Reforming Prison System In Africa


By Bilikis Bakare

The institution of prison is not indigenous to Africa. It is a holdover from colonial times, a European import intended to isolate and punish political opponents, exercise racial superiority and administer capital and corporal punishment. In the pre-colonial Africa, criminals, slaves and those defeated in war were subjected to detention of one kind or another.

Detention did not appear to have been regarded as a punishment in itself but a means where offenders would be held for purposes of attending their trial, or awaiting some other form of fine or punishment. Therefore, in pre-colonial Africa, emphasis was placed on securing compensation for the victim as opposed to punishment of the offender. Wrongdoing was rectified by restitution rather than punishment, while imprisonment and capital punishment were viewed as last resort often for chronic offenders who have repeatedly been warned for upward of three times or more.

Imprisonment as a specific form of punishment, however, is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Thus, in a strict sense, imprisonment in Africa may be said to have begun with the introduction of this ‘modern’ form of punishment to the continent by the colonial powers. Consequently, the beginning of prisons can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization. Corresponding with the advent of the state was the development of written language, which enabled the creation of formalized legal codes as official guidelines for society.

Ideally, the prison aside from serving as a form of punishment for offenders is also planned to be an agent of reformation and rehabilitation. But sadly, the reverse seems to be the case as too many criminal offenders emerge from prisons ready to offend again. This is largely due to the fact that first time offenders are often kept together with hardened criminals and they end up being badly influenced by the latter. Consequently, they will not be able to imbibe the right values which their imprisonment was meant to inculcate.

In Africa, prisons face a host of challenges including deficits of good governance, monetary support and other resources. These shortcomings have resulted in overcrowded and abusive prison conditions. Therefore, those incarcerated in African prisons face years of confinement in often cramped and dirty rooms with insufficient food allocations, inadequate minimum standard of basic hygiene and scarcity of decent clothing. Other challenges facing the smooth functioning of the prison system in Africa include torture, privilege system, juveniles housed with adults and gangsterism.

Gitarama prison located in Rwanda, Africa, top the list of the worst prisons in the world as it does not have enough space to host any more single prisoner at the moment. Originally, the facility was built for 500 prisoners but houses 6,000 inmates. Investigation revealed that the prison has 4 men per square yard which is literally the worst condition to keep humans in any place.

South Africa is currently ranked number one in Africa and ninth in the world, in terms of prison population with more than 160,000 inmates. These prisons are places of extreme violence with assaults on prisoners by guards or other prisoners being frequently fatal, situations often seen as reflections of the general society. Raping is also common as HIV positive inmates rape other inmates.

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In Nigeria like in other African countries, the greatest problem facing the Prisons institution today is population explosion and this is central to various other problems of the nation’s penal institution. Investigation reveals that remand population constitutes a greater segment of the prison population. Remand prisoners, according to prison sources, are those awaiting trials; those who have been tried and are awaiting sentence and those convicted awaiting execution. About 80 per cent of the entire prison populations are awaiting trial prisoners.

It was gathered that several factors are responsible for the preponderance of this category of prisoners in Nigeria’s penal institutions and the swelling of the entire population. Prominent among these are rising crime rate and the confused criminal justice, which manifests in unlawful, incessant and arbitrary arrests by various security agencies, over-use of prison sentences, stringent conditions of bail, delay in administration of justice occasioned by acute shortage of courts and hands to take on the cases, incessant adjournment, length of time needed to investigate cases such as murder, armed robbery, obtaining by trickery and cases requiring laboratory tests. Others are lack of co-ordination and communication among the police, prison authorities and the judiciary, inadequate transport facilities to convey the remand population to court, corruption and avarice of police officers who demand money for bail and to take this category or prisoners to court.

Therefore, in order to reduce congestion which is the major problem facing the prisons, it is vital to utilize the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) method. ADR is a term used to describe several different methods of resolving legal disputes without going to court. These include arbitration and mediation. This method has been utilized successfully in Lagos through the Citizens Mediation Centre. Cases of awaiting trial inmates should be given priorities as was done in Lagos by the former Chief Judge, Justice Ayotunde Phillips who ordered the release of 233 awaiting trial inmates, the highest by any Chief Judge in the country.

To further reduce congestion of prison in Lagos, the State Ministry of Justice introduced Community Service  Project, an innovation that makes offenders to serve the community in various ways.

Also, well meaning Nigerians, philanthropists, religious bodies and non-governmental organizations as well as corporate bodies should assist the prisons through donation of essential items in order to achieve the goal of reforming the inmates to serve the society when they finish serving their terms. In addition, the prison staff should continuously undergo trainings, particularly in inter-personal relationships and psychology so as to achieve the needed peace in the prisons. Any report by inmates on issues bordering on abuse and maltreatments by either their fellow inmates or prison staff should not be treated with kid gloves.

Privilege system, as presently being operated in most prisons in the country, where some inmates are treated differently from others, should be eradicated. Equally, the issue of gangsterism, which makes some inmates subservient to others, should be properly addressed. Juvenile offenders should be housed separately from the adults to forestall undue influences.

If prisoners are to come out good and not be a curse to the country, we need to do much better than we are now doing.

•Bakare is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.

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