The perennial attacks on jailhouses

Penultimate Sunday, a gang of gunmen stormed the Jos Medium CustodialCentre in a commando-style operation at about 5.20 pm and engaged the security personnel on duty in a vicious gun duel. By the time the last shot was fired, 10 inmates including a worker of the centre were killed and 252 inmates escaped from custody. Initial report about the attack indicated that all the invaders were trapped inside the centre. It was later discovered that none of the attackers was trapped.

The irony of the successful Jos operation was that the facility is located within the same environment harbouring the state Police Headquarters, the Department of State Services (DSS) and other security agencies.

The spokesperson of the NigerianCorrectional Service (NCoS), Francis Enobore, later disclosed in a statement the next day that 10 of the escapees had been recaptured  but the others remained on the lam.The Jos Medium Security Custodial Centre was home to 1,060 inmates made up of 560 pre-trial detainees and 500 convicts.

The Jos raid is the latest in the growing list of attacks on jailhouses across the nation in recent years. Gone were the days when insurrections were triggered off by the inmates. Nowadays, attacks are carried out by external criminal forces for the simple motive of freeing their colleagues kept within prison walls as it is being suspected in the case of the Jos incident.

In fact, virtually all our prison facilities have suffered one form of attack or the other. The first major raid on jailhouses by criminal elements in recent years took place in Bauchi on November 7, 2010when the Boko Haram militants stormed the Bauchi Prisonand freed720 prisoners including their members numbering over 100. The attackers hit their target at about 6.40 pm when all attention was focused on the breaking of the Ramadan fast. The Bauchi attack highlighted the failure of security, poor and ineffective intelligence gathering as well as the immanent complacency that is the hallmark of the nation’s law enforcement operatives.

On December 6, 2014, unknown gunmen attacked the Minna Medium Security Prison and flung the gates open for 270 inmates with only 64 escapees immediately rearrested. Last month alone, two jailbreak incidents were recorded. On August 9, 2016 or thereabouts, 15 inmates broke jail at the Federal Prison, Nsukka in Anambra state, while 14 prisoners lost their lives in the process of regaining their freedom at the Abakaliki Prison in Ebonyi state a couple of days after.

From KotonKarfe to Kabba, from Kaduna to Ado Ekiti, and from Oyo to Benin City, to mention a few more instances, the story is the same. The much-taunted prison reform has remained a mere rhetoric.

Presently, the Nigerian prisons are home to a total of 63,000 inmates. Of this figure, only 17,000 or 28 per cent are convicts, while 45,263 or 72 per cent are awaiting trials in various courts across the country. The trouble makers behind the bars are those still facing trials and have spent more years than they would have if they had been given speedy trial. Then, there are those on the death row whose execution orders are yet to be signed by the state governors and they nurse the hope of freedom through jail attacks that have been recurring.

There is a compelling need for the relevant authorities to address the constraints hampering the quick dispensation of justice as a matter of urgency such as frequent adjournments of cases, partly due to endless investigations by prosecuting police personnel who are mostly ill-trained or badly equipped for their assignments, inadequate courts, shortage of personnel at the bench, recording of court proceedings in long hand in the 21st Century Nigeria. These are some of the factors fueling jail attacks.

Chief judges in various states are also advised to pay routine visits to jailhouses with a view to looking into cases that have overstayed in the courts. It is equally necessary to expand the judicial space by setting up mobile courts to try minor offences. Suspended sentences and granting of parole are also some options the courts can consider. These are some of the ways to decongest our prisons that presently harbour only 17,000 convicts. While it is imperative to fortify the prison facilities across the country in addition to building the capacity of warders and equipping them with tools to secure the premises, the much-talked-about prison reform should also be given urgent attention.

Furthermore, the federal and state governments have a responsibility to address such factors such as poverty and joblessness that fuel criminality, which invariably haul people into jailhouses. There was a time the federal government introduced Non-Custodial Measures in Nigeria as a way of ventilating the prisons across the country but the policy was desultorily pursued and later abandoned.

In view of these daring raids on the nation’s custodial centres, the government should consider warehousing criminals facing serious charges in special, heavily guarded custodies where their collaborators cannot easily overrun.

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