Thanks to poor conditions, and a focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation, Ghana’s prisons have become “universities of crime,” says an ex-convict.
“Our prisons nowadays are not for reformation but rather training people to become notorious criminals,” says the ex-con, who has just recently been released from prison and wants to remain anonymous.
According to Amnesty International, many of the issues with Ghana’s prison system stem from overcrowding. The human rights organization says the country has 13,500 prisoners but only has the facilities to accommodate 8,000. About 3,000 of those prisoners are on remand and have not yet been to trial. Ghana’s prison system, in fact, is operating at 170 per cent capacity.
Ghana’s government is building a new prison in the town of Ankaful that will be able to accommodate 2,000 prisoners, but that won’t be enough to solve the problem, says Amnesty.
“The prisoners have got to go somewhere and that means you have to remove the remand prisoners at a much faster rate,” says James Welsh, a coordinator for health and human rights with Amnesty International, who published a new study on Ghana’s prison system called Prisoners Are Bottom of the Pile: The Human Rights of Prisoners in Ghana.
Welsh visited six prisons in Ghana with his colleague Lisa Nikolaus. “We saw cells where in order to sleep, the prisoners had to lie on the floor on their sides, taking up the entire available space,” he says. One remand prisoner told him, “Our cell –the place where we sleep—is where we urinate and go to the toilet. You don’t get any privacy. You have to use the bucket.”
Amnesty has recommended quick hearings for prisoners on remand to help reduce the prison population and improve overall conditions. There have been reports of prisoners who have been in remand for more than 10 years because they cannot afford a lawyer. “The policeman even forgets about you,” says the ex-convict.
Welsh says overcrowding could be reduced by wider use of non-custodial sentences such as fines and community service. But fines must be set at realistic levels, he says.
The ex-con says sentences for less serious crimes, such as theft, should be reduced. It’s not uncommon, he says, to meet someone who has been in prison or five years for stealing a cellphone. He says people who are locked up for petty crime often graduate to more serious felonies by the time they return to society. “If you develop your prison inmate who is in there for petty crime to become an armed robber you know that one day you are all at risk.”
While Ghana has not put a prisoner to death since 1996, the country still has 138 inmates on death row.
The overcrowding issue is compounded by other problems in Ghana’s prisons. Many of the buildings in the system are falling apart due to a lack of regular maintenance. In some prisons flooding is a regular occurrence.
Ghana’s prisons used to spend only about $0,30 on food per prisoner each day. That amount has been increased to almost $1 a day but Amnesty says it’s still not enough. The ex-con says the food was the worst part of his three-year prison experience. He says there would often be insects in the food and that a dog would not eat it if it had the choice.
Lawrence Amesu, Amnesty’s director in Ghana, bringing Ghana’s prisons up to an international standard comes down to a need to preserve human dignity. “This is because even though the inmates have committed crimes they are still human beings and they should continue to be accorded the dignity that they deserve.”