About three weeks ago, the Olokuta Prison, a medium security facility, in Akure, Ondo State, was bombed by bandits, leading to the escape of about 175 prisoners. The Ondo State Police Command said 54 of the freed inmates have been re-arrested and returned to the prisons. The command said the attackers were hoodlums and not members of Boko Haram as earlier speculated. While many people attributed the attack to security lapses bearing in mind similar jail-breaks in the past, there has been no official word as to the real cause of the incidence or the solution to prevent recurrence.
Given the spate of jail-breaks, the role of the Nigerian Prisons Service and its supervising Ministry of Interior is coming increasingly under focus. Across the country, the prisons where convicts and suspects were duly sent for punishment or custody have suddenly become sources of internal security threat. It is indeed alarming that there have been no fewer than 15 deadly attacks at several prisons across the country within the last one year alone. Some of the places affected include Maiduguri, Kano, Bauchi, Enugu, Koton Karfe, Shagamu and lately Akure. Not too long ago, gunmen invaded Oko Prisons in Benin City, Edo State and reportedly freed about 12 inmates most of whom are still at large thereby constituting grave security risk to the country.
Just a few months ago, some criminals serving various jail terms revolted against the authorities and escaped from the highly-fortified Shagamu Prison in Ogun State. In the process, some of the inmates and prison officials were reportedly injured as guns boomed within the facility. While the authorities suspected some connivance between the officials and the inmates, a few days later there was another jail-break at the Federal Prisons, Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State where three inmates reportedly escaped. Up till today, there has also been no official explanation about those jail-breaks!
While jail-breaks are not new in Nigeria, the orgy of violence, notoriety and impunity with which the actors in the present jail-breaks operate in different parts of the country has become a serious threat to our national security. Sadly, the incessant jail- breaks reached a critical point in February last year when armed hoodlums invaded Koton Karfe Prisons, Kogi State, and freed 119 inmates with only 43 said to have been re-arrested. The questions we have repeatedly posed are: why are jail-breaks rampart in the country? Does this have to do with the conditions inside the prisons? How do the arms usually used by the fleeing inmates get in? Has the general laxity in security matters extended to the prisons where criminals are kept?
The rise in jail-breaks could partly be traced to the fact that Nigerian prisons have been congested and neglected over the years with little or no infrastructural development to match increase in number of inmates. But what is also not in doubt is the complacency or connivance of some prison officials who aid these criminals in the execution of their nefarious acts. Following the Koton Karfe incident, the Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro, had alluded to this ugly trend. He had observed that the officers are not doing enough to safeguard the prisons, and pointed out that the ease with which inmates in Bauchi, Port-Harcourt and Koton Karfe were set free by hoodlums poses serious challenge to the service.
Indeed, the ease with which some of these armed groups carry out their attacks seems to overwhelm the prison guards who might not have been well trained in weapon handling. Given that the job combines administration with law enforcement, a prison warden requires some specialised skills yet most of the officers who man our prisons do not have the requisite competences. That is what should worry our authorities as we seek to put an end to incessant jail -breaks across the country.