Jailbreak epidemic hits Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons

Last month, gunmen stormed a medium-security prison in Jos, central Nigeria, for the second time this year, managing to free more than 250 inmates.

It was just the latest occurrence in a spate of jailbreaks that has been unravelling in Africa’s most populous country since 2010. More than 7,000 people have escaped from several prisons over that period, with many still remaining at large, according to an Al Jazeera analysis of data from local media reports and escapee numbers provided by officials. The figure amounts to a tenth of the total official number for those currently in custody nationwide, a regularly updated summary of the inmate population published by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) shows.

In the past 14 months alone, there have been eight successive jailbreaks, more than double the number of such incidents in the previous three years. This figure does not include riots, foiled prison break attempts, or clashes between armed non-state actors and law enforcement at police stations to forcefully release detained suspects. Last month, security operatives foiled a bizarre attempt by criminals seeking to hijack a suspect from the Lagos court building where he was standing trial.

Nigeria’s penitentiary system has long been saddled with a multitude of problems. The country’s criminal and penal codes are archaic, while the infrastructure is mostly a relic of the British colonial era (the Benin prison dates back to 1906), long before Nigeria’s population explosion and a consequent rise in crime.

Even worse, the facilities are some of the most overcrowded globally, with Nigeria ranking 49th on a list of 206 countries in the World Prison Brief published by the University of London’s Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. The Ikoyi prison, built in 1955 for a capacity of 800 people, now accommodates approximately four times that number. The absence of a public security surveillance system has also placed the burden of ensuring security on manual monitoring by security personnel, who are underpaid and underequipped.

‘Awaiting trial’

According to the NCS, there are currently 70,653 prisoners across 240 centres nationwide. Only a third of them have been convicted while the rest are filed under “awaiting trial”. The latter category is local legal parlance for suspects who have been jailed for years for petty crimes such as shoplifting and traffic offences without conviction. In some facilities, those “awaiting trial” represent up to 90 percent of the total prison population, whose true number is believed to be much higher than the official one.

“There are individuals in these facilities who don’t know when they are going to go out, some [are in] for offences that they would’ve been discharged even if they were convicted,” said Uju Agomoh, director at the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) group.

“So you see a situation where within, there is tension because of this disproportionate number of persons who have not been convicted and it begins to be overbearing on the infrastructure, cell spaces, water, health – everything.”

Consequently, the prisons have been susceptible to all manner of attacks in recent years, including invasions by armed groups or unknown gunmen, to riots by inmates.

An exception was an October 2019 jailbreak triggered by a flooding incident at the Koton-Karfe prison in Kogi, south of the capital, Abuja. More than 200 inmates escaped as floodwaters overwhelmed the prison fences, prompting Lazarus Ogbee, the federal politician heading a committee on reformatory exclamations, to say: “This nature of jailbreak is first of its kind in the whole world and to say the least, embarrassing.”

Correctional centres in Kogi have also been attacked by inmates and by Boko Haram, twice.

The attacks often result in many casualties. In the latest incident in Jos prison, at least 10 people were killed and seven were critically wounded.

In July, Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola admitted that the facilities have “shot above the capacity by 18 percent”. The government official, who has called for an introduction of a parole system, also said some of the jails outside the big cities of Kano, Port Harcourt and Lagos are under-populated.

According to Agomoh, a solution could be that the NCS comptroller-general move prisoners from crammed centres to under-populated ones to even out the disparities. Assistant comptroller-generals can do so within their zones of jurisdiction, too.

But the high number of inmates yet to be convicted means any movement could cause administrative and logistical challenges.

Data, meanwhile, shows all the jailbreaks over the past decade have happened outside the major cities, but in congested prisons nonetheless. Recent figures on the ratio between intended capacity and current capacity are hard to find, but a 2016 report by the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said Kogi, which has averaged one jailbreak every two years in the past 10 years, had an extra 133 inmates above its assigned capacity of 530 then.

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