Metro

May 11, 2024

Why escaped prison inmates are never re-arrested —Investigation

escaped prison inmates

•Govt failure to publish fleeing inmates’ identities worrying——Experts
•How to permanently avert jailbreaks—— Prof Awa Kalu

By Ise-Oluwa Ige

In this report, Saturday Vanguard explores data on past jailbreaks in the last 15 years, with a particular focus on the number of inmates that successfully escaped prison custody against the number of those re-arrested; identifies common causes and implications of jailbreaks with a survey of experts on how to permanently avert recurrence.

Background

On April 24, 2024, a total of 119 inmates of the Medium Security Custodial Centre, Suleja, in Niger State escaped from custody. The incident followed hours of heavy downpour and storm which destroyed parts of the custodial facility including its perimeter fence, which offered many of the inmates the opportunity to escape.

The spokesperson of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Command of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS), Deputy Superintendent Adamu Duza, confirmed through a statement that 119 inmates escaped. In the statement Adamu issued the early morning of Thursday, April 25, he linked the incident to the condition of the facility and a natural disaster.

Specifically, he said many of the available custodial facilities in the country were built during the colonial era, and that they are presently old and weak.

The Suleja custodial centre was indeed built in 1914 to accommodate 250 inmates. But it was housing 499 inmates including the condemned at the time of the incident. He however said the Service is making frantic efforts to ensure that all ageing facilities give way to modern ones.

Adamu said the government is presently building six new facilities in six geo-political zones of the country with a combined capacity of 3,000 and renovating the ones it already has.

He quickly added that the Service had begun efforts to recapture the fleeing inmates, working in conjunction with sister security agencies. Already, 16 representing 13.4% of the 119 fleeing inmates had been re-arrested, in tranches, within six days after the incident.

But the remaining 103 representing 86.5% of the 119 inmates are still at large.

Besides, as of the time of writing this report, the identities of the fleeing inmates were yet to be published by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NcoS). 6 days after, NCoS is yet to publish details of fleeing inmates
Although an official of the Service who spoke with Vanguard Law and Human Rights on their official line displayed on NCoS’ website—08075050006— on Monday evening claimed that the names and photos of the inmates had been published on its website, observation of the Service’s website on Monday evening flashed a notice that reads: “Escapees Alert: Recent Escapees list from MSCC Suleja” without any content.

But a top official in the NCoS Headquarters when contacted attributed the non-display of the names and photos of the fleeing inmates to what he called mere glitches owing to poor maintenance of the website, adding that the NCoS was working to address the situation.

Stakeholders have however expressed concern over the April 24, 2024 jail-break and the slow attitude of the NCoS to publish the identities of the fleeing inmates that could help members of the public to smoke them out.

I don’t understand why the identities of fleeing inmates are yet to be published—Soyombo

For instance, the convener of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), Fisayo Soyombo speaking on a breakfast television show, had wondered why after the collapse of the prison wall, the inmates were courageous enough to escape with about five layers of security officials from different security agencies that surrounded the Centre 24/7 to watch over it and why it was taking so long to publish the identities of those who escaped.

“Do they suddenly have to go and look for the pictures? I know that when you get into a typical Nigerian prison, you get documented twice. You undergo the manual documentation where you sit down and someone takes a picture and they print it. And also, you undergo online documentation where your details are digitally captured. But I know as well that if you know the ‘right’ people in a typical Nigerian prison, your records can get erased.

“I am not saying this as hearsay. It is something that I discovered. I don’t know if that has happened but I am just wondering why have inmates escaped and then 48 hours after, the government has not released their names and pictures.

Ideally, these things are in their records already. It is not as if they have to go and start looking for them”, he said.

But the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, dismissed any insinuation that the jailbreak was orchestrated by any individual as it was clear that it was caused by a natural disaster, assuring that such an incident would never recur.

He however hinted that because urbanization had eaten into most of the custodial centres nationwide, the government would relocate a lot of them to create better infrastructure and security.

He said the ministry was already working behind the scenes to fashion out a correctional system that would work for all.

No jailbreak or attack in 2023

Saturday Vanguard reports that in almost one year in office of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, there have not been any cases of jailbreak or attack in all the 253 custodial centres across the country.

Indeed, the NCoS attributed the zero attack on the custodial centres nationwide to comprehensive measures taken by the Service to bolster the security of the facilities and effectively counteract any potential threats, whether originating from internal or external sources.

The prison management, it would be recalled, had announced on January 20, that 2023 would be a tough year for perpetrators of jailbreaks across the country as massive personnel and technology for intelligence gathering were already deployed to forestall jail attacks.

Pattern of previous jailbreaks and statistics of fleeing inmates in the past years

The zero jail break record of 2023 was, however, a clear departure from what it used to be in the past.

Between 2016 and 2022 alone, Saturday Vanguard tracked twenty attacks on prison facilities in Nigeria. 2021 has the highest number of incidents in the 7 years with a total of 7 attacks.

From Jimeta Prison in Damaturu, Shagamu Minimum Security Prisons in Ogun State, Olokuta Medium Security Prisons in Ondo State, to Koto-Karfe Federal Medium Security Prisons in Kogi, the narrative is the same.

According to the immediate past Interior Minister, Rauf Aregbesola, he stated that between 2010 and 2021 alone, available statistics showed that there were, at least, 30 different prison breaks in different custodial centres of the NCoS in the country which resulted in the escape of over 7,000 inmates while, of the figure, 3,300 inmates escaped from Nigerian correctional centres in just one year, worsening the country’s security situation.

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For instance, on July 29, 2016, 13 inmates escaped during a jailbreak at the Koton/Karfe Correctional Centre in Kogi State. The security agencies were only able to re-arrest one of the inmates. On August 9, 2016, 15 inmates broke out of their cells and scaled the perimeter fence at the Nsukka Correctional Centre in Enugu State. Only two inmates were rearrested. On December 27, 2017, 36 inmates escaped at the Ikot Ekpene Correctional Facility in Akwa Ibom State with only seven inmates re-arrested. Armed men attacked the Medium Security Correctional Facility in Tunga, Minna, Niger State, on June 3, 2018 where over 200 inmates were freed.

In the end, only 28 prisoners were recaptured. On October 28, 2019, about 122 inmates escaped from the Koton Karfe Correctional Centre in Kogi State due to the flooding that overwhelmed a section of the facility while on October 19, 2020, about 1,993 inmates escaped in the jailbreaks that happened in Benin and Oko, Edo State. Three days later, on October 22, 58 inmates fled from the Okitipupa Custodial Centre in Ondo State during the #EndSARS protests.

Also, during the October 2020 #EndSARS protest, hoodlums numbering over 100 in Benin, caused 1,993 prisoners to escape from two prisons. A few hours later, one of the inmates who had escaped from Oko prison went to his village to kill a witness who had testified against him in court. Two weeks after the incident, only a total of 207 either turned themselves in or were rearrested.

On October 22, 2020, another set of hoodlums attacked the National Correctional Service Facility in Okitipupa, Ondo State, setting 58 prisoners free. Gunmen attacked the Owerri Custodial Centre in Imo State with explosives and dynamite on April 5, 2021, freeing 1,884 inmates. In the attack described as one of the worst in the country’s history, the operation lasted from 1 am to 3 am. The prison authorities revealed that 600 inmates either returned to the facility or were rearrested after the attack. On Tuesday, July 5, 2022, at about 10:30 pm, a large number of heavily armed terrorists stormed the Kuje Medium Security Prisons located in FCT, Abuja, with high explosives and guns, overpowered the minimally armed security guards on duty and freed over 800 of the 994 inmates in the facility. The terrorists who released all the 69 Boko Haram suspects detained in the prison also attacked the record section of the prison to destroy available inmates’ records so that the government would have nothing to fall back on to trace the released inmates. For the inmates who were not members of the terror group, the terrorists allegedly shared transportation fare with them to aid their escape, among several others.

Aregbesola who said the statistics were worrying, announced that the Federal Government had declared all custodial centres as critical national assets and that extra armed guards were being mobilised to protect the national assets.

He disclosed that the Interior Ministry had started taking the DNA and bio-metric information of all inmates across the country as a first step to securing the prisons while also beefing up security across such facilities.

For instance, a sum of N4 billion was allocated in 2015; N14 billion in 2016; and N16.6 billion in 2017; while higher allocations were made in 2018 and 2019, with other following years having over 70 per cent recurrent expenditure.

But it appears the impact is yet to show as the constant challenge of overcrowding persists while aggrieved inmates are still itching to breach prisons’ security to escape.

The latest jailbreak, its implications and how to permanently avert recurrence

A one-time Attorney-General of Abia State, Prof. Awa Kalu, SAN, has, however, advised that the time is now that the nation’s antiquated prisons built in colonial times must be renovated, refurbished, renewed or reconstructed as the case may be.

He also said that it is high time that those who have authority to convict and sentence began to feel free and proud to impose non-custodial sentences, especially where the offence is not severe or abhorrent, and in addition, where the trial judge or magistrate is at liberty to impose non-custodial sentences (such as fines), where possible to decongest prisons.

“I believe that it is necessary for reducing the population of inmates awaiting trial, for the chief judges of states to take advantage of the law which empowers them to visit correctional centres to release those who are charged with minor offences as well as misdemeanours, particularly those who have spent a longer time awaiting trial than they would have, had they been timeously tried, convicted and sentenced.

“I remember that before the abolition of the offence of wandering (by Decree), a lot of people spent up to five years awaiting trial for wandering. We live in an environment where disputes of a civil nature are converted to serious crimes which some agencies eagerly exploit unwarrantedly.

“Therefore, the situation requires a holistic approach and the earlier the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Comptroller General of correctional facilities as well as multiple prosecutorial authorities, sit together and fashion a solution, the better. A stitch in time saves nine,” he added.

A former spokesperson of the correctional service, Mr. Austin Njoku who aligned with Awa Kalu on the state of the nation’s correctional centres also advised that the government should give prison reformation special attention.

His words: “If you travel outside the country, you will discover that a prison is built in a quiet and isolated place where there are buffer zones and you cross hurdles and red zones before you gain access. If you are coming with a mind to attack, before you reach the first gate, second gate and third gate, the security will be aware that the person coming has an agenda.

“Think of any custodial centre you will see in Nigeria, all of them are situated inside the town, you can’t stop people and motorists from passing and you don’t know who is who, so it becomes a problem.

“We should condemn most of the correctional centres we have now, they are not up to standard, and they can’t hold the calibre of inmates we have. The government should bring out the money. The idea of when something happens, you set up a committee and sit down and bring some few millions to buy vehicles, is not helping,” he added.

Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, has also strongly advised the Federal Government to take concrete steps that will lead to winning the war against jailbreaks in Nigeria instead of adopting a fire brigade approach anytime there is a security breach in our prisons.

He said jailbreak would be a thing of the past if the Federal Government had complied with sections 28 (1), (2) & (3) of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act which says the government should provide monitoring devices to protect, control and safeguard correctional activities, including observatory towers, double perimeter walls, close circuit television, body scanners, e-monitoring devices, electrically activated alarm systems and other instruments of restraint.

He urged the Federal Executive Council to urgently approve funds for the purchase and installation of the necessary security equipment.