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Do not send looters to jail! Group warns.

The Prisons Rehabilitation and Law Abiding Organization International (PRALARG INT’L), an international body nobly committed to human rights advocacy and prison inmate’s welfare and rehabilitation, in an open letter, has advised the Federal and state governments to not prosecute and send suspected looters to jail.

Following the unrest that ensured from the End Sars protests nationwide, there was an unprecedented level of looting and vandalism on both public and private properties and the results have been relatively devastating. The Nigerian police force quickly swung into action to arrest the suspected looters and those allegedly responsible for the vandalism across the country; governors of some states even ordered the house to house search to fish out the suspects. This has proven to be effective as over a thousand suspects have been apprehended so far hence the group’s decision to address the issue.

In its letter titled “Damage control”,

the group highlighted the Lekki killings, which it said was the major fuel behind the fire of vandalism that recently ravaged the country and the ubiquitous hunger and hardship that set citizens in search of hoarded covid-19 palliatives that were said to have been distributed since March 2020 when a national lockdown was declared.

As an organization that has been passionately committed to human rights advocacy as well as prison inmates’ welfare for over a decade, PRALARG INT’L has been actively involved in countless prison inmates’ rehabilitation programs with priceless knowledge and experience on the long-term effects of incarceration on the society, especially one as Nigeria. According to the group, it behoves the Nigerian government to adequately address the issue at hand; and equally advised concerned and relevant authorities about the possible dangers that such actions could birth in the long run.

While it equally condemned the destruction perpetrated by youths whom the group referred to as victims of a failed political system rather than hoodlums and miscreants as the leaders have taken so much pleasure in calling them lately; they faulted the indiscriminate and largely unprofessional arrests made by the Nigerian police force and also appealed to the force, not to, or withdraw the charges against those found culpable of looting and vandalism. Stating unequivocally that the arrests made so far on the looting and vandalism should not be treated in the usual way of the police and Nigerian judicial system.

They pleaded that the circumstances and conditions from which these activities accentuated effect be duly considered in handling the cases; According to them,

It’s been a period of rising tensions with nationwide protests against police brutality and while some youths were unfortunately killed in the process in parts of the country like Osogbo (Osun state), the unjustifiable killings of peaceful protesters at Lekki further worsened the situation; those youths are not looters but victims of a failed political system and some of them had one relationship or the other with those who were severely injured or killed during the protests; some were friends with the deceased, some were neighbours, colleagues and even partners so it is quite glaring that the recent happenings were not just premeditated attacks on public properties but provocations from the police and the government whose loud silence, wrong actions and inactions have all contributed to the outburst of anger and subsequent riots that sadly turned violent.

We all know how these cases will turn out; most of the people caught are innocent of the crimes as there was barely any proper investigation carried out before the arrests were made. Most of the suspects arrested when interviewed said they were just outside their houses when the police picked them up. That has sadly become the usual way of the Nigerian police; they are never there when the real thing goes down but suddenly show up to arrest those living around the crime scene and label them as the criminals most times without giving them a chance to even defend themselves in court. One of the suspects arrested in Lagos; a mother of 4 said she was only going to buy food products to cook for her kids when she was arrested by soldiers, who handed her over to the police and she has been in their custody for 4 days without any trial whatsoever. It begs us asking the question of what the Nigerian police really hopes to achieve through this because it is obvious most innocent people are being arrested for something they know nothing about. It is even sadder that our terrible judicial system, with influence from the police, will further sentence these persons on the basis of suspicion alone; countering the very essence of the justice they wish to achieve for one does not get justice from injustice.

They mentioned that the Nigerian police should not play dumb or be in self-denial; stating that they too are aware of the slow judicial process in the country, the incompetence and impunity that oozes from the system as well as the financial implications of following up the cases of the over one thousand suspects arrested nationwide. According to them, some of the suspects who are fortunate enough to hire lawyers will have their cases spin into months of baseless arguments and others who do not have the financial will power will ultimately be sent to jail; innocent or not, some even without a trial.

Considering a host of socio-political problems that the country currently faces and others that might arise in the nearest future; The group, therefore, implored the Nigerian police force and the judicial system to consider the irregular peculiarities surrounding their arrests and be lenient with them; not just for them but for the general good of the country, not in a bid to encourage crime and violence but for the purpose of damage control. In their words,

“…Some of the persons arrested have already spent days in police custody; in uncomfortable police cells and for the guilty ones, we believe some level of remorsefulness must have grown within them. We urge the Police and judges to concentrate on the capital offences before them; those who are suspected to have been involved in the murder of police officers should be duly prosecuted but the citizens who were arrested on grounds of looting should not be. For crying out loud no well-employed youth will find joy in vandalism of government properties just as no comfortable citizen will be happy to loot warehouses for palliatives.

If not that the correctional system in the country is itself a sham, considering the current unfavourable socio-political and economic problems of the country, such offenders should have been put under probation and not necessarily sent to prison. It is no news that most of our prisons nationwide are already overpopulated by over 100 percent; in some cases, we have prison cells meant to accommodate 5-10 persons accommodating over 30 persons. This has sadly played a major role in the high rate of recidivism in the country as minor and first-time offenders who are likely remorseful for their offences are mixed with hardened criminals who waste no time in influencing them negatively in prison and they come out only to become worse versions of themselves, creating more problems for the police and the society at large.

We also have the problem of funding for the prisons’ authority in Nigeria, incarcerating people in such large numbers will further exploit that problem. The cost of catering for prisoners and their supposed rehabilitation can be outrageously high and I believe any reasonable Nigerian would rather his tax be spent on profitable capital projects than to suit the increasing demands for prison systems which are not even channelled into efforts to rehabilitate the prisoners but just keep them poorly fed and the most embezzled by those at the helm of affairs. The economical implications are also on us.

The problem of reintegration is also another reason for this humble appeal. Overtime the Nigerian society has struggled to genuinely accept ex-convicts back into society and help them reintegrate. The Nigerian prison can do a lot to an average mind so you can imagine the psychological effect it will have on someone who would be imprisoned because he allegedly looted a carton of noodles out of hunger. Securing a job in the country has never been this difficult; with over 65% of our youth unemployed despite the number of available graduates, the conditions for securing a job gets tighter daily so one can only imagine as well what the fate of an ex-convict would be in the Nigerian job market. It will take only a miracle for him to get one and in a case where he doesn’t he becomes susceptible to go back into crime and this will take its fair toll on the general public.

Prosecuting these suspects on the matter of looting and vandalism seems like the right thing to do, at least for now but the long term effects of such mass incarceration will be devastating for the country. The economy is obviously too fragile for such effect, the Nigerian police and the society at large will be overwhelmed at the result in a few years time when these people start coming out. They might be going in as just looters but a few years in a Nigerian prison might turn most of them to potential armed robbers and capable of even worse crimes by the time of their release.

The group explained that its open letter is an urgent plea and counsel to the Nigerian government; it also considered it a timely call to powerful civil unions, well-meaning citizens and organizations devoted for national development to join forces and lend their voices and like opinions to appeal to the relevant authorities on the matter. To carefully ponder on the points highlighted in the letter and act accordingly to support the struggle in making the country a better place. According to them; …withdrawing the charges against the culpable looters is of best interest to the country; they could be profiled and made to pay back in one way or the other, they could be placed on mandatory community service but must not be incarcerated as we shouldn’t add more burdens on the already heavy shoulders of the Nigerian state.

The group ended its letter by commending the efforts of some well-meaning Nigerians and state governments who have shown interest in assisting victims of vandalism whose place of businesses were destroyed. They also implored the federal government to step in and do more to that regard, and equally charged citizens to continue to be law-abiding as we all work towards archiving the nation of our dreams.

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