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General News of Thursday, 31 May 2007

Source: Statesman

92 prisoners in one room

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In Ghana today, the situation of prison overcrowding has hit crisis point as the courts continue to remand suspects, including petty criminals, in custody with such impunity - which only goes to prove how much human rights are valued in this country.

Our prisons from Tamale to Ho are not only choked with convicts. They are full to the gunwales with remand prisoners spending in excess of 12 years behind bars before they are pronounced guilty or not guilty by the law courts.

Investigations undertaken by The Statesman at the capital's James Fort Remand Prison show that the facility, built by the British in 1673 to house 50 people now houses over 1,000 inmates, even though the capacity has been stretched to accommodate 440 inmates.

One room, designed to take not more than ten bunk beds yesterday was home to 92 non-convicted prisoners.

The place is so congested that to use the thin boarding school mattresses on the floor would occupy too much space; the few lucky prisoners have resorted to lying on blankets spread on the concrete floor. But, many inmates are reduced to sleeping on the bare floor.

One room, about 12 by 14 foot big was crammed full with 10 inmates. Like the black hole of Calcutta, so thronged is the space that they can only hang their belongings in plastic bags across the thick oven-like walls.

According to our findings, there are more than two hundred inmates at James Fort who have been locked up for more than three years without trial. Worse still, all of them have very little clue as to the current state of their case. Some even complain of missing dockets.

The place can simply be described as a dump-them-and-forget-about-them oubliette. As one inmate puts it, "It’s by the grace of God and by the big, big humanity of the prison officers which keep us going."

Their anger and frustrations are directed towards the police and the judiciary. The police are quick to ask the courts to remand suspects, while they leisurely comb around for evidence. The courts are quick to agree, after which neither the courts nor the police are in any particular hurry to proceed with trial.

No prisoner seemed to have a bad word for the wardens. Indeed, DSP Alhassan who took over James Fort a year ago is praised for allowing the use of television sets. One warden told The Statesman, "It helps keep them sane and occupied. But, our appeals for TV donations to the business community have not been successful."

There is only one classroom-size compound in the centre of the square two storey block which houses the prisoners. That place is used for church services. About 8 services take place daily. Other prisoners spend their day playing cards, draughts or hawking foodstuff, spices and toiletries to the prison community.

Sources within the penal system say because of meagre budgets they have to rely on charity for blankets. Barclays Bank was one such corporate body that provided barrels for storing water. The buildings are old, ventilation is poor, and roofs are leaking.

Meanwhile, for a penal system that does not entertain probation service or non-custodial sentences other than fines, the prisons in Ghana continue to congest, with no signs of more facilities being built to absorb even the natural growth of the penal population.

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