently when Maxwell Ajukwu and Solomon Amodu, escaped from the prison, leaving the prison officials looking like morons. Ajukwu and Amodu were being held at the Kuje Medium Prison, Abuja, for the alleged abduction and murder of Mrs. Edith Chinedu Aliyu, an Abuja socialite.
As reported in the media, the duo scaled the high wall of the prison with the aid of a plank while Muslim inmates and officials were breaking their Ramadan fast in the evening. It was said that some weeks before making their move, one of them was reported to have suddenly converted to Islam, having observed that security was often lax during the evening, when the Muslim officials usually let down their guard in solemn observance of the Ramadan. Their successful escape of course put the guards on duty that fateful day in jeopardy.
In Kogi State, 13 inmates broke out of the Koton Karfe Medium Security Prison, located on Opareke Road in the town, one Saturday morning, when security was lax at the weekend. The inmates were said to have used a dump truck left within the premises of the prison by construction workers to ram the wall and thereby made a big hole in it, through which they escaped. That incident was about the third time a prison break took place at the Koton Karfe penitentiary.
Again, at the Kuje prison, an incident which the then Controller of Prisons, Federal Capital Territory, Daniel Odahro, had described as a “minor riot” ensued when some inmates resisted the routine search of their cells by officials. Notwithstanding the efforts of the leadership of the Nigeria Prisons Service to put a spin on the incident, it was learnt that there was prolonged pandemonium. As the situation degenerated, the armed squad guarding the prison fired shots indiscriminately and threw teargas canisters, resulting in some inmates sustaining gunshot injuries. Though no inmate escaped, the situation could possibly have led to a jailbreak if it had not been brought under control.
When another incident happened at the Abakaliki Prison, Ebonyi State, it took no less a person than the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Prison Service, NPS, Mr. Ja’afaru Ahmed, to reassure the nation that no inmate escaped during the attempted prison break. He was at the time making a courtesy visit to Ebonyi State Governor David Umahi, after undertaking an inspection visit to Abakaliki prison to get a firsthand briefing on what transpired during the attempted jailbreak.
Briefly recounting what happened at Abakaliki Prison, in the wake of the incident, NPS spokesman, Francis Enobore, said: “They (inmates) suddenly became riotous, broke other cells and released the inmates. They eventually broke into the workshop to arm themselves with dangerous weapons and severely attacked some staff trapped in the yard while others made for the main gate and pulled it down.
“Meanwhile, the prisons Armed Squad and men from other security agencies on guard outside the perimeter fence were firing warning shots to deter the rampaging inmates but a number of them rushed out to escape. The bold attempt was resisted by the combined team of armed personnel who prevented what would have turned into a catastrophic security situation had the inmates succeeded in escaping.”
At the end of the fracas, six prisoners died and 10 others were injured. Six prison officers were severely injured. A very happy Ahmed commended the officers and men of Abakaliki Prisons for successfully foiling the attempted jailbreak and also thanked officers of other security agencies that promptly responded in resisting the jailbreak noting that such synergy was essential in maintaining peace and good order in the society.
Nigeria currently has 240 prison facilities, comprising 138 main prisons, 85 satellites, 14 Farm Centres and three Bortsal institutes, where about 63,000 inmates are incarcerated.
To say that Nigeria has been witnessing a rash of jailbreaks may sound like an understatement. The situation could soon become an avalanche. The obvious question agitating the minds of Nigerians is why the country is witnessing more prison breaks.
Lawyers who spoke with Sunday Sun reporter were unequivocal in their summation that the principal reason is the unacceptably high level of congestion in the prisons, which have literally burst at the seams as their carrying capacity have been overshot by more than 150 per cent.
Former Attorney General of Ekiti State, Olawale Fapohunda, blamed the state of the prisons for the tragic situation that results from jailbreaks, in an article published in Thisday newspaper. “It has taken the security breach in Kuje prisons to draw national attention to the sorry state of our prison facilities. Two inmates escaped from what is supposed to be a high security facility,” Fapohunda said.
On the vital issue of space, consider that Abakaliki prison was built in 1946 with an installed capacity of 387 inmates. But as at Thursday, August 18, 2016, there were 920 prison inmates with about 811 awaiting trial.
As at May 2016, Kuje Prison had 852 inmates out of which 639 were awaiting trial, representing 75 per cent of the total number of inmates. This fact came to light when a delegation of the Alumni Association of the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, Abuja chapter, led by Prof Kate Nwufor visited the prison. It is noteworthy that Kuje prison has an installed capacity of 560 inmates. The then Deputy Controller of Prison, Musa Tankoo, who received the delegation gave breakdown of the number of awaiting trial inmates: 183 were held for robbery; 18 for terror offences, 126 for drug-related offences and 98 for culpable homicide.
Now zoom to Nsukka Prison in the Southeast, the penitentiary designed to hold 180 inmates had about 500 incarcerated as at August 2016, when 15 inmates broke out and escaped.
“There is no doubt that there is acute congestion in our prisons caused by the high number of inmates awaiting trial,” said Chief Pat Anyadubalu, a Lagos-based lawyer, author and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress in Anambra State.
While agreeing with Anyadubalu, former legal adviser to the Prison Chaplaincy of Christ The King Catholic Parish, Shasha, Akowonjo, Lagos, Mrs Stella Ukegbu, explained the cause of the congestion in some detail: “The basic cause is the lack of access to justice. When the suspects are arraigned in court before a magistrate, especially for minor offences, they are often granted bail. Usually the magistrate would state the amount to be paid for the bail as well as the number and calibre of individuals who would serve as sureties. Most of these people find it difficult to perfect the bail – that is, meet the conditions for the bail. Majority of them are from poor families, and may not have anybody who can meet the criteria set by the court and stand as surety for them. In some cases, the family members may not be comfortable with the conduct of the accused and therefore reluctant to stick out their neck to act as surety, because the accused may jump bail, leaving their surety (sureties) to bear the consequence.
When the magistrate sees that they cannot perfect the bail, he would order that the accused person be remanded in prison and then adjourns further hearing in the matter to a future date. The accused person so remanded is registered in the particular prison, and assigned to a cell. From that moment he becomes a prison inmate awaiting trial.
When the adjourned date arrives, it is the responsibility of the prison officials where he is remanded to present him in court for continuation of trial. Prison officials only observe this in the lurch.”
In such situations, a number of scenarios play out. One, the investigating police officer (IPO) who acts as the prosecuting officer may not come to court on the adjourned date. The IPO’s absence may be because he had been transferred to another division within the state command or completely out of the state. The matter may not be re-assigned to another police officer for some time. Even if it is re-assigned, the new officer could give several excuses, ranging from the need to study the file or conduct fresh investigation to clear some ‘cobwebs’ over the matter or claim that the prosecution witnesses were not available to come to court to give evidence. Then he would ask for fresh adjournment on the matter. It would not matter that the accused person was in the court for continuation of hearing. The matter would simply be adjourned again, to give the prosecution time to put its house in order. Such adjournments may happen several times and the dates may be spaced far apart.
Either way, the matter is stalled and the accused is returned to the prison, where he continues to languish in prison, battered and dehumanized by a combination of the atrocious and inhuman conditions and other inmates who had been in the prison for long. This group exploits the vulnerability of the new inmate.
Anyadubalu harps on the role of the police in the enormous number of prison inmates awaiting trial. He explains: “Many criminal cases that are charged to court are civil matters or should not have gone to court in the first instance. In many instances police charge matters to court more as a punitive measure than the quest for justice. Police charge matters to court at the instance of the complainant and not because such cases have been examined and found to be meritorious. You hardly witness a situation where the police will decline to charge a matter to court for lack of credible evidence and advise the complainant to explore his right of private prosecution if he insisted on going to court.
He also blamed judicial officers for prolonging cases by either not sitting or not working hard enough to dispose of cases brought before the court. Moreover, the insistence by courts that certain percentage of the money be deposited as part of bail conditions. Anyadubalu argues that the demand by the Executive arm for tax clearance certificate and verification of the same makes fulfillment of bail conditions much more difficult. “The implementation of this means that any person charged to court must end in prison until these conditions are met. One appreciates the need for citizens to pay tax and for government to generate fund, however a court may act on tax documents presented to it by the defendant pending verification,” Anyadubalu said.
As Fapohunda explained, keeping thousands of persons in the prisons without trial is not simply a law, justice and human rights issue or about costs. “It is one of national security. The evidence of this can be seen first-hand in the on-going struggle of our security agencies including the Nigerian Military to find secure prison facilities for arrested insurgents who constitute a clear and on-going threat to the peace and stability of Nigeria.”
One effective way of preventing jailbreaks is for the police prosecuting officers “to ensure that only cases with prima facie evidence of commission of crime should be charged to court otherwise the complainant should be advised to explore civil court,” Anyadubalu posits, adding that the prosecuting officers should read between the lines to determine a genuine criminal act from a malicious criminal complaint. He cites the example of a landlord who lays allegation of commission of crime against a tenant and says that a case of such nature should be scrutinized to ensure it was not a ploy by the landlord to secure malicious treatment of the tenant and thereby force him out of the house.
In apparent recognition of the clear and present need to decongest the prisons as a way of preventing jailbreaks, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, in Nigeria has initiated a partnership with the Federal Government aimed at reducing the incessant jailbreaks recorded in some prisons across the country. The Country Representative of UNODC, Christina Albertina who spoke at a workshop in Abuja, said the justice project which is being funded by the the European Union is aimed at supporting improvement in prison conditions across the country and is being implemented at the federal level and other nine states – Anambra, Bayelsa, Benue, Cross River, Imo, Kastina, Lagos, Osun and Yobe.
The project, she said, will enhance the functioning of the justice sector, including reducing undue delays, improve prison conditions and reduce backlogs.
“Backlogs and undue delays in the trial of criminal cases and non-resolving of civil disputes remain key problems in the justice sector and is one of the main causes of very high number of awaiting trial detainees in prisons across Nigeria,” Albertina said.
Minister of Interior, General Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau (retd) told the gathering that non-custodial measures, which form part of the new direction in prison reform, are primarily designed for minor crimes or other special category of prisoners without restriction of confinement in prison custody.
Ultimately, Fapohunda believes, it would take the personal involvement of President Muhammaadu Buhari for prison reform to become a reality. “For what it is worth, it may be useful to restate a number of practical proposals for prisons reform. First, the self-evident truth is that change will not come to the prisons system without the personal intervention of Mr. President. The tough and possibly unpopular or politically incorrect decisions that need to be made require a hands on approach by Mr. President. For example what are we going to do with the more than 40,000 remand persons in our prisons, a quarter of who have spent upwards of five to 10 years awaiting trial? What do we do with the increasing population of persons on death row? Given the obvious weaknesses in our system, can we in fairness implement the death penalty? Similarly, change will not come to the prisons service if Ministerial interest is ad-hoc or limited to issues of employment, appointments and redeployment. The prisons cannot or in any case should not be administered on an ad-hoc basis. We urgently need to develop a sensible plan for prison reform that will deliver better outcomes and improve public safety.”
Timeline of jailbreaks, prison riots
February 2004: Riot in Ikoyi prison
2005: Attack on Port Harcourt and Onitsha prisons
September 6, 2007: Riot in Kano prison. Also in the same year, inmates at Agodi prison rioted.
June 3, 2009: 150 inmates broke out of Enugu Prison.
July 27, 2009: Boko Haram attacked Maiduguri Prison and freed 482 inmates
October 29, 2014: 366 inmates broke out of Mubi Prison following Boko Haram attack on the town.
April 26, 2010: Incident in Kaduna Prison
September 7, 2010: 721 inmates escaped from Bauchi prisons during a jailbreak precipitated by Boko Haram attack. Four inmates died in the incident.
April 22, 2011: 14 prisoners were freed by Boko Haram at the Yola prisons.
February 26, 2012: Gunmen set off bombs within the premises of Gombe Prison that left two inmates dead and many others injured in an attack on the facility to trigger a jailbreak.
On February 26, 2012: 119 inmates awaiting trial were broke out following an attack on Koton Karfe Prison in Kogi State
January 2, 2013: 20 inmates escaped Sagamu prison.
October 10, 2014: 10 inmates who attempted to break out of Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Lagos State shot dead by armed guards at the facility.
November 2, 2015: 144 out of 145 inmates broke out of Koton Karfe Medium Security Prison in Kogi State.
July 30, 2016: 13 inmates escaped from Koton Karfe Medium Security Prison in Kogi State. It was the third time in the history of the prison.