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The troubling faces of Nigerian prisons


Of late, the Nigerian prison system has been in the news not on account of any reformative or corrective strides it has recorded, but on account of deep-seated weaknesses, that criminal elements and equally corrupt prison officials are exploiting to the country’s disadvantage. The rash of riots/protests and jailbreaks recorded in the last four months are clearly a manifestation of the fact that the nation’s correctional facilities need redemption, if they must reform aggressors of the law, and sundry characters, which they play host to. This report by ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, LAWRENCE NJOKU, and JOHN AKUBO, takes a look at some of the conditions that precipitate the increasingly troubled atmosphere in Nigerian prisons.

The year 1861 is credited as the year that Western-type prison was conceived in the country.

History has it that the declaration of Lagos as a colony in 1861 marked the beginning of the institution of formal machinery of governance as the colonial government, was at that time preoccupied with the protection of legitimate trade, guarantee the profit of British merchants and the safety of missionaries.

William McCoskry, the acting governor of the Lagos colony at that time, who was also a prominent merchant in Lagos, formed a police force of about 25 constables. This was followed in 1863 by the establishment in Lagos of four courts: a police court to resolve petty disputes, a criminal court to try the more serious cases, a slave court to try cases arising from the efforts to abolish the trade in slaves and a commercial court to resolve disputes among merchants and traders. The functioning of these courts, and the police in that colonial setting necessarily meant that prisons were needed to complete the system.

That explains why in 1872, the Broad Street prison was established with an initial inmate capacity of 300.

A further peep into official history of the Nigerian prison system shows that the progressive incursion of the British into the hinterland and the establishment of British protectorate towards the end of the 19th century necessitated the establishment of the prisons as the last link in the criminal justice system. Thus by 1910, there already were prisons in Degema, Calabar, Onitsha, Benin, Ibadan, Sapele, Jebba and Lokoja.

The declaration of protectorates over the East, West and North by 1906 effectively brought the entire Nigeria area under British rule. That, however, did not mark the beginning of a unified prison system.

Prisons of this era largely served the purpose of punishing those who, in any way opposed colonial monument, while at the same time serving as enough warning for those that might want to stir up trouble for the colonial set up.

Things slightly changed afterwards and in 1917 the first prison regulation was published to prescribe admission, custody, treatment and classification procedures, as well as, staffing, dieting and clothing regimes for the prisons. These processes were limited in one very general sense. They were not geared towards any particular type of treatment of inmates. Instead, they represented just policies of containment of those who were already in prison. Besides, they were limited in application to those who were convicted or remanded in custody by criminal courts of the British-inspired supreme or provincial types.

In 1934, an attempt was made to introduce relative modernisation into the then Prison Service. It was at this time that Colonel V. L. Mabb, was appointed Director of Prisons, by the then Governor, Sir Donald Cameron.

According to official prison sources, although a military officer, Mabb had an understanding of what prisons should be. And he went on to do his best, with immense attention paid on the formation of a unified prison structure for the whole country.

Even though he failed in that bid, he succeeded in extending the substantive Director of Prisons’ supervisory and inspectoral powers over the Native Authority Prisons, by this time dominant in the North. It was also during his tenure that the Prisons Warders Welfare Board was formed.

His efforts were to be continued by his successor R. H. Dolan, who before assumption of duty in the country, already had some experience in prison administration, in both Britain and the colonies, as a trained prison officer.

The introduction of vocational training in the National Prisons had earlier commenced in 1917. It failed except in Kaduna and Lokoja prisons, where it functioned in 1926 Dolan reintroduced it in 1949 as a cardinal part of a penal treatment in the country.

He also made classification of prisoners mandatory in all prisons and went on to introduce visits by relations to inmates. He also introduced progressive earning schemes for long-term first offenders, and transferred the Prisons Headquarters formerly in Enugu, to Lagos, to facilitate close cooperation with other state departments. He also introduced moral and adult education classes to be handled by competent ministers and teachers for both Christian and Islamic education. Programmes for recreation and relaxation of prisoners were introduced during his tenure, as well as, the formation of an association for the care and rehabilitation of discharged prisoners.

He went ahead to initiate a programme for the construction and expansion of even bigger convict prisons, to enhance the proper classification and accommodation of prisoners, and his tenure represented a very high point in the evolution of Nigerian prisons

The abolition of Native Authority Prisons in 1968 and the subsequent unification of the prisons service, therefore, marked the beginning of the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) as a composite reality.

Since the inception of the NPS, the prison system in the country has witnessed transformation since 1972, undergoing some reorganisation, which included the establishment of six directorates in 1993 from the three that were in existence in 1980.

However, the 1986 reorganisation was consequent upon the creation of the Customs, Immigrations and Prisons Board, and centralisation of the administrations of these paramilitary services in the board.

These services were also removed from the Civil Service in 1992. The NPS operates a four-level command. The structure boasts eight zonal commands, 36 state commands, a command in the Federal Capital Territory, 144 prisons, including farm centres and 83 satellite prisons. It also has four training schools, one staff college and two borstal institutions.

Graduate Warders, ‘Modern Prisons,’ Worsening Services
Since the advent of NPS, a lot has taken place in the organisation. In terms of structure, size and scope of duty. In the last 20 years or thereabouts, about 15 new satellite prisons and three prison hospitals have been erected across the country.

Also, as part of efforts to modernise and create an enabling environment for proper treatment and training of offenders, the NPS has employed the services of professionals, including graduate general duty officers, medical personnel, sociologists/psychologists, lawyers, general administrators, environmental health officers and engineers among others.

The Special Prison Reform Programme of the Federal Government, which was initiated in 1999, made initial efforts towards strengthening the structure of prisons, all in a bid to ensure that the goal of inmate reform is attained.

The improved level of manpower, was expected to radically establish “a credible prisons service, which through excellent penal practice, seek lasting change in offender’s attitudes, values, behaviour and ensure successful reintegration into the society.

Additionally, it was to aid the service achieve its mission of promoting “public protection by providing assistance for offenders in their reformation and rehabilitation under safe, secure and humane conditions, in accordance with universally accepted standards and to facilitate their social reintegration into society.” Despite this long history and a union attempts to reform the situation on ground has not changed significantly.

Unending Neglect, Breaches Fuelling Jailbreaks, Revolts
The rash of jailbreaks and violent conducts by prison inmates across the country, in recent times, has become a source of national embarrassment. At least, four of such breaks have taken place between June and August this year.

The one that opened the season of jailbreaks happened on June 24, at the Kuje Maximum Prison, only five weeks after President Muhammadu Buhari appointed Ja’afaru Ahmed, as comptroller general of the service. Two high profile inmates, Solomon Amodu and Maxwell Ajukwu, who are being tried for culpable homicide, escaped from custody on that occasion. On July 30, it was the turn of inmates of Koton-Karfe Minimum Prison in Kogi State to take to their heels. This detention facility is now notorious for this kind of happenings. This time however, the escape was not externally planned as the escaped inmates just scaled the prison fence to “freedom.” The service claimed five of the 11 that escaped that night are back in jail.

The Nsukka, Enugu State jailbreak, which occurred on August 8, saw 15 inmates taking to their heels, without help from outside. Even though 25 inmates allegedly escaped in Nsukka, the command said it was unaware of the exact number, but admitted that six of them have been rearrested.

Ten days after the Nsukka jailbreak, Abakiliki Prison had its turn, and over 15 inmates and one prison officer were feared dead, while scores sustained bullet wounds in the foiled jailbreak.

A visit to the Nsukka Prison, located in the Government Reserved Area (GRA), presents a pathetic picture of a facility, which is intended to reform offenders. It is not only congested, dilapidated infrastructure dot the landscape. The Enugu prison is generally in dire need of serious attention.

Disenchantment is sky-high among prison officials there, and majority of inmates in the facility have been there since 2007, as awaiting trial. A good number of them have not returned to the courtroom, since their matters were first called up, and they pleaded not guilty.

Beginning from the main entrance up to buildings housing the cells, there are visible signs of neglect. This includes broken windowpanes, faulty doors and decrepit fittings. The facility built in 1926 to house about 180 inmates, now houses 298.

An official who pleaded anonymity, told The Guardian that apart from the stuffy nature of the cells, some of the cell walls were built with mud, stressing that the inmates whose numbers continue to rise, increasingly find the place very uncomfortable.

Due to inadequate space inside the cells, “The inmates now sleep in turns in the compartments meant for two, but where eight persons are crammed. Underage inmates are also kept with hardened criminals due to space constraints.”

It was reliably gathered that the inmates broke down the wooden doors, and poured into the open space in the premises from where they scaled the perimeter fence.

Another source informed The Guardian that the lifestyle of one of the inmates, being held for kidnap, has been a source of concern for other inmates. While in captivity, he is allegedly allowed the use of his mobile phones and makes it to the court in choice cars, other than the ones assigned by the state.

On one of his trips to the court, he bluntly turned down the state-assigned van and hitched a ride with a prison official.

“He is always with money and how he gets the money is what baffles some of us, who have observed his activities since he was brought here. We hear he is a local council staff, and that his salary is still being paid. Recently, a lawyer petitioned the prison authorities, claiming that he even duped a lady while still in detention,” the source claimed.

The source added that the suspended Comptroller of Nsukka Prison, Mr. Lawrence Okonkwo, had in the past, “seized several mobile phones belonging to inmates. Initially, he wanted to burn the phones, but later decided to keep them. What I’m saying is that, there are things going on here, which I think are happening because prison officials here appear not to be happy, or are gaining from the infractions and breaches.”

Giving credence to the allegation of compromise and unprofessional conduct of prison officials, Enugu Command’s Public Relations Officer, Monday Chukwu Emeka, an Assistant Superintendent of Prisons, revealed how visitors bury various kinds of items inside food items and smuggle them into the prison cells.

He said, “The command recently apprehended a female visitor at Enugu Prisons, who concealed “two cell phones with their chargers in moi-moi wrapped in foil paper, while attempting to smuggle them into the prison. She has been handed over to the police for prosecution.”

Emeka, who stated that the culprit later pleaded guilty in court, stated that there is the possibility that, “several other things could have happened, which our men may not have detected.”

Apart from Nsukka Prison, Enugu Prison is another detention facility in the state. Built in 1915, with a capacity for 638 inmates, the facility is not faring better either. The decrepit conditions notwithstanding, the number of inmates has tripled to over 1,800.

Like the Nsukka Prison, all other prisons in the state are old, dilapidated and housing more than their approved jailbirds. The other prison in the state is the Oji River Prison built in 1999, and the Ibite Olo Farm Centre, which provides some form of rehabilitation to inmates. It was built in 1976.

The Abakaliki Prison, which shares a boundary with the state command of the Nigerian Police, was built in 1946 with an installed capacity of 387 inmates. It houses about 920 inmates presently, and 811 of them are awaiting trial, while only 109 are convicted inmates.

Investigations by The Guardian revealed that masterminds of the last attempted jailbreak have been in the facility since 2007 as awaiting trial. They became riotous, following an attempt by officials to carry out routine cell search.

“They 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.” an official explained.

‘Hold Prison Official, Responsible For Koton-Karfe Jailbreaks’
The new 80-bedspace Koton Karfe Prison, equipped with modern facilities, was meant to tackle the challenge of incessant jailbreaks experienced in the over 80-year-old facility, which was vulnerable, due to widespread dilapidation.

President Muhammadu Buhari

President Muhammadu Buhari

But the latest jailbreak has left residents of the sleepy town worried about their safety.

When the former Minister of Interior under President Goodluck Jonathan, Abba Moro, commissioned the new Koton-Karfe Prison, he said the Federal Government would continue to raise the bar in prison reforms, to reposition all prison formations in the country to be rehabilitative and corrective centres, rather than punitive.

He added that with the commissioning of the new medium security prison, incessant jailbreak, facilitated by armed bandits would become a thing of the past.

Recent events at that facility confirm that Moro was wrong.

Muhammed Idris, who resides a shouting distance away from the prison yard, cannot come to terms with the necessity of a “modern prison” if the security challenges that prompted its construction are still not surmounted, in spite of its fortification.

He is, therefore, strongly of the view that the latest jailbreak would not have succeeded without help from prison officials, especially since the facility was not bombed from outside like the previous two. His view on complicity of prison officials, tallies with that of the state governor, Yahaya Bello, who pointedly accused the officials of complicity.

Idris maintained that residents of the area have a lot to worry about the incessant jailbreaks, which appear to be defying prescribed solutions. On the strength of that, he charged the government to rise up to its responsibility by bringing all culpable officers to book.

Mallam Salisu Ademu, another resident of the area, said he is convinced beyond reasonable doubts, that the prison officials were facilitating the prison breaks, hence the need for them to be heavily sanctioned and prosecuted.

He added that if the past two major attacks in 2012 and December 2014, were discountenanced because they were prosecuted from outside, the last one must claim the scalps of all culpable officers.

Of the 13 escaped inmates 10 were pre-trial detainees, while three were already serving their jail terms. And so far, about 13 officials of the prison, including three senior and 10 junior officers have been relieved of their jobs.

When The Guardian visited the Koton-Karfe Prison last week, unfriendly-looking officials were strategically stationed. They not only rebuffed enquiries on every topic, they also insisted that they had no mandate to respond to enquiries from the media, having all been recently deployed to the facility.

When contacted, the public relations officer of the command, Abubakar Umar, declined to speak on the recent happening, promising to get the state comptroller, Musa Yahaya Maza to do so. But that had not been affected at the time of filing the report.

Nigerian Prisons As Centres of Booze, Sex, Hemp Binging
IN the name of “assisting” inmates, some prison officials have committed serious professional blunders that should ordinarily cost them their jobs in serious climes.

When some of them are not converting offices to chalets to enable inmates have intimate contact with their wives and girlfriends and vice versa, they are ensuring the safe passage of prohibited substances and items, including Indian hemp, alcoholic beverages, mobile telephone sets and sundry items, which inmates are prohibited from being in possession of.

Not long ago, female inmates at the Kirikiri Prison in Lagos State, rioted when the alcohol brought in by a senior prison official failed to go around. Those that did not benefit from the booze, started protesting, sang songs and threw objects

The protesting prisoners insisted on seeing the officer in charge, who was not around at that time.

The Kuje Medium Security Prison in Abuja is famous for the sale of Indian Hemp. Early in the year, a junior prison official was stopped at the entrance by a guard, who spotted him attempting to ferry in a bagful of illicit substance believed to be hemp.

Investigations by The Guardian revealed that the main cause of the Monday, August 29, 2016, riot at the facility was as a result of resistance posed by some inmates, whose cells were being searched, from where gadgets, including palmtop computer sets and television sets were seized.

An impeccable source within the prison said trouble started when the warders went to search the cell where Boko Haram insurgents and other criminals are kept. “There, the warders seized palmtop computer sets and television sets belonging to the inmates who in turn resisted. That was how the fracas ensued.”

According to the source, peeved by the development, the warders “threw teargas into all the cells, including cells, where there was no possibility of the inmates putting up any resistance, as they were yet to be opened up for the day. In one of the cells, an inmate fainted inhaling the gaseous spray. He was later stabilised.”

Conditions at Kuje Prisons are not different from that of other prisons. For instance, cells that were meant to keep 20 jailbirds now accommodate between 22 and 25, with the excess sleeping on floor mats. Feeding conditions are no better, as the inmates have the luxury of having pieces of meat in their meals thrice weekly.

In the area of health, the source continued: “When an inmate falls ill, gets treated by the medical personnel, he is given a prescription and advised to buy the drugs with his money. Some of those who cannot afford the drugs have died from curable illnesses because the clinic is not adequately stocked with drugs.”

Legal practitioner, Joel Usman, is bothered by the lifestyle that prison inmates now lead in many detention centres across the country.

Abdulrahaman Dambazau

Abdulrahaman Dambazau

According to him, inmates are supposed to be completely shut out of normal life, adding that it was the reason that their mobile phones are seized so they don’t have contact with the outside world.

He, however, regretted that now, prison officers go out of their way to assist prisoners to have links with their gangs, or their members in the outside world for a fee. This, he said, is one of the ways that jailbreaks are planned and executed.

“A situation where an inmate can freely discuss with his friends, parents and other persons rather than his lawyer should be discouraged. Sadly, some prison officials easily compromise in their bid to get one or two favours from the inmates. This causes the prison and nation a lot of misfortunes.”

He advised prison authorities to strictly guard against inmates having free access to telephones to discuss with parents or lawyers.

“It is important that inmates’ lawyer, parents or siblings come to the prison to talk while being watched closely, and not necessarily to allowing them to speak on phone.

“When they have visitors they are supposed to speak in a language that the officer that is with them understands because if they are allowed to use their dialect, which the officer may not understand, a jailbreak could be planned right in front of a prison official.

Expect More Jailbreaks
Social commentators and right groups have over the years, deplored the sloppy pace of justice dispensation in the country.

According to them, this development, apart from infringing on the rights of the suspects, also has a way of hurting the criminal justice system.

Assistant Controller of Prisons, Othman Musa, admitted that when he recently said that frequent adjournment of court cases has contributed to rampant cases of jailbreaks in the country.

Musa, who also admitted that prison structures across the country were old and dilapidated, in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria in Abuja, said, “Most of our facilities are virtually as old as Nigeria because most of them are over 100 years old, and the same structures are housing large number of inmates.

“These are buildings constructed during the pre-colonial period and they house as much as 40 inmates, more than thrice their capacities. So you find out that at any given time, there is
congestion, which is not unconnected with the frequent adjournment of court cases.

“We have more awaiting trials than the convicted inmates. So, where you are supposed to have 10 people in a room, you now have 20 or 25 people,” he said.

President, Civil Rights Realisation and Advancement Network (CRRAN), Olu Omotayo, while reviewing unfolding developments in the country’s prisons, maintained that there was the likelihood of more jailbreaks in the days ahead, in view of the attitude of prison officials and the neglect meted to the system by the government.

He said: “Government has abandoned prisons and as a result, people in charge of prisons are doing whatever they like in the name of managing the inmates. Come to think of it, when was the last time any government provided for the prisons? The officials work in the most dehumanising environment, in buildings that are as old as their fathers and grandfathers, with leaking roofs and what have you, yet people expect them to deliver. A prison is supposed to be a reformatory system, but you discover that instead of prisoners being reformed, they end up being hardened because the facilities to reform them are not there.

“But for the activities of some non-governmental organisations that assist them with provision of facilities, the place would have collapsed. I know that recently, the over-head tank at Oji River Prison, was installed by an individual who is also providing shelter and training for some of the inmates. Feeding of inmates has been taken over by their relatives; that is why, you see all manner of materials being imported into the prisons.

“There is serious corruption taking place in the prisons and overcrowded prisons appear to have become the new normal. Last year that I researched about Enugu Prisons, I discovered that none is without a crowded cell. The judiciary has compounded the situation with indiscriminate dumping of offenders in prison. The police hardly conduct thorough investigation before cases are charged to court, and that is why even cases that should be granted bail are delayed for years. For us to get it right, the judiciary, police and even prison officials must change their attitude.”

A public affairs commentator, Dr. Samuel Ndu, said the economic situation in the country, which has crippled several activities and caused hunger in many homes, has given rise to incessant jailbreaks.

“The inmates no longer feed well. Is it not when people are satisfied that they can remember those behind bars? The entire thing still borders on what government should do to avert a catastrophic situation, which we might get into in the near future. If over 20 persons escaped from Nsukka Prison and only six were rearrested with no news of the others, then that tells you where we are headed,” he said.

He added that government should strictly classify prisons, stressing that a situation where armed robbers, drug offenders, kidnappers, rape suspects, among other minor offenders are clamped into the same cell should never be.

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