“If the criminal justice system works effectively, everyone – policemen, lawyers, warders, even inmates – benefits. If it doesn’t, we all lose some way – because we’re all in this vicious cycle together. The only problem is that rather than enthrone a society that works for all, too many want a society that works for them – at the expense of everyone else.” 

Fisayo Soyombo, award-winning journalist in his undercover investigative report on Ikoyi Prison in July 2019.

Jailbreak is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is a global phenomenon. However, it is not something that should be occurring with the frequency with which it is happening in Nigeria. This year alone, there have been three of such in Owerri, Kabba and more recently, Oyo town. Last October, during the #EndSARS protests several Nigerian prisons and police cells were breached by some criminal elements in society with thousands of detainees and inmates released. Many of them have never been recaptured despite the threat for them to either voluntarily come back or the Federal Government will publish the names of the escapees in the media and put them on the Interpol watch list.

The latest jailbreak took place on Friday, October 22, 2021, at the Abolongo Correctional facility in Oyo town. According to the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, while on the inspection of the facility last Sunday, October 24, 2021, “446 out of 907 escapees have been recaptured, while 69 never left the facility”. It was reported that the armed men who came to attack the facility were about 50 and only set free the awaiting trial inmates while leaving the female and convicted inmates behind. Among the notorious criminals who were set loose from the facility are Fulani warlord, Iskilu Wakili, and the self-confessed serial murderer, Sunday Shodipe.

Tragically, two law enforcement agents, a soldier and an Amotekun Volunteer Corps member, were killed by the bandits in the attack while a female Amotekun member is on the danger list at the hospital for injuries sustained in the attack. Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Correctional Service, Oyo State Command, Olanrewaju Anjorin, said the Oyo Custodial Centre was established in 2007 with a capacity of 160 inmates but had a total population of 907 at the time of the attack. Of this number, awaiting trial persons were 837 representing 92 per cent with just 64 convicts. This is preposterous!

On Sunday, September 12, 2021, at least 240 inmates escaped from the Medium Security Custodial Centre in Kabba, Kogi State following an attack by yet to be identified gunmen. The NCoS confirmed the re-arrest of 114 inmates who escaped from the facility.  MSCC was established in 2008 with a capacity of 200. As of the time of the invasion, 294 inmates were in custody out of which 224 were pre-trial detainees and 70 convicted inmates.

Early this year, precisely on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021, unknown gunmen attacked the Imo State Police Command headquarters and Owerri Correctional Centre leading to the release of 1,844 inmates. Recall that similar incidents had happened in Edo and Ondo states last October during the #EndSARS protests. On Monday, October 19, 2020, hoodlums that hijacked the #EndSARS protests attacked two correctional facilities in Benin City and Oko in Edo State and freed 1,993 inmates according to the Ministry of Interior.

On Thursday, October 22, 2020, hoodlums broke into the NCoS facility in Okitipupa, Ondo State. The hoodlums were said to have pulled down the fence of the facility and set many of the prisoners free. The miscreants also set the police area command in the local government headquarters on fire. The thugs, who reportedly brandished weapons, carted away police rifles after setting the station ablaze. The state high court was also said to have been torched by the hoodlums. The local government secretariat, offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission and Vehicle Inspection Office were vandalized with 58 inmates forcefully released in the Okitipupa jailbreak.

I have written severally on the issue of jailbreak in Nigeria, the last time before today being on April 7, 2021, after the Owerri jailbreak. Looking at the statistics, most of the attacks on the correctional centres took place over the weekend and the majority of the escapees are awaiting trial inmates. Despite years of purported criminal justice reforms and specifically prison reforms, there is still a lopsided number of awaiting trial inmates vis-à-vis the convicts. This is not right. Since the early 1990s, I have been advocating for prison reforms. My first published article in The Champion newspaper which was published on Friday, January 13, 1995, was titled “Thoughts on the role of prisons”.

You may wonder what this has got to do with jailbreaks. A lot! Congestion breeds restiveness in the correctional centres. Many have died as a result of this while several others have contracted air-borne diseases and infections. Poor feeding and sanitary environment in the prisons have led to riots and jailbreaks.

As it is commonly said, justice delayed is justice denied. There are gory tales of suspects spending up to five years as awaiting trial inmates. This is for an offence that the penalty or punishment may not be more than three years in prison with an option of fine. Many of these awaiting trial inmates end up becoming more hardened by their prison experience. I have previously advocated for speedy trials of suspects with options such as suspended sentence, community service, parole and options of fine in order to decongest our prisons.

Apart from that, many Nigerian prisons are old and weak which makes them vulnerable to successful attacks. There is a need to build more modern prisons with sophisticated technology deployed to complement the security personnel on guard duties. It is a crying shame that it took the jailbreak in Oyo State for Governor Seyi Makinde to order the installation of CCTV cameras in all the prisons in the state. This is what I had advocated for in my commentary on this issue back in April when I said inter alia that there is a need to “infuse the use of technology in the fight against insecurity as well. I doubt if there is any police station or correctional facilities with Closed Circuit Television cameras and drones that can help with intelligence gathering in Nigeria.”

It is also high time security around Nigeria’s correctional service centres and police stations were made watertight in order to avert another jailbreak and attacks. The negative impact of insecurity on the nation’s politics, economy and development cannot be overemphasised.

Corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system, from police to court to correctional facilities also contributed to jailbreaks. Many suspects are in police custody because they are not willing to pay for bail which the police purportedly said was free. To get cases filed in court, the plaintiffs sometimes have to bribe the police. For prison warders to take the awaiting trial inmates to courts on their next adjourned date, the family of the suspects may have to bribe the warders in charge.

There are several cases of inmates’ case files disappearing and only being found when the warders in charge have been tipped by the family of the inmate. Smuggling of weeds, alcohol, mobile phones to prison inmates is facilitated by prison officials at a cost. Getting preferential treatment in the correctional centre also has to be illegally paid for. Even, in terms of being released on state pardon by the Chief Judge or Governor, the beneficiary may have to bribe the prison officers who are in charge of compiling the list of those to be accorded that privilege. The chain of corruption in the criminal justice system in Nigeria is long and needs to be decisively dealt with.

As the ace investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, rightly observed in his Ikoyi Prison diary report of 2019, “If I were a judge I would pronounce Nigeria’s criminal justice system ‘guilty as charged’, knowing, from this experience, that majority of its actors and gatekeepers are deserving of various lengthy times behind bars.

I am pained by these successful jailbreaks because it is making a mockery of the arrests of criminals by the police and other security agencies. With these jailbreaks, there is bound to be an exponential increase in crimes and criminalities in the country. Thus, the country is up for a rough time in the hands of criminals with these ugly phenomena.

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