The Federal Government has asked the International Criminal Police Organisation to be on the alert and lookout for the inmates who escaped in the recent jailbreaks in the country, including the most recent in Owerri, the Imo State capital.
It added that the Nigerian Immigration Service had also been issued an alert, noting that the data of the inmates were being compiled and would be sent to the relevant organisations in batches so as not to delay the manhunt.
A senior official with the National Correctional Service on Saturday told one of our correspondents on condition of anonymity that the number of “dangerous” inmates on the loose officially was 3,471, including those who escaped in Owerri.
The source noted that the inmates included hardened criminals, kidnappers, armed robbers and condemned criminals awaiting execution. “Suffice it to say that the bulk of those who fled Owerri correctional centre are hardened criminals,” the source added.
No fewer than 1,844 inmates escaped from the Owerri Custodial Centre on Monday when unidentified gunmen broke into the facility with the aid of explosives. The gunmen also attacked the state police headquarters, where they freed about 600 suspects in custody. The attackers torched the facilities and also vehicles on both premises.
Despite the persuasion by the Federal Government and its assurance that they would be given amnesty from fresh prosecution if they returned to the facility, the NCoS said on its website on Wednesday that it had a total of 84 inmates back in custody. It said the figure included those who did not flee during the jailbreak, those recaptured, those who voluntarily returned and those brought back by their relations, traditional rulers and religious leaders.
Further investigations by Sunday PUNCH showed that about 1,780 inmates were on the loose, while only 35 inmates didn’t escape during the attack.
On Friday, NCoS authorities published on its Twitter handle the names and pictures of 36 of the fleeing inmates.
Meanwhile, following the escapees’ refusal to return to the custodial centre, the NCoS said it was compiling the names and pictures of the fleeing inmates for dispatch to the NIS to prevent them from leaving the country and INTERPOL to track those who might have fled.
The NCoS spokesperson, Francis Enobore, a Controller of Corrections, said the service would seek the assistance of the two agencies in arresting the escaped inmates.
Disclosing this to Sunday PUNCH on Saturday, Enobore said, “We are putting the list together, we would definitely seek INTERPOL and NIS’ assistance.”
Asked how soon they planned to do it, Enobore stated, “Like the ones we are processing now, we want everything to be comprehensive so that we send them at the same time. We also realise that waiting for the list to be comprehensive before sending may also slow down the manhunt, so these batches that are coming up would be sent for local searches at motor parks and other places but everything would be uploaded to the (INTERPOL) platform.”
Investigations by one of our correspondents showed that the 3,471 inmates, who are now part of society, escaped from three custodial centres. Some of them are said to be serving jail terms for various crimes, including murder, armed robbery and kidnapping while hundreds are facing trial for different crimes.
Official figures obtained by Sunday PUNCH indicated that 1,780 inmates of Owerri custodial centre were still missing, while about 600 suspects were released from the Imo State police headquarters by the gunmen. The NCoS on Friday released 36 names and photos of some of the fleeing inmates.
Meanwhile, findings showed that many inmates who escaped from the Oko and Benin custodial centres in Edo State during the violence that erupted after the #EndSARS protest was hijacked by hoodlums in October last year had not been apprehended till date.
While 1,161 inmates escaped from Oko custodial centre, 530 absconded from the Benin custodial facility.
Confirming this to our correspondent on Saturday, the senior NCoS officer who said, “the number of dangerous inmates on the loose now is 3,471,” describing the fugitives as “hardened criminals who are capable of compounding the security situation in the country.”
The officer expressed worry over the number of condemned criminals who cannot be accounted for till now.
The source said, “Those who released these dangerous inmates didn’t know they are creating problems for themselves and the nation by their action. It is a stupid thing to do. It is like cutting off your hand because you are not happy with your finger. Many of those who escaped from the Owerri correctional centre are convicted kidnappers and murderers and the fear is that they would likely go back to their violent ways and even commit worse crimes.”
Meanwhile, security agencies including undercover intelligence operatives have been combing communities in the South-East and other parts of the country in search of the fleeing Owerri inmates.
Men of the Department of State Services, police, NCoS and soldiers have been deployed in villages and towns in pursuit of the escaped inmates.
The spokesperson for the Imo State police command, Orlando Ikeokwu, could not provide the number of re-arrested suspects when contacted on Saturday. He however promised to provide the figure on Monday when he would be in the office.
Immigration beefs up security at borders as police search for fleeing prisoners
The NIS says it has beefed up security at the nation’s borders in a bid to arrest the inmates and suspects who escaped from the Imo jailbreak as they may be planning to flee the country.
The Spokesperson for the NIS, Mr Sunday James, told Sunday PUNCH that immigration had received the names and photos of some of the escapees from the NCoS.
James said, “We have the details of those people (suspects). They have been sent to us officially. So, we are monitoring with those pictures as a sister agency. We have sent the photos to our border officers and they are monitoring with those pictures’’.
Over the years, the country’s correctional centres have been excessively congested. The 244 custodial centres have a capacity of about 50,153, but there are about 75,000 inmates, out of which over 50,000 (about 70 per cent) are awaiting trial while over 20,000 (about 30 per cent) had been convicted. This had consistently attracted criticisms from experts, analysts and government officials.
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in 2017 said it was a scandal for the nation’s prisons to be congested to up to about 90 per cent. “We need a new approach to prison congestion; it is a national scandal that many of our prisons are overcrowded by up to 90 per cent,” he said when the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, led a delegation of the justices of the Supreme Court, Appeal Court as well as heads of other judicial organs to pay him a courtesy visit at the Presidential Villa.
Apart from the congestion, the appalling state of the correctional centres had been a source of worry for many. Vice-President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, once said anyone who entered the Port Harcourt Prison as a human being could come out as an animal.
Apart from the three custodial centres mentioned earlier, there have been jailbreaks in the country without any record to show that all the escapees returned or were captured.
Some of the jailbreaks included those in Bauchi, Maiduguri, Okitipupa, Minna, Nsukka, Kogi and the Federal Capital Territory. In Bauchi and Maiduguri, some of those who escaped were Boko Haram members.
‘Prosecution witnesses against escaped prisoners face high risk’
Security experts have however raised the alarm that the escaped inmates pose a grave danger to society, noting that the hardened criminals among them could go after persons who served as prosecution witnesses to the security agencies that prosecuted them.
A security analyst, Mr Ben Okezie, said the huge number of missing inmates spoke volumes about the poor state of the correctional facilities and exposed the administrative flaws in the system.
He noted that some of the custodial facilities lacked security cameras, adding that the government also failed to do anything to recapture the missing criminals.
He stated, “It is unfortunate that this huge number of inmates can find their way out of the correctional facilities and nobody is talking about bringing them back. It also shows the kind of government we have; it should have fired one or two officials and also prosecute them for gross inefficiency.”
Okezie expressed concern that the fleeing inmates could link up with other criminal gangs to further unleash mayhem on communities, adding that they might also embark on revenge missions against security personnel for putting them behind bars.
He added, “The earlier security agencies start mopping them up and bring them back to the prisons, the better. If Boko Haram is able to recruit them, that means more trouble for the country, especially, our security agencies. They will retaliate against the security agencies for putting them in prisons. Many of them were kept in custody for years without prosecution, they may embark on revenge mission against the security agencies.”
The security expert advised the security agencies to track the fugitives down to their villages.
Similarly, a security and management risk consultant, Kabir Adamu, said the escaped convicts would likely return to their previous activities, which would further complicate the tense security situation in the country.
He added, “You have a range of criminals from kidnappers to terrorists and it means we would be dealing with increase in multitudes of security challenges. It is also likely that those who carried out the jailbreak are gang members and going by the information we had that they are interested in insurrection, secession, it means they would tap their expertise. They are going to recruit them into their camp and use their expertise to accomplish their objectives. Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t portend well for the Nigerian state.”
According to him, the frequent jailbreaks in the country exposed the lack of integrity of the correctional facilities, noting that most of them required security upgrade.
Adamu stated, “There should be about three concentric circles of security in the custodial centres so that if the first circle is circumvented, you are able to arrest or shoot him (escaping inmate) down before breaching the second security circle.
“I’m worried; the data of the Oko and Benin escaped convicts should have been put out so that the world would keep an eye on them and report them. The fact that they (NCoS) have not done this means they didn’t have the data of the convicts.”
Similarly, the President, Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria and Chairman of Trans-World Security Systems Ltd., Dr Ona Ekhomu, said the implications of their escape were scary and dangerous for the Nigerian society, given that some of them were guilty of rape, murder, cultism, kidnapping and banditry.
He said, “What do you think would happen? People gave testimonies that put them in jail, what do you think would happen? They would go after those people like we saw in Edo State (when an escapee inmate went to kill the prosecution witness that testified against him during his trial). For some of them, their spouses might have remarried, they might go after the new spouses.
“Also, they see the rest of the society as their enemy. The dominant effect is that when you have a jailbreak, if we are not careful, you would soon find that different groups, such as bandits, kidnappers and some criminal herdsmen would start making attempts to bring their people out of the correctional centres. There are lots of copycats in crime. It is proven that in their world, they copy each other’s methods when they see that it works for some people.”
He said persuading them to return might not work as some of them would see it as another chance while some could have left the country.
He added, “I remember Benin Prison that was broken into during the #EndSARS violence and some of the inmates escaped. I remember the governor (Godwin Obaseki), saying humorously that they should come back and I have heard some people say that in this case too, and I’m sure those inmates would laugh wherever they are. Some might even be on their way to Libya. There is no point deceiving ourselves.”