Sunday, September 4, 2016

Nigeria’s dysfunctional prison system

There has been series of jailbreaks in Nigeria in recent time. Four has happened in the last three months. A report in Daily Trust of August 20, 2016 entitled “Prison break galore: Why jailbreaks persist in Nigeria” chronicled them as follows: Kuje Medium Prison jailbreak of June 24, 2016.  That incident led to the escape of two high profile inmates, Solomon Amodu and Maxwell Ajukwu (both standing trial for culpable homicide).  They are still at large. Again, on July 30, 2016, thirteen inmates escaped from the Koton Karfe Minimum Prison in Kogi State. The Nigeria Prisons Service claimed it had recaptured six of the escapees who are pre-trial detainees. However, the remaining five are still at large.

On August 8, 2016, there was another jailbreak in Nsuka, Enugu State where 15 inmates, comprising 10 pre-trial detainees and three convicts allegedly escaped from the prison. Just ten days after, there was an attempted jailbreak, this time, in Ebonyi State.  The Abakaliki Prison, built by the British Colonial Government to accommodate 300 inmates presently houses no fewer than 1,000 inmates.  However, unconfirmed reports has it that about six persons were shot dead while few others sustained injuries from gunshots.

What is responsible for incessant jailbreaks in Nigeria? It’s largely due to our dysfunctional prison system which is a sub-sect of the wider justice sector decadence. News report has it that 72 per cent of the occupants of Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial inmates. The Leadership newspaper of August 31, 2016 quoted the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as saying that out of the 67,000 prisoners held in various Nigerian prisons, those awaiting trial make up 72 per cent of the figure. UNODC   lamented that these awaiting trial inmates wallowed in detention on an average of 3.7 years between arrest and actual commencement of trial. The newspaper’s independent findings also revealed that 95 per cent of riots, escapes and jailbreaks are perpetrated by this category of inmates. As the popular saying goes, ‘justice delayed, is justice denied’. It is an unjust and unfair system like ours that will keep detainees in perpetual prison custody for so long without proper trial and expect such suspects to behave themselves. It is normal for ATI to become restive and want to leave our hellish prison where the most basic facilities are lacking.

The Daily Trust report earlier referenced noted some obvious lapses in the country’s prison administration which include:  overcrowding caused by delay in the administration of justice; inadequate personnel to man the prisons facilities; unmotivated personnel who work twelve-hour shifts; lack of modern equipment needed in prison administration and lack of logistics (serviceable and well secured vehicles) to convey inmates to courts.  The newspaper gave the statistics of prison inmates as follows:  “Kuje Prison with 560 inmate capacity locks 804 prisoners out of which 576 are awaiting trial. Also, Koton Karfe prison has a capacity of 160 prisoners but keeps 263 with 228 awaiting trial while Port Harcourt prison, built in 1918 for 804 prisoners, now houses 3,849 with 3,356 awaiting trial.  Abakaliki prison has an inmate population of 922 out of which 793 are awaiting trial.” The newspaper gathered that as a result of congestion, the convicted and awaiting trial inmates are being kept together, against procedure.

The Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau said most of the prisons in the country are either a century old or badly constructed.  He reportedly claimed to have alerted the Prisons authorities on the security loopholes in the prison formations across the country immediately he assumed duty as Minister. Unfortunately, his advice, he alleged, was ignored, hence the jailbreaks. He also claimed that top officers of the service were to be held responsible for the continuous jailbreaks in the country. He accused them of not doing what is required to ensure the security of the prisons “like patrolling the prisons, manning the towers, keeping records, knowing how many prisoners you have by names, not by numbers”, saying this is a function of failed leadership.

The indiscipline within Nigerian prisons could have aided jailbreaks. Other unprofessional conducts by Nigeria prison staff include:  aiding and abetting inmates to access hard drugs such as marijuana and other narcotics; preferential treatment of inmates who are politically exposed or very rich after heavy financial inducements (there was allegation that Kuje Prison in Abuja which does not have female inmates has predominance of female warders some of which get into inappropriate relationships with VIP prisoners). There was also unproven claim that some prison staff sexually abuse female prisoners. It is puzzling that some female inmates get pregnant and have children in prison custody. How did this happen?  Sadly, some of the children are kept with their mothers in prisons. It was also alleged that some convicts do get someone else to serve their prison term after compromising the prison officials. These are grave allegations that Minister of Interior and indeed the Comptroller General of Prisons should investigate.

Nigeria Prison Service has not been condoning indiscipline within the rank and file of its staff. According to the earlier referenced Daily Trust newspaper report, on Monday, August 15, 2016, twenty-three Prisons Officers were dismissed, while another 11 got suspended for the first three jailbreaks. Similarly, the Comptroller-General of Prisons, Ahmed Ja’afaru in his capacity, approved the dismissal of seven junior staff serving in Kuje Medium Security prison and 10 other junior staff serving in Koton Karfe prison also implicated in the escape saga, while the officer in charge of Nsukka Prison DCP Okonkwo Lawrence and 10 others have been suspended over the recent prisoners’ escape from the prison.

In order to decongest our prisons, a forum was recently held in Abuja. A national conference on ‘Effective Implementation of Non-Custodial (Alternatives to Imprisonment) Measures in Nigeria,’ took place on August 30, 2016. The conference was jointly organised by the Nigeria Prisons Service, International Corrections and Prisons Association and Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, but sponsored by the UNODC. At the conference, UNODC Country Representative, Christina Albertin said there is an initiative aimed at supporting the efforts of the Nigerian government to improve justice delivery through effective coordination and cooperation among justice sector institutions with improved legal and policy framework, among others. She explained that the project is being funded by the European Union and would be implemented at the federal level and in nine states of the federation. She listed the focal states to include Anambra, Bayelsa, Benue, Cross River, Imo, Kastina, Lagos, Osun and Yobe.

At the event the Interior Minister noted that the non-custodial measure was primarily designed for minor crimes or other special category of prisoners without restriction of confinement while in prison custody. The minister reeled out the benefits of non-custodial measures to include saving offenders from the trauma of imprisonment, preventing further crime contamination through prison informal socialisation process, offering the opportunity for genuine penitence, promoting effective re-integration of offenders and reducing the financial burden on government in the administration of criminal justice. Given these numerous benefits I think it’s high time Nigeria fully embraced non-custodial measures as alternative to imprisonment. Nigerian government should stop abusing the rights of prisoners particularly awaiting trial inmates who have right to speedy trial. Indeed, prisoners and ex-convicts have right to education, vocational training, health, and voting at elections. Enough of aforementioned discriminations and injustices!

Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.