jailbreak epidemic hits Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons | News

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Lagos, Nigeria – Last month, gunmen stormed a medium-security prison in Jos, central Nigeria, for the second time this year, successfully freeing more than 250 inmates.

It was just the latest event in a series of escapes that have taken place in Africa’s most populous country since 2010. More than 7,000 people have escaped from several prisons during this time, and many are still at large, according to an Al Jazeera analysis of data from local media reports and the number of escapees provided by the authorities. This figure represents one tenth of the total official number of people currently detained across the country, or a regularly updated summary of the prison population published by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) shows.

In the past 14 months alone, there have been eight successive escapes, more than double the number of such incidents in the previous three years. This figure does not include riots, foiled escape attempts or clashes between armed non-state actors and law enforcement at police stations to forcibly release detained suspects. Last month, security guards foiled a bizarre attempt by criminals to seek hijack a suspect from the Lagos courthouse where he was being tried.

The Nigerian prison system has long struggled with a multitude of problems. The country’s criminal and penal codes are archaic, while infrastructure is mostly a holdover from the British colonial era (Benin’s prison dates from 1906), long before Nigeria’s population explosion and the rise in crime. ensuing.

Worse yet, facilities are among the most overcrowded in the world, Nigeria ranking 49th on a list of 206 countries in the World Prison Brief published by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at the University of London. Ikoyi prison, built in 1955 for a capacity of 800 people, now accommodates around four times as many. The lack of a public safety surveillance system has also placed the burden of providing security on manual surveillance by security personnel, who are underpaid and under-equipped.

‘Awaiting Judgment’

According to the NCS, there are currently 70,653 prisoners in 240 centers across the country. Only a third of them have been convicted while the others are classified as “awaiting trial”. The latter category is the local legal language for suspects who have been jailed for years for minor offenses such as shoplifting and traffic offenses without conviction. In some establishments, people “awaiting trial” represent up to 90% of the total prison population, the real number of which is said to be much higher than the official one.

“There are individuals in these establishments who do not know when they are going out, some [are in] for offenses for which they would have been acquitted even if they had been convicted, ”said Uju Agomoh, director of the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) group.

“So you see a situation where inside, there are tensions because of this disproportionate number of people who have not been convicted and it starts to be authoritarian on the infrastructures, the cellular spaces, the water. , health – everything. “

As a result, prisons have been exposed to all kinds of attacks in recent years, including invasions by armed groups or unknown armed men, to riots by detainees.

One exception was an October 2019 prison break triggered by a flooding incident at Koton-Karfe prison in Kogi, south of the capital, Abuja. More than 200 inmates escaped as floodwaters submerged the prison fences, prompting Lazarus Ogbee, the federal politician heading a committee on redress exclamations, to say, “This nature of jailbreaking is the first of its kind in the whole world and to say the least, embarrassing. “

Kogi correctional centers have also been attacked by detainees and by Boko Haram on two occasions.

The attacks often claim many victims. In the latest incident at Jos prison, at least 10 people were killed and seven were seriously injured.

In July, Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola admitted that the facilities have “pulled over capacity by 18 percent ”. The government official, who called for the introduction of a parole system, also said some of the prisons outside the major cities of Kano, Port Harcourt and Lagos are underpopulated.

One solution, Agomoh said, could be for the NCS Comptroller General to move prisoners from overcrowded centers to underpopulated centers to even out disparities. Deputy Comptrollers General may also do so in their areas of jurisdiction.

But the high number of detainees who have not yet been sentenced means that any movement could lead to administrative and logistical problems.

The data, meanwhile, shows that all prison escapes over the past decade have occurred outside major cities, but nonetheless in overcrowded prisons. Recent figures on the ratio of planned capacity to current capacity are hard to come by, but a 2016 report from the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said that Kogi, who made an average of one breakout every two years in over the past 10 years, has had a 133 inmates above its assigned capacity of 530 then.

Agomoh said there is a correlation between the increase in attacks on prisons and the exponential increase in insecurity across Nigeria. “If there is a lot of conflict in the community, the chances of them ending up in penitentiary and correctional centers become very high,” he added.

In addition to Boko Haram’s 12-year armed campaign that continues to displace millions of people in northeast Nigeria, other fighters and criminal gangs known locally as bandits have kidnapped people of all religious affiliations and backgrounds. ethnicities and economic status in the Northwest and Middle Belt regions.

Lagos-based geopolitical consultancy SBM Intelligence estimates that 2,371 people were kidnapped and an estimated N10 billion ($ 25 million) was cumulatively claimed in ransom sums in Nigeria during the first half of this year alone. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has also ordered the shutdown of telecommunications services in Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara states at various times this year, with the aim of tackling banditry in those areas.

More recently, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the paramilitary branch of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) whose secessionist agitation has become increasingly violent, has been cited as a possible perpetrator of attacks in prisons. “The Southeast is unique in the jailbreaks recorded there,” said Oladisun Vera-cruz, security manager at Towntalk Solutions, a data intelligence firm based in Lagos. “Rather than inmates revolting and overwhelming correctional officers, the attacks came from non-state armed groups who [also] target police stations and release prisoners.

In 2021 alone, there were at least 68 cases of confrontations between IPOB and the police, Vera-cruz said. Forty-one of these were raids on police stations, where suspects are also sometimes regularly jailed for weeks.

Prison reforms

Two years ago, a three-part secret briefing on corruption and squalid conditions within the system went viral and pilloried the authorities. Fisayo Soyombo, a reporter for the local newspaper The Cable, spent two weeks in detention, first in a police cell and then in Ikoyi Prison.

His reports exposed the free flow of drugs in prison and racketeering where guards collected as little as 10,000 naira ($ 24) to clear prison records from released prisoners or between 20,000 and 500,000 naira (48 to $ 1,214) per night for special accommodation in the prison.

Following the revelations, Aregbesola, the Minister of the Interior, ordered an investigation into the issues raised “to determine whether what was reported was true or false”, but there has been no update yet. ministry.

This silence continues to raise concerns about the presence of the necessary will to implement the reforms.

After signing Nigeria’s Prison Services Act in 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari also urged the country’s chief justice to start expeditious trials. But except for an immediate name change from the Nigerian Prison Service to NCS, there is no public sign that a decongestion process has started. Specific recommendations in terms of strengthening the facilities to supply scanners, security cameras and the integration of other technologies also remain to be implemented.

NCS spokesman Francis Enobore did not respond to repeated requests from Al Jazeera for comment. In August, Attorney General Abubakar Malami said 10,000 detainees had been released over the past four years, thanks to the work of a presidential reform committee.

Yet the justice system has a backlog to deal with. Courts were closed in the first months of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, crippling an overburdened justice system already struggling to decide the fate of those “awaiting trial” who, in some establishments, represent up to 90% of the total prison. population.

Without knowing how long inmates will spend in a correctional or detention center, it becomes difficult for NCS officers “to plan appropriate rehabilitation and reintegration programs,” Agomoh noted. And every prison attack will make imitators consider planning such moves, she said. “If we don’t check this out, it will continue to happen. “

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