Feature Article of Monday, 1 October 2012
Columnist: Owusu, Stephen Atta
There was no prison system in Ghana before the colonialists came. In our traditional society, people who committed serious offences such as rape, incest or murder were banished from the village forever. Lesser offences were treated with various fines according to the severity of the offence. Such fines, and the traditional rites accompanying them, often cleansed the offender of the misdemeanour and he is able to go back into society. Sometimes the mere shame accrued from traditional punishment was enough deterrent. Others may go on self exile if they cannot endure the shame they cause to themselves and their families. Our traditional society had a functioning offence and punishment system which did not need to lock up people.
It was the British Council of Merchants, who, in the mid nineteenth century, established a network of very harsh prisons in forts such as Cape Coast castle and Christianborg castle. Four of such prisons were established by the year 1900. Such prisons could hold up to 130 prisoners. What became known as the Prisoners Ordinance of 1860 was already in place even before the establishment of the prisons some 90 years later. The ordinance was outlined to make sure of the safe keeping of prisoners. The British colonial administration took over the administration of the prisons from the merchants in 1950 and engaged Europeans as the prison guards.
Ghanaians gradually replaced the British by 1962 when all positions in the prison system were staffed by Ghanaians. When Nkrumah came to power, prison reform and modernization was not at the top of the agenda for him since there were more pressing needs of the new nation which he had to attend to. However, he managed to build a medium security prison at Nsawam. This prison became the habitat of many opposition politicians and innocent people who, it was alleged, had been reported by the then Young Pioneers as insulting Nkrumah. When Nkrumah was overthrown, the National Liberation Council (NLC) engaged in a policy of decongesting the prisons. All innocent individuals and political prisoners were freed. The NLC set up a commission to investigate how the prisons could be improved. Due to corruption and incompetence, the NLC failed to act on the commission's recommendations.
As a result, prison conditions became sub-standard. They were very poorly ventilated. Sanitation and food preparation facilities were serious problems that faced the prisons. Today the Ghanaian prisons are filled with criminals and petty thieves who could have been freed if they had access to lawyers. Most people are driven to crime as a result of poverty which may be attributed to lack of life skills and training programmes geared towards earning a living. Often, people are put in prison in Ghana more as a retribution for the offences they commit than as a means of trying to reform them. It is welcome news that a project has been going on at the prisons aimed at equipping the prisoners with skills in the areas of dressmaking and tailoring, weaving and photography and other trades that will earn them decent livelihoods when they leave the prison walls, so they can pull themselves away from crime.
Overcrowding and filth are major problems in many Ghanaian prisons. In many prisons, open toilet facilities are close to where the prisoners sleep. Close to three hundred people are packed in a room built for about a hundred and eighty prisoners, with a very bad ventilation system. There are many innocent people languishing in prisons sleeping in the same rooms with hardened criminals, homosexuals and drug addicts. Many of these innocent people leave prison as hardened criminals, homosexuals and drug addicts. Drugs are peddled in the prisons and those who have not tasted drugs before are induced to adopt the habit.
A woman was jailed for ten years for drug offences. She was finally released after spending a decade in prison. Her husband, also a drug addict, was jailed for thirty years for murdering a co-tenant who he suspected of calling the police to arrest his wife. The woman was able to smuggle marijuana and other drugs to her husband each time she visited him. Her husband sold the drugs to the inmates and returned the money to the woman on her next visit. The woman always wrapped the drugs and placed the parcel on her head and fixed a wig firmly on it. On her visits to the prison, she would remove her wig and give the parcel of drugs to the husband. As we normally say, "several days for thief man, one day for master". She was arrested as she was handing the parcel to her husband. Her freedom ended and she found herself back in prison.
There are stories that some prisoners who leave the prisons try to commit an offence again because they claim they farmed while they were prisoners and they want to go back and eat the food they grew there. When someone has finished serving his sentence and is released from prison but commits the same offence, it is called recidivism - he has gone back to his old habits.
It is very disturbing to see how prisoners are displayed in Ghana when they line them up as they walk the streets to go to farm with some warders guiding them. This is a disgraceful and dehumanizing thing to do.
Very powerful and influential persons who embezzle state funds do not find themselves in prison very often. Ordinary citizens are the worse victims. A labourer uprooted two tubers of yams from somebody's farm. He received a 5-year sentence. A drunkard tripped on a staircase of a storey building and fell to his death. A man who saw him lying dead below the stairs decided to lift him and place him on the side. In the process a woman who appeared from outside saw him and assumed the man was the murderer. She called the police and the "good Samaritan" was arrested. He was jailed twenty years for suspected murder. Many are languishing in jail for crimes they did not commit.
A very disturbing issue in Ghana today is about babies and toddlers in prisons. A pregnant woman was jailed because she could not pay a debt of 3000GhC. She delivered in prison and had to depend on the scanty provisions from the prison authorities to fend for the baby. Such women are constantly under stress due to two or three children they have left at home. Babies and minors languishing in Ghanaian prisons is a common sight and a cause for concern because some magistrates of the lower courts as well as the prison authorities are not doing enough to prevent this state of affairs.
What the court can do is to defer the sentences of a pregnant woman. In Europe there is what the court calls, "deferred sentence." The court decides to postpone the sentence due to particular problems such as pregnancy or ill health. This must be introduced in the legal system of Ghana so that babies and minors would not have to spend their years in prison. A pregnant woman who is sentenced to serve a prison term must be given a deferred sentence to have enough time to take care of her pregnancy and safe delivery of the baby. Babies delivered in prison are prone to diseases and malnutrition. In some prisons the parent has to share the food given to her with the child. When the sentence is deferred, the child will then have the opportunity to go to school. Schools are not available for these minors in many of the country's prisons.
The onus of responsibility now falls on the Human Rights Commission to visit the prisons to see with their own eyes, the squalor, overcrowding, filth, brutalities of prisoners and babies and toddlers in prison. Through their recommendations and efforts, Ghanaians will be able to know what happens in the prisons. A prisoner has rights like any Ghanaian and therefore the Human Rights Commission must ensure that the prisoners are given the right to learn a trade while in prison, to have access to physical exercise in gyms that every prison must have. The children in prison must have right to good nutrition and education while in prison with their parents. Some people advocate that children born in prison be removed and given to qualified foster parents (Ghanaians in good standing) whom the state gives a little stipend for looking after them, supervised by the Social Welfare Services. This will not be fair to the mother in prison who wants to have her child close to her despite the hard circumstance she finds herself.
To prevent overcrowding, an effort must be made to decongest the prisons by putting up more prison houses. Another way to reduce congestion in the prisons is to give shorter sentences to certain offences and to periodically review the sentences of well-behaved offenders.
Foreigners serving prison sentences in our jails should be deported after they serve these sentences. Arrangements can also be made with their governments so that they can complete their sentences in their home countries. This will help to reduce congestion in the Ghanaian prisons.
The social services in Ghana have failed miserably in their treatment and care for released prisoners. It is in the interest of the state to see that released prisoners are given the chance to settle in society and lead productive lives. This means prisoners should not be forgotten once they finish serving their sentences. They should be helped not to return to the crimes that sent them to prison in the first place. The level of civilization of a people is seen in how humanely it treats its offenders. Civilized societies do not condemn offenders to everlasting hell on earth but help them to reform and lead fruitful lives. The bottom-line is that, these prisoners are our brothers, sisters, children and parents. We cannot cut them off from us.
If decongestion can take place in the prisons, there will be no need to mix hardened criminals, homosexuals and drug addicts together with normal prisoners with short prison sentences. We should strive to bring our prisons to international standards.
Written by: Stephen Atta Owusu
Author: Dark Faces At Crossroads