Jailbreaks and national security – Thisday

The spate of jailbreaks is worrying. The prisons should be decongested and made more secure

The growing number of attacks on prisons around the country is best viewed as a metaphor of increasing social unrest than as mere infrastructure meltdown. It is true that existing prisons are bulging. It is also true that the facilities have decayed. Even more undeniable is the fact that facilities built by colonial administrations have no provisions to restrain convicts in a freer realm. But more worrisome is the fact that the society whose ills and misdemeanors the prison system is designed to correct has become more complicated. Therefore, we now have prisoners that are more sophisticated and daring than those hired to keep and retrain them. Moreover, those outside prison walls that are determined to free some inmates have acquired greater capacity than the protection system around the prison walls.

In the past five years, at least a dozen prison facilities across the country have witnessed violent attacks with thousands of inmates released. Many of these inmates who are still at large include the condemned and those serving life terms. Before the bloody 12th September attack on medium Security Custodial Centre in Kabba, Kogi State, there had been several jailbreaks. During last year’s nationwide EndSARS protests, the Oko and Benin correctional centres in Edo State were attacked with 1,993 inmates freed. Tragically, one of the escapees from the Oko Correctional Centre, according to the police, ‘ran back to his village on the same day’ to kill the prosecution witness who testified against him during his criminal trial.

What should particularly concern the authorities is that the tempo of attacks seems to have heightened in the past one year. Last October, the correctional centre in Okitipupa local government area of Ondo State was broken into with 58 inmates freed after some officials had been injured. Within the month of April this year alone, there were four attacks. First, gunmen broke into the Ikoyi prison in Lagos with explosives and dynamite. Then there was a jailbreak at the Bauchi custodial where inmates and officers were injured before the attack on Owerri correctional centre. In these daring attacks, inmates were let loose.

While many questions arise from the frequency of these attacks, what is important for now is to find solutions to the problem. One, the criminal justice system needs to operate at a rate that disallows prison congestion. Sadly, efforts at decongesting our prisons or ameliorating the plight of the awaiting trial inmates have for several years come to naught because the criminal justice system is skewed against the poor. The courts therefore need to work in shifts while prisons should constantly update their records of inmates. There are reports that there is no reliable data of inmates in our prisons and for that reason, there is no way to track many of those recently released.

But there is a bigger challenge. Across the country, the prisons where convicts and suspects were dully sent for punishment or custody have suddenly become sources of internal security threat. To address the problem, we need reforms that will make our prisons more secure. Such pursuit of security must be predicated on a quest for enduring social justice in our nation. In the current context, there is little difference between prison inmates and citizens imprisoned by fear, insecurity, and an unjust social order.

Overall, the training and equipment of our prison guards need updating in line with the current state of our security ecosystem. More importantly, the trend in which our ever-frequent breakdowns of social peace and order is accompanied by attacks on prison facilities is of deep concern. It is a manifestation of the classic viewpoint that prisons and courts that sustain them are part of the infrastructure of social injustice. Prisons become bastions of an unjust order. To break down prison walls becomes a metaphor for liberation and even mini revolutions. But when the storming of prisons and freeing of inmates become an act in the service of freedom, then we are all endangered.

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