NIGERIA’s jails are literally losing their shutters on an alarming scale these days. Stories of jailbreaks are so rife in the airspace that they have become a huge source of concern. The most recent story is the jailbreak at the Nsukka, Enugu State prisons. On August 17 this year, between the hours of 12.00 a.m and 3.00 a.m, an unspecified number of inmates escaped from the century-old prison, one of the colonial relics across Nigeria. However, the prison authorities later announced that six of the escapees had been found.
The escape of prisoners from jail houses has a lot of implications for the country, chief among which are security and justice. A prison escapee, who has not undergone the penance of a penitentiary, is forcefully decanted raw into society, with the potential to further inflict criminality on society. Again, the huge time and money that the state has spent on the prosecution of such a prisoner would be a waste and society would end up worse than it was before the committing of the crime for which he or she was jailed in the first place.
With the avalanche of socio-economic issues confronting Nigeria, there is the tendency to ignore the implications of prison breaks. Some people even grotesquely reason that the chaotic economic situation has made the country one huge prison, and so no one should bother about fellow inmates of a micro prison in a larger macro penitentiary exchanging one space for the other! Jailbreaks, especially their recurrence at this time, however pose grievous danger to the individual existence of Nigerians and demand urgent solutions.
While explaining the jailbreak to the press, the Controller of Prisons, Enugu Command, Mr. Isaiah Amariri, said that the facility, constructed to house 168 inmates, currently harbours 264 prisoners. This indeed is a major albatross of the Nigerian prisons. The facilities are daily being stretched to their limits, leading to a nullification of the objectives of imprisonment and ensuring that prisoners make every effort to escape the hellish life of the prisons.
Perhaps, the authorities are not aware that prisons are not strictly a home of punishment for infractions and malefactors. They are reformatories with the aim of ensuring that when persons are sent to the jailhouse, they come back better and useful to society. The current situation in Nigerian prisons is akin to sending people to their deaths. This is tragic and unacceptable.
There is thus the urgent need to reform the thinking of Nigerian prison authorities and officials. They should be trained in the global trends and perception of reformatory centres, in order to know how civilised societies perceive their prisoners and prisons. This will go a long way in de-radicalising their thoughts and conduce them to showing humanity and empathy to the prisoners in the course of managing them.
This training, coupled with noticeable improvement in the welfare of prison warders themselves, would most probably curtail the nefarious activity of diverting foods and amenities meant for the prisoners to private hands. Stories are told of how prison authorities divert these foods to themselves, leading to austerity in the prisons. The privileged ones among the inmates get their families to bring their food to the prisons, leading to security compromises and, in some cases, jailbreaks. The poverty and greed of prison authorities also ensure that wealthy prisoners are given illegal preferential treatments, chief of which is the usage of cell phones, with which jailbreaks are sometimes planned and executed.
Perhaps of the greatest concern are the obsolete facilities at the prisons. When they were constructed, many of them during the colonial era, it was not envisaged that they would be bursting at their seams with inmates, as they are currently. Successive Nigerian governments seldom bothered to expand the facilities or to adequately maintain them. This has resulted in the collapse of infrastructure in the prisons and the colonial relics have become virtual opposites of what they were planned to be. In seeking to stop the recurring jailbreaks, therefore, government must ensure that prisons become habitable and reformatory. It should intensify vocational training in the prisons and ensure that those who desire education among the inmates actualize their dream. Nelson Mandela, we hasten to remind the authorities, obtained an LLB from the University of South Africa and graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town while undergoing imprisonment at the Victor Verster Prison.
Yet, the need to disinfect the minds of even government itself of its skewed perception of prisons cannot be over-emphasised. Many government officials see prisons as death homes which should not be made habitable for inmates. Painfully, the jailbreaks epitomize protests against the inhuman conditions that are prevalent in them and the prisoners’ subtle rejection of a society that has consigned them to die in the death holes. Nigerian prisons dehumanize inmates and the only weapon of resistance available to the prisoners is to seek to assert their humanity.
Government, in seeking to end jailbreaks, must thus pay attention to the inhuman states of the nation’s prisons. Modern prisons must be constructed across the nation and monitoring of food supplies and amenities conducted routinely. It is only when these have been done effectively that the nation can ask for peace in the prisons.