Nigeria: Thousands of Escaped Prisoners Still At Large

Of the 4,369 inmates who escaped from various prisons in Nigeria between January 2020 and December 2021, only 984 were recaptured.

Though jailbreaks are not new in Nigeria, they have worsened under President Muhammadu Buhari. Since he assumed office in 2015, jailbreaks have been recorded in 11 different states of the country and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja due to poor security features such as a shortage of armed personnel and weapons required to guard the facilities.

Aside from these, poor management of inmates and the high number of those awaiting trial also contribute to overcrowding in Nigeria’s correctional centres, making them vulnerable to attacks and also putting the country’s criminal justice system on trial.

According to data by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), at least 65 correctional facilities are overcrowded in south-west Nigeria.

This, according to the data, is the same situation in the South-east and South-south regions. While facilities in the Northern regions are not as crowded, at least two inmates are staying in the space intended for one person.

Some lawyers and rights activists told PREMIUM TIMES that Nigeria’s unproductive judicial system contributes to the congestion. “Some cases aren’t meant to be filed at the magistrate court because they lack jurisdiction to hear some matters,” Rasaq Alao, a Lagos-based lawyer, said. “While waiting for the advice of the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP), suspects are remanded for months or years pending the time they (their cases) will be transferred to the high court by the police for the suspect’s bail.”

Although Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola had on several occasions asked state governments to work with the federal government on how to end the menace, efforts to lawfully decongest prisons have not yielded positive results. Unlawful decongestion of correctional facilities, through jailbreaks, has become the norm with over 4,000 escapees still in hiding.

Unending jailbreaks

PREMIUM TIMES reported that 13 inmates escaped during a jailbreak at the Koton/Karfe Correctional Centre in Kogi State after they brought down a section of the prison on 29 July 2016. Of all the people who escaped, only one person was reportedly rearrested.

Weeks after that incident, another jailbreak occurred in Nsukka Correctional Centre in Enugu State. In the 9 August 2016 incident, no fewer than 15 inmates fled their cells. Security operatives only announced the rearrest of two thereafter.

In another incident on 27 December 2017, 36 inmates escaped from Ikot Ekpene Correctional Facility in Akwa Ibom State, after they wrested an axe from a kitchen staffer and used it in fighting prison officials. While seven of the inmates were rearrested by security operatives, four others died when trying to escape.

Similarly, the Medium Security Correctional Facility in Tunga, Minna, Niger State, was attacked by armed persons on 3 June 2018, leading to the escape of over 200 inmates. Only 28 prisoners were recaptured by security operatives.

At the height of the #EndSARS protest on 19 October 2020, hoodlums launched coordinated attacks on the Benin and Oko prisons in Edo State. They freed 1,993 inmates from both prisons in the process. One of the prisoners who escaped went to his village to kill a witness who testified against him in court. Only 207 of the escaped prisoners were rearrested.

Another attack was launched on the National Correctional Service Facility in Okitipupa, Ondo State, on 22 October 2020, after armed persons pulled down the walls of the facility and set 58 prisoners free. While efforts were ongoing to account for the ruins in Ondo, armed persons attempted to break into the Ikoyi Correctional Centre in Lagos on the same day. They were however repelled by a combined team of correctional officers and the military.

More worrisome cases

On 5 April 2021, Owerri Custodial Centre in Imo State was attacked with explosives and dynamites, and 1,884 inmates were set free. The operation reportedly lasted for two hours. According to the prison authorities, 600 inmates either returned or were rearrested after the attack.

In another incident, 240 inmates were released and two prison officials killed when assailants attacked the Medium Security Custodial Centre in Kabba, Kogi State, on 12 September 2021. Security agencies later said they rearrested 114 of the escaped prisoners.

Gunmen also attacked the Abologo Custodial Centre in Oyo State, on 22 October 2021, freeing 837 prisoners in the process. As in previous cases, not everyone who escaped was recaptured as security officials only rearrested 252 prisoners.

Although four inmates escaped from the Medium Security Custodial Centre, Jos, Plateau State, in July 2021, the facility suffered another attack on 28 November 2021, when gunmen launched an attack that led to the release of 262 inmates. A total of 10 inmates and one security official were killed during the attack.

“The task force is expected to set in motion deliberate strategies to ensure that every fleeing inmate is arrested and their collaborators too are prosecuted,” Mr Aregbesola said then, assuring Nigerians that all who ran away will be recaptured. That never occurred.

Arguably, the worst attack on a Nigerian prison was launched several months later on one of Nigeria’s ‘most secure’ prisons. The attack on the Kuje Correctional Centre in Abuja on 5 July led to the escape of more than 600 inmates.

Defence Minister Bashir Magashi would later announce that all the 64 members of the Boko Haram terrorists in the prison fled the facility.

“I think there are about 64 Boko Haram (members) in prison, they have all escaped,” he told the press.

Lack of intelligence?

In a bid to ensure national security and adequate profiling of prison inmates, the Nigerian government last November claimed that it had captured the biometric data of all inmates in Nigerian correctional centres. It said the measure would help in rearresting any who may escape.

Meanwhile, as of the time of filing this report, all that has followed the Kuje jailbreak is a blame game. President Buhari blamed the intelligence gathering system for the security loophole during a visit to the facility.

“I am disappointed with the intelligence system. How can terrorists organise, have weapons, attack a security installation and get away with it? I am expecting a comprehensive report on this shocking incident,” the Nigerian leader said.

Senate President Ahmad Lawan said he was shocked there were no Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) devices at the Kuje prison.

“How on earth does a centre of this magnitude in the FCT not have any CCTV? It means we can say that all other medium security custodial centres across the country do not have CCTV,” Mr Lawan said.

On his part, Minister Aregbesola said: “we have enough men to protect this facility but unfortunately they couldn’t hold their position effectively for defence and that was the reason for the breach.”

4,369 inmates escaped

A PREMIUM TIMES analysis of the jailbreaks shows that out of a total number of 4,369 inmates who escaped from various prisons between 2020 and December 2021, only 984 were recaptured. This implies that a total of 3,385 prisoners are still at large.

Also, a report recently published by the Punch newspapers stated that 546 of the Kuje inmates who escaped were still at large.

Abubakar Umar, the spokesperson of the correctional service, did not respond to enquiries about the actual number of those that have been recaptured and efforts in place to rearrest those still at large.

Najim Isaac, a security expert, expressed disappointment in the failure of security operatives to recapture inmates that escaped from prisons.

“Despite saying they have done biometric capturing of all inmates, the majority of those who escaped are still on the run. We have authorities who talk more than they act and this reminds us why it is so easy for Mr A to be sentenced without even being to prison.

“The fact that many inmates are still at large means all security sectors are complicit in the poor security management of the custodial centres. The federal government must also as a matter of fact ensure that the leadership of the correctional service participate in the security meetings because they know the prisoners more than other security personnel. It is also sad that we lack basic modern security apparatuses such as closed circuit televisions that could capture what is going on outside. All of these, I believe are making rearrest of those who escaped difficult.”

Adding to this, Chinedu Okoli, a criminologist, said “adopting the fire brigade approach won’t help. We should not be using analogue approach in a digital age where criminals are specialised in various ways of ensuring they are not caught.”

He said the failure of the authorities to recapture thousands of escaped inmates means the society is filled with criminals who may perpetuate more atrocities.

Speaking on the way forward, Mr Okoli advised that Nigeria should partner with the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) to track escaped prisoners using modern techniques.