Editorial Top Stories

Keep prisons safe to save Nigerians

On October 19, 2020, thugs, working under the guise of the hitherto peaceful #EndSARS protests, launched coordinated attacks on two custodial centres of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS), formerly the Nigerian Prison Service.

The protests, originally, were to demand an end to harassment, extortion, illegal arrest/ detention, brutality and extrajudicial killings by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the police as well as other forms of atrocities by the police in general. During the invasion of the prisons – the White House Custodial Centre on Sapele Road and Oko Custodial Centre on Airport Road – both in Benin, Edo State, about 2,000 inmates were reportedly set free by the protesters.

The NCoS Public Relations Officer (PRO), DCC A. C. Njoku, confirmed the attacks in a statement. Three days later, October 22, the protesters also attacked a correctional facility at Okitipupa, the headquarters of Okitipupa Local Government Area of Ondo State, and set free the inmates. Also on the same day, there were reports of an attack on the Ikoyi Correctional Centre in Lagos. The attack, it was reported, was an attempt to set free the inmates.

But in a statement, the PRO of the Lagos Command of NCoS, Supt. Rotimi Oladookun, denied there was an attack on the facility by the protesters. Oladookun, however, said there was an attempt by the inmates themselves to escape from the centre. According to him, the NCoS personnel foiled the attempted jailbreak by the inmates.

He said: “The inmates sought to take advantage of the current #EndSARS protests and enforced curfew in the state to stage a jailbreak. However, the inmates met stiff resistance by the personnel at the centre.

“Unfortunately, the inmates, in their attempted jailbreak, set a section of the custodial centre ablaze.” Even before the #EndSARS protests, there have been jailbreaks or attempts to break into prisons by men of the underworld to free their colleagues who have been incarcerated for criminal breaches.

Some of these armed gangs have successfully breached the integrity of the correctional centres and released their members who have always returned to crime. In the attacks on prisons during the protests, over 2,000 inmates, some of who were awaiting trials, some serving life jail sentences while others were condemned criminals.

However, the Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, has given the escaped inmates an ultimatum to return to the two custodial centres – Benin Medium Security Correctional Centre and Oko Medium Security Correctional Centre.

The governor had earlier given the escapees a week-ultimatum, which expired on Friday, October 23, 2020, which he later extended by another week. But while extending the ultimatum, the governor explained that some of the inmates had returned. The Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and Communication Strategy, Crusoe Osagie, said the extension followed the positive response from the inmates.

However, neither the governor nor his aide disclosed how many of the fleeing inmates had returned. There is, however, apprehension among Nigerians that unleashing hardened criminals on the country by the protesters can spell doom for the entire country if they are not brought back immediately. We advise protesters to stop breaking into prisons to release inmates whenever they are trying to register their grievances against government’s policies, actions or inactions.

The inmates are confined in prisons in the first place because they are considered, by the courts, as threats to the society for either a period of time or on a permanent basis. So releasing them because of anger against the government, whether genuine or perceived, is inimical to the security of other Nigerians.

We call on the Federal Government to immediately reinforce the security of the correctional centres. It should not be too easy for either internal or external breach of the safety of the custodial centres. We suggest the prison reforms embarked on by the Federal Government be taken a notch higher to ensure that the correctional centre actually lives its name as a reformatory centre.

In one of the videos showing the attacks on the correctional centres in Benin, one of the inmates claimed he had been in the prison for about four years awaiting trial. Sometimes many people are in the correctional centres for several years while awaiting trial.

They could end up spending more years in prison as awaiting trial inmates than the number of years they would need to spend if actually convicted for the crimes they were being tried for. These, among many other reasons, are contributory factors to jailbreaks in the country.

In better climes, prisoners convicted for lighter crimes are allowed to serve community services while others work outside and return to prison at night. This, apart from reducing prison congestion, will also discourage prison break. The task of re-arresting or getting the fleeing inmates to return should not be left for Edo State or Ondo State or any other state alone. Some of these inmates would by now be in neighbouring states while others could have gone as far as the northern parts of the country.

We beseech the Federal Government and the security agencies to take immediate steps to mop up the fleeing inmates before more havoc is wreaked on innocent Nigerians. Safety of Nigerians should be of utmost importance to the government.

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