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Opinions of Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Columnist: Agboka, Godwin Yaw

A Society of Criminals: Deconstructing our Prisons

Since infancy, I have heard about the issue of poor conditions in our prisons as much as I have about dictatorship and corruption in Africa. We have been told of the poor conditions in which prisoners live, so have we heard of how people become hardened criminals after leaving the walls of our prisons. Governments have come and gone, with each, at one time or the other, making promises to reform our prisons; with each promise, however, comes further deteriorating conditions.

Of the reported cases of the inhumane conditions in our prisons, none has contextualized the issue better than that of Andy Atta-Peprah, a 37-year-old ex-convict who, in an interview with JoyFM, revealed the horrendous spate of dehumanization and criminal activities that go on in the prisons, and that, also, foregrounded an issue that everyone knows about. Andy Atta Peprah, the ex-convict, who had just been released (at the time of the interview) after serving a two-year sentence at the Nsawam Medium Security Prisons, said he was put behind bars for failing to repay a loan he contracted to promote his business. He also stated, among other issues, that homosexuality and drug peddling are the most widespread of the criminal activities in the country’s prisons.

Among the many grim details—of the happenings (in prisons)—he gave was the case of neglect which he mentioned as the overriding motivation for prisoners’ decision to embrace homosexuality and drug peddling. People said to be hungry for sex are said to engage their fellow male inmates in mutual carnal sex. “There is something called “Kpeeh”’ that is homosexuality, it is very rampant there and serious…you go to jail for two or five years and nobody is visiting you, what do you do? You have to sell your body” he said.

These experiences are not the first to be reported, neither is it the first time government has been called upon to carry out reforms or, at least, to improve upon conditions in the prisons. Attah-Peprah’s concerns seem to be one of the few to have been given so much prominence in the media. Of course, not long ago, the beleaguered Member of Parliament for Keta, Dan Abodakpi appealed to parliament, government, and all other institutions of state whose functions connect them to and with the prisons to embark on some practical, institutional reforms in our prisons, which concerns also have moral, economic, and ethical ramifications.

The Law Reform Commission charged under the Law Reform Commission Decree, National Redemption Council Decree 1975 (NRCD 325) with a responsibility to revise, reform, and modify the laws of Ghana, also promised to come out with proposals that will address the challenges of the criminal justice system that will see a radical change in the sentencing of convicted criminals. The main import of this proposal sought to bring community sentences, suspended sentences, conditional discharge, compensation orders, and curfew orders for certain classes of offences and offenders. I am sure the files containing the reforms are still gathering dust on someone’s shelves.

It is understandable, though not necessarily acceptable, why government has not done much in the area of prison reforms. The people we vote into political office still have the same stoic, static, and anachronistic view of prisoners and prisons. Prisoners are not human beings! Yes, that is what they believe! Some of these people believe that criminals deserve the retributions for the crimes they have committed, so they should be sent far away to enclosed areas where they will not have anything to do with the society that is full of saints. We think that there is a group of people out there who are innately criminal, whose absence will enhance safety in society.

Thus, the view out there is that when we imprison all criminals, society will be safe, crimes will reduce, and innocent people left in society will have the peace of mind to undertake their daily activities without any disturbances, fear, or troubles. That is why many judges will not hesitate to give people longer sentences for committing minor offences. In most cases, such criminals had no history of criminal activities, neither did they commit crimes that should warrant the kind of sentences they got. Isn’t it ironical that a justice system that makes noise about lack of (infrastructural) facilities has so much fallen in love with prison sentences? If that were not the case, how can the likes of Attah-Peprah be jailed for two years or more for failing to repay loans, when others who commit more serious offences, usually blue-collar crimes are left off the hook?

The media has, over the years, carried many stories of how people who even failed take a bath were whisked to prisons to serve long sentences. Just last Monday the Ghana News Agency carried a story in which a 25-year old man was jailed six years for stealing mobile phones. In fact, my search through stories carried by the GNA, alone, found many other instances: “Farmer jailed six years in hard labor for stealing shanks,” “Palm-wine tapper jailed two years for stealing cocoa,” “Two jailed three years, each, for burgling three Policemen,” and “70-year-old man jailed four years for stealing,” including others that can be found at:

Meanwhile, Her Lordship, Chief Justice Theodora Wood has recently been calling on the public to offer fair and constructive criticisms that will improve qualitative justice delivery and rule of law. Haven’t enough criticisms and suggestions been offered? What else should the public do? Asking the public to go back to take up this responsibility is to ask them to embark on a boring activity that is fraught with repetition. The literature in the media and scholarly materials is replete with claims of human right abuses, poor conditions in our prisons, and other such anomalies in the criminal justice delivery system. What the CJ needs to do is to impress upon government to listen to prison authorities who are hapless and helpless—in the performance of their duties—so that government will begin an initiative that will holistically address the challenges that have bedeviled our prisons.

I just believe that some of our judges just take pleasure in putting people behind bars. I believe it is one of their many hobbies. How else can one explain that? How else can one make the point that putting people behind bars does not necessarily reduce crime, neither does it reform these criminals. If it did, why should/would there be an increase in crimes when all (we think) we have to do—or have been doing—is to just imprison convicted offenders and all other people who will commit crimes in future? Why is it that in the face of stringent laws, more prison facilities, and other policy-level developments, crime rates have not decreased?

There is enough in terms of research that shows that putting up many structures— irrespective of how huge and safe they are — and sending all the innately criminal people there will not necessarily lead to a decrease in crime wave. If that were the case the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate, will be on top of the fight against crime. Sadly, though, it hasn’t! Germany, for instance, allocated the equivalent of $1.25 billion for the construction of new prisons, so have the likes of Japan, South Africa, and some other South American countries taken similar measures.

A justice delivery system that treats its criminals as animals will breed animals; of course we know how some very wild animals behave even when unprovoked. Our current system of maltreating prisoners, neglecting them, beating them up, isolating them as punishment for some actions or inactions, starving them, and making them live in deplorable conditions risks producing many more criminals; after all, these prisoners will come back to the same society they were before they committed those crimes. Thus, if they become hardened in the process of their imprisonment, our society becomes the loser and the justice system would have failed in its duty of reforming these people, which, I believe, was the reason why they were sent to jail. We are becoming a society of criminals.

At any rate what do we mean when we talk about national security? The way we treat our prisoners is as inextricably tied to national security as the economy is intrinsically connected to national security. At the current rate of activities, government and the justice delivery system are helping train people for the drug trade, armed robbery, and other immoral activities that threaten the security of the nation in the long run. Meanwhile, the government has begged the problem, and is rather talking about other factors that have nothing to do with security issues. I find it sad that none of the presidential candidates is giving much space and time to the discussion of prison reforms. We live to see, though.

Concerns have also been raised in and about our justice delivery system as to why some judges decide to put offenders who commit minor offences behind bars, when other alternatives other than incarceration could be better than prison which serves more as training ground for criminals, with petty criminals often coming out as hardened criminals after a short sentence. Judges could utilize community corrections alternatives—community service, fines, day reporting, intermittent incarceration, etc—for offenders who had not committed serious offences and who have had limited criminal histories. Community service, for instance, has a two-process approach. It makes a conscious effort of reintegrating the offender into society while making the offender contribute something to society.

At the moment what our criminal justice system is doing is to focus on more buildings to house criminals (some of whom have not even thought of ever committing crimes), food, and other facilities for prisoners. While these processes are marginal developments that also border on the safety and security of offenders and society, much of this attempt becomes fruitless in the end. While statistics are hard to come by—as we don’t even have a coherent body of qualitative and quantitative research on this area—the economic costs of housing millions of offenders are staggering, more so for a developing country that thrives on loans. The costs run into billions of dollars, and the social costs to offenders, to their families, and to the society are incalculable.

I hope Andy Atta-Peprah has not become hardened enough to unleash mayhem on our society. If he does, we should blame our governments, including those that have gone.

Godwin J. Y. Agboka, Email: []