Monday, October 25, 2021 2:18 pm
By Muideen Olalekan Olagunju
As a legal practitioner who until recently had my primary base in Oyo, the Nigeria Correctional Service’s Abolongo facility is a very familiar terrain. While it is actually one of the more modern facilities in the country, there is hardly anything to write home about in terms of infrastructure leading up to the facility. The road off Ogbomoso road that leads to prison is atrociously bad. It has never been tarred. No kind of vehicle can do a 80 kilometers per hour on that road. The security implications of that kind of road can only be imagined.
When I heard reports of a prison break, I was not surprised. The overwhelming feeling was anger. It is not unusual for prisoners to escape during a jail break. This happens regularly in some countries. A horrible scenario is to have innocent people murdered. Unconfirmed reports indicate one soldier and one “Amotekun” operative lost their lives in a hail of bullets from the assailants who were armed to the teeth.
One of the worst run institutions in Nigeria is the prison. I’ve been to Abolongo, Agodi and Ilesha prisons. The conditions can only be described as dehumanizing. It is in fact about time to start an advocacy that will seek to
at least improve the living standards of the inmates. Abolongo has capacity for 160 inmates. On the day of the attack, there were more than 800 inmates in the facility.
There are principally two types of prison inmates. The convicted and the awaiting-trial inmates. The convicted are those whose trials have been concluded in court and have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment. The awaiting-trial inmates are those remanded in prison by court, either because the court lacks jurisdiction to grant them bail or because they have been denied bail due to the gravity of their offences. Sometimes a person is remanded on account of not being able to perfect bail, that is, bail has been granted but the inmate has found it difficult or impossible to meet the conditions of the bail. Those convicted must wear prison issued clothes. In Nigeria, it comes in blue. Those remanded may or may not wear prison issued uniform which comes in light green.
To say prison inmates in Nigeria are poorly housed and fed is an understatement. Our prisons are hell holes. No one can rely on prison food and not come out evidently malnourished. It’s a veritable weight loss program. This is not as a result of lack of funds but just a wicked disposition to welfare. There are unconfirmed reports that the government allocates #730 (don’t believe the 4k figure bandied around at a time). The kind and quality of food on the menu can only be imagined.
Basic facilities are sparse. Furnitures are old and rickety. The officers work under the most difficult conditions. I say this with all modesty, at a time, I had to fund the purchase of a brand new generator at the behest of an Islamic organization for the purpose of pumping borehole water at Abolongo. At another time, I had to get cartons of bar soaps and several
dozens of bathroom slippers for the inmates. Some officers whispered to me that the inmates use “Omo Ayo” soap manufactured in Ilora, so I got cartons of the soap. It is as bad as that! If not for Christian and Muslim organizations that do prison outreaches, the situation would have been worse. These organizations regularly donate food and other essentials.
This is worryingly porous. The guards section always looks understaffed. It is evident that morale is low. The issue of the road leading to the facility portends a disaster waiting to happen. If prisoners are transported on bad roads, the movement of the prisoners to and from courts is vulnerable to attacks. Abolongo facility services Oyo, Ogbomoso and Oke-Ogun. Take a look at how slow the movement will be on the Oyo-Iseyin road, for instance. Usually there are two armed escorts who sit inconveniently at the back of prison van or pick up. Waylaying them will be easy-peasy if there is any such plan.
It is high time there was a change in the approach to infrastructural development in the immediate environments of the prison. The road from Ogbomoso road should be well-paved and tarred. The FG or the state government should hasten action on this. One can only imagined how difficult it would be for security reinforcements to arrive Abolongo after the recent attack.
A prison like Abolongo can be fitted with alternative source of energy. Solar is on my mind. The borehole should be solar powered and other electrical issues can also come under that grid. Streetlights and floodlights must also be installed and powered. CCTV, which the prison does not have, can also be solar-powered.
There is a watchtower but it is poorly constructed. I doubt it is in use. A high properly-manned watchtower would have helped to repel external attacks even though it is disturbing to learn that the attackers came with explosives. Prison walls must be high and impregnable (oh well, except the attackers have so much time to rig the wall with dynamites). Look at the attached picture. That’s the main door to complex. Just the standard metal door people use in private homes. In many countries of the world, the doors and bars are reinforced and automated. There are advanced alarm systems that connect immediately to nearby security agencies. The prison itself must have trained SWAT-like personnel. All missing at Abolongo and most of our prisons.
MODERN OFFICE/RECORD FACILITIES
I heard the attackers destroyed records at the prison. This indicates that apart from names, there may be nothing to trace the fleeing inmates with. I doubt if there are back-up records. There is possibly nothing stored away on computer clouds. By now, pictures of the fugitives ought to be on posters, TV and newspapers.
This is the critical question. Prison breaks don’t occur for the fun of it. The attackers sought to break someone or some people out. The attack was not primarily plotted and executed as a bonanza for the multitudes of inmates who couldn’t believe their luck. The inmate list is a blend of hardened, petty and first-offending criminals or accused persons. There are also the innocent ones who found themselves behind bars through false incrimination. A lot of them escaped on a day mother luck smiled down on them. The attack was at the instance of one or just a few inmates. Proper investigation will reveal the identity of the inmate(s). Who is he or who are they? Did the prison authority take note of high-risk inmates? I’m talking about inmates whose associates may seek to free at all cost. Do they keep tabs on phone calls made by inmates? Do they understand telephone “codes”? Do they have hears and eyes in the cells? The job could not have been pulled if the prison authority was not caught unawares.
There are criminals on the loose. That’s bad and dangerous. They all left with nothing but the clothes behind their backs. They will need money and fresh clothes to be able to make their escape successful. Most of them will turn to crimes. There are armed robbers and burglars among the fugitives. I have information that the armed robbers nabbed in a bank heist also escaped. They are likely to rob again in order escape far enough from the law.
Our judges and magistrates will be jittery if security is not beefed up in and around the courts. We have had cases where criminals attacked courts to free one of their own. There may be a heightened sense of can-do among associates of notorious criminals. Courts need protection.
Civil society in Nigeria should cast glances at the way our prisons are run. Government should be prodded to improve standards and beef up security. The prison is the least funded among the paramilitary establishments. The prisons service doesn’t bring in revenue like the Customs and the Immigration Services. While the army and the police have huge budgets for training and weaponry, the prison is far behind in those considerations. While the police eke extra living from bribes and extortion, prison officers don’t have such latitudes except when family and friends of inmates pay visits to the prison. In Agodi, I’ve had serious altercations with the officers when asked to pay before registering my name in a visitors book under a shed just after the main entrance. You register there before proceeding to the entrance. In broad daylight, you pay before entry except you indicate you are a lawyer. Still, what they can’t get from you by extortion, they get with smiles and hyping.
The Ministry of Interior should wake up to its oversight responsibility. Where is the bulk of the welfare fund going? Why are prisoners poorly fed? Why do prisons have abject facilities? Ogbeni Aregbesola should rise to the occasion. Under his watch, these bad situations should abate.
There must be committees of both the Senate and HoR overseeing the prison system. They should wake up from their slumber and help get the system to measure up. Anybody can end up in prison for any of the broad range of offences in our laws. Our prisons are scarcely capable of meeting the reformation goal of incarceration. Our federal lawmakers are in the best position to enforce the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, otherwise known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules”.
Our prisons should be taking mug photographs of inmates. Finger printing is so cheap, MTN and other network providers give the machines to every Tom, Dick and Harry taking biometrics for them. Why can’t the police and prison systems have these facilities with a view of having an extensive database of offenders? It is one of the indices of our backwardness that we can’t take proper records in our criminal justice system. I dare say we don’t keep criminal records in this country. Except a police prosecutor is availed of information, the courts hardly know a particular accused person is a repeat offender.
The perpetrators MUST be brought to book in order to deter others in future. It is a bad situation that needs to serve as wake up call.
I commiserate with the families of the fallen security agents. It’s an avoidable situation. Sad.
Muideen Olalekan Olagunju is a lawyer and public affairs analyst.