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Opinions of Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Columnist: Alfred M. Codjoe

Do prisoners in Ghana have rights?

Introduction: Incarceration or imprisonment is a punishment one undergoes after being sentenced by the courts for committing a crime. It brings in its wake, limitations in the enjoyment of one’s personal liberties. Almost everything one does may be regimented and regulated. One may have his/ her own scheduled times for sleeping, eating and exercising and may choose to alter it at his own discretion and liberty. However, when imprisoned, these basic personal liberties may be taken away. For example, you may exercise outdoors but under surveillance by a guard, while you may wish to exercise more, your time may be restricted. Nothing prevents the officer in carrying out his duty to lock you up at the stipulated time thereby curtailing some of your liberties. Imprisonment however tends to be unbearably harsh and serves as double punishment when access to essential basic things like decent food, toiletries, beddings, first aid, spacious cells and hygienic environment to keep one’s dignity are lacking.

Can it therefore be said that, prisoners have rights? This can be considered by looking at some of the rights of prisoners as enshrined in International Instruments, the Ghanaian constitution as well as some of the guiding books of the Ghana Prisons Service.

International Human Rights Obligations & Ratification of International Treaties by Ghana

Ghana is a member of the United Nations and has ratified some of its instruments on Human Rights. Examples are: International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (2000) and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Ghana therefore respects the provisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and has incorporated most of these rights in the 1992 constitution.

Also, some of the regional instruments that Ghana has ratified include the following: Africa Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981), Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003) and Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the establishment of an African Court on Human and People’s Rights (1998).

The Ghanaian Constitution and Prisoners Rights

The 1992 Ghanaian constitution also entrenches a number of fundamental rights and freedoms to the people of Ghana. Some of the rights and freedoms guaranteed include the right to life, fair trial and equality before the law.

Prisoners, just like any other person have rights and have to be treated with dignity. According to article 15 of the 1992 Ghanaian, constitution the dignity of all persons shall be inviolable. No person shall whether or not he is arrested, restricted or detained be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; any other condition that detracts or is likely to detract from his dignity worth as a human being. A person not convicted of crime should not be treated as a convict and shall be kept separately.

Article 16 also says, no person shall be held in slavery or servitude.

If article 15 and 16 of the Ghanaian constitution says all persons and no person respectively then it covers everybody in Ghana, prisoners inclusive and therefore prisoners in Ghana can be said to have rights.

Some General Rights of Prisoners as Provided by the Prison Decree

Section 2 of the Prisons Decree also says that it is the duty of the Prisons Service to ensure that no person shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading punishment; or any other condition that detracts... as a human being.

Not surprisingly, section 2 of the Prisons Decree says the same thing as article 15 of the Ghanaian constitution, but does this occur in Ghanaian prisons?

Moreover, under treatment of prisoners, section 35 (1)of the decree grants the Director of Prison (now, the Director General of Prisons) the duty to ensure that every prisoner is regularly supplied with wholesome and nourishing food in quantities sufficient to maintain him in good health; at all times be supplied with clothing, soap, bedding and other necessities in quantities sufficient to maintain his decency; at all reasonable times permitted access to washing and toilet facilities sufficient to keep him or herself clean and decent in person; permitted to have daily exercise outside his or her cell during the hours of day for not less than one hour a day; promptly supplied with all medicines, drugs, special diets or other things prescribed by a medical officer of health as necessary for the good health of that prisoner.

So important is this section to the treatment of offenders with decency and their right to health that section 35 (3) indicates that no punishment shall be imposed on an offender which has to affect any of section 35 (1). Thus, irrespective of the punishment to be meted out on an offender it should not affect any of section 35 (1).

To satisfy article 15 (2) of the constitution to protect offenders against torture section 43 of the Prison Decree points out that no person other than the Director of Prison or Officer in Charge shall have the power to impose any punishment on a prisoner for an offence against discipline and 43 (2) mentions that the power shall not be delegated to impose punishment on an offender for an offence against prison discipline.

Sections 44, 45 and 46 of the Decree disallow the use of corporal punishment, mechanical restraints and the use of force respectively. However, if it must be used it describes the cumbersome procedures under which it must be used. It is clear that all these are geared towards the protection of the offender against human rights abuse but has it been so?

Other rights enjoyed by inmates include the right to a clean prison environment granted by section 36; sufficient accommodation by section 37 and the right to be visited granted by section 38. Also section 40 grants religious observances to all prisoners while section 41 directs the Director of Prison to establish in every prison courses of training and instruction designed to teach trades, skills and craft to prisoners who may benefit from it, thus granting the right to education to the prisoner.

As a form of monitoring, the prisons deliver on its mandate by section 47 which grants the Prisons Board (now Prisons Council) to appoint a Visiting Committee for each prison consisting of two or more visitors (other than the medical officer of the prison) who shall visit such prison not less than twice in every month to inspect all wards, cells, yards, solitary cells, kitchens, washrooms and to hear complaints of prisoners and inspect books and records of the prison. Section 48 grants magistrates or judges the power to visit a prison and examine the condition of the prison and the prisoners therein. The question is, do the regulatory bodies perform their functions?

Conclusion

It is clear that by the international instruments, constitution of Ghana and the decree of the Ghana Prisons Service, prisoners’ have rights they have to enjoy even under imprisonment. The constitution provides for certain bodies like the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, and the decree provides for a Visiting Committee and judges or Magistrates to monitor the treatment of prisons and other related issues. However, could it be said that there are challenges in granting these rights in most, if not all Ghanaian prisons?

These instruments, conventions and constitution set out the principles that uphold the basic tenets of human rights. These rights and freedoms are fundamental to man’s existence. They are inherent entitlements that come along to every individual on account of being human and founded on respect for dignity and worth of each person. Prisoners are human beings and are therefore entitled to these rights as well. Though Ghana is a signatory to most of these instruments, a careful observation shows that when it comes to granting the rights of the prisoner in most prisons in Ghana meet the minimum standards?