Nigeria: Crime & punishment - The “Attempted” Jailbreak at Kaduna

Inmates at a Kaduna Prison in Nigeria last Tuesday attempted a jailbreak, and no fewer than 15 of them are feared dead as security forces were called in to regain control of the situation. At the root of this situation are the appalling conditions in which the prisoners are kept, and beyond the prison itself the appalling living conditions of millions of Nigerian poor.

The state of Kaduna in Nigeria. Illustration by Jaimz height-field.The state of Kaduna in Nigeria. Illustration by Jaimz height-field. The attempted jailbreak at Kaduna prisons, the Comptroller of prisons said, was linked to over-crowding and “slow dispensation of justice,” and until the prisons are decongested, such attempts will continue; it was these conditions that were responsible for previous jailbreaks in Enugu, Kano, and Agodi prisons.

The prisoners had broken the lock to the cells during breakfast and overpowered the guards. They then broke into the prison workshop and armed themselves with dangerous weapons. The attempt, according to the Comptroller was foiled with two dead and about 39 injured. Kaduna prison, the prison boss said, woke that morning with about 797 inmates of which about 547 were still awaiting trial – some of them for upwards of 10-15 years! Little wonder then the attempts always occur in the awaiting-trial and armed robbery sections. A number of these prisoners are on death row.

No doubt some of these men – there were also 15 women – have committed heinous crimes, even murder. But a good number of them are in prison for some minor infringement of the law in a society where law never favours the common man, or woman. Not a few of them are also innocent. The justice system of the capitalists, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, is wracked with “brutal class spirit and with capitalist barbarism.” It is like a spider’s web: small animals get caught, while big ones tear it apart with ease.

The story of these jailbreaks is the condition in what Fela [Fela Kuti, the famous Nigerian musician] called the “inside world” – the hopelessness, the bitterness, the degradation and desperation, the overcrowding and utter waste of humanity. The story is no different in the “outside world” – in the slums and garbage communities; in the overcrowded, rotten tenements; in the crippling poverty and utter hopelessness of decaying human beings. So, even though individuals commit these crimes, considering their pervasiveness, individual psychology does not explain them. In the final analysis psychology is explained by sociology. Crime, like punishment, has social roots and takes place within a socio-cultural milieu.

Incidentally, the attempt comes on the heels of the directive to state governments to muster the resolve and execute the death row inmates. So, would routinely putting criminals to death, or burying them alive put a stop to crime and murder? About two hundred years ago, Cesare Beccaria denounced the ignominy of the death penalty. [Note: Beccaria was an Italian philosopher and politician known for his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), which condemned torture and the death penalty]. Clearly, the ignominy of the death penalty does not exist for the keepers of law and order. But does not the systematic killing of society’s law-breakers set an example of barbarity and perpetuate a climate in which life-taking is viewed as the norm?

Only a social system that finds itself at a blind-alley could fashion out such cruelty and inhumanity. In the words of Elam Linds, the first warden of Sing Sing prisons, “reformation of the criminal could not possibly be effected until the spirit of the criminal was broken.” Caging humans, therefore - as a solution to the crisis of society - is, in spite of the liberals’ so-called ‘prisoner reform,’ nothing more than punishment and revenge. Once, after visiting one such hell-hole, Charles Dickens had written, “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers.” A visit to any Nigerian prison is enough to make one draw a similar conclusion.

Who are the perpetrators of these crimes? To answer this question, which concerns society as a whole, we must look at the potential external factors that must have damaged them, the perpetrators, that is. We must consider their social circumstances, i.e. the moral and political atmosphere within which these acts take place.

Violence is a learned act. When violence becomes institutionalized, people, particularly people constantly visited with violence, begin to resort to violence in their dealings with others. The accumulation of wealth in very few hands and its continuing perpetuation is based on force, on violence. At present this accumulation has reached staggering proportions. By contrast, there is growing immiseration of the masses. Images of this misery are not hard to come by. They strike you in the face – assuming, of course, you have the will to see them. The immense wealth of the few rich inoculates them against the misery and agony that lies beyond the walls of their mansions. Abject poverty and excess continue to exist side-by-side courtesy of the immense social and economic injustice inherent in capitalist society.

Poverty increases by the day. Hunger could be found in many homes. Too many families do not know where the next meal will come from. Oftentimes, too, it does not come at all. Hundreds of children are born, live, and die in the streets without ever knowing the comfort of a decent home: Hungry, angry, and jobless, in the end they will cheat, steal and, ultimately, kill to survive. Child beggars in rags walk the highways alongside expensively-dressed business men and women. Millions of people lack access to decent education and jobs. In the beginning decade of a new millennium, people are left without access to potable water and adequate health-care! In the first decade of the new millennium, graduates walk the streets on hungry stomachs in search of jobs that do not exist - with their sensibilities daily being assaulted by an oasis of wealth in a vast desert of want and deprivation, by an ostentatious display of wealth in the midst of so much poverty.

The Nigerian ruling class spends money as if it is going out of fashion. Corruption drains the national treasury and crass materialism is recklessly advertised in high places. People of questionable integrity occupy positions of honour. Naturally, resentment simmers. The net of the Nigerian justice system traps tiny sardines and lets killer sharks sail through with ease. It imposes severe punishment for minor – and not so minor – theft while embezzlement of public funds by government officials continue to go unpunished, making a mockery of the so-called anti-corruption crusade.

Under capitalist society human worth is defined in monetary terms, and callous cash payment is the sole nexus between human beings. A price tag is placed on every human need. The profit motive dominates all aspects of life. Of course, the social and human cost of this is staggering. People are physically and spiritually brutalized, dehumanized. In spite of the demagogic speeches of the capitalists about law and order, nothing is done on a concrete level to ameliorate the conditions of poverty, unemployment, absence of social security, collapsing social services, urban decay, deteriorating schools, etc., which fuels drug addiction, crime and murders. A complete eradication of these is not possible under capitalist society.

Of course, as readers, we cringe each time we come across such headlines as: “armed robbers on rampage,” “robbers change tactics,” etc., and in our justifiable horror prescribe the most gruesome retribution for the perpetrators of these heinous acts. But, what is solved by these acts of retribution? More is definitely involved than some act of violence committed one dark night – or day. Crime, just like punishment, has social roots. The fact that we are shocked by these acts testifies to the intrinsic goodness of ‘human nature’.

Murder and robbery are part of the twisted outgrowth and expression of the barbaric social order that warps the human psyche and push distress and misery “to the very limits of intolerable torture (and) let loose the vilest instincts.” Capitalism has reached a dead end. It is no longer capable of inspiring people. Rather it brutalizes them and corrupts them with the cynical power of money. Crime is rooted in the very organization of society, of capitalist society itself. The real murderer and robber, the murderer of the human soul is capitalist society. The capitalists write their little books of morality sitting on mountains of corpses, and where they belong are the prisons they build for the likes of you and me. Each drop of blood that is shed, each criminal act is an accusation of the capitalist system itself. The attempted jailbreak at Kaduna is just one more finger pointing in accusation.