- The Minna jailbreak is one escape too many
One of the many contradictions that have come to define Nigeria is the way in which the country’s prisons are better known for facilitating escapes rather than keeping inmates confined.
The latest incident occurred in Minna Medium Security Prison on June 3. Some 219 prisoners escaped in an attack launched by gunmen whose apparent intention was that of releasing two condemned prisoners. It was the second attack on this particular facility, the first having occurred in 2014. So far, 65 inmates have been re-arrested.
Nigeria has witnessed a rash of jail breaks in recent times. Two periods stand out: between 2013 and 2015, when many Boko Haram detainees were freed in attacks on the prisons where they were being held, and 2016, when three incidents occurred between June and August of that year.
Perhaps what is most shocking about these occurrences is the simplicity and brazenness of their execution. As in the Minna case, a group of armed men simply drove up to the premises, forced their way in, released inmates and drove away. Other successful escape attempts were internally-instigated efforts organised by the inmates themselves, and involved scaling the walls or overcoming their guards and breaking out through prison gates.
The causes of the jailbreak epidemic are attributable to a toxic combination of institutional failure, administrative incompetence and infrastructural challenges.
Far too many of the prisons are very old, with many having been constructed during colonial rule; as such, they lack the facilities and equipment necessary to confine inmates humanely and efficiently. They are ludicrously overcrowded, due to the fact that a majority of inmates are pre-trial detainees and individuals whose cases have been stymied in Nigeria’s infamously slow court processes.
Prison officers and wardens are insufficient, poorly paid, under-equipped and badly motivated, and thus susceptible to unethical behaviour, especially corruption and indolence.
This situation simply cannot be allowed to go on, particularly given Nigeria’s increasing security challenges. If those who are apprehended for their involvement in criminal activity are confident that their detention will not last, they will not be deterred from breaking the law.
In addressing the immediate short-term resolution of the problem, more attention should be paid to the mechanics of prison breaks. Why are they so easy to carry out? How is it that prison defences are so easily breached, from the inside as well as from the outside? How do the inmates get the weapons with which they stage break-outs? Why is the security response so ineffectual?
Then there are the medium-term solutions. Overcrowding must be reduced by improving existing assessments of inmate status. It is a tragic fact of Nigerian life that many people detained in prison should not be there in the first place. The processing of awaiting trial detainees must be speeded up, possibly with legal limits on how long they may be detained without trial.
Prison conditions must be made more humane; treating inmates like animals can only increase their desperation to escape. The conditions of service of prison officers must be improved, and new performance benchmarks should be drawn up for them.
The country must seriously consider the viability of non-custodial sentences and other substitutes for prison terms. Not every crime must result in jail term, especially when such jails do nothing to reform inmates or deter them from committing crimes in future. There is no reason why non-violent offences like drug possession cannot be punished by community service, nor does it make sense to lock juvenile offenders up with hardened repeat offenders.
It is also time to take the vexed issue of a national database much more seriously. If the country was better able to identify those who reside within its borders, it would be much less easy for escapees to melt away into society when they flee prison.
Societies are often judged by the way they treat those who break their laws. Nigeria must radically reform the way it deals with those who find themselves in its jails if it is to attain the ideal of a truly humane society.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000