As Africa improves its commerce and science sectors, social and penal reform are hugely lacking
A legacy of despair
African prisons remain at best, appalling, and at worst, indescribably appalling. The model of confinement as punishment originated far away from African soil, the seed being planted on the continent by colonialists to control resistors of colonial authority. The African way was restitution, their end goal compensation, not incarceration. Although by the late 1800s torture was discontinued in European prisons, imprisonment became common in Africa with no notion of rehabilitation or reintegration, and colonial prisons commenced torture practices to suppress native peoples – this was the main objective of those first African prisons.
This legacy remains, mainly unchanged, with prison walls enclosing neglect, ill treatment, brutal violence, even death, as well as crimes and abominations against humanity and human rights, perpetrated in the name of ‘justice’. However, justice is what is lacking, along with common human decency and acknowledgement by the appropriate powers of the dire situation in African prisons where severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, and an acute lack of resources exist across the continent.
Those languishing in African prisons deserve their plight to be brought into the public eye; they are worthy of a fair trial, a lawyer and improved conditions. Crimes attracting imprisonment in Africa can be as simple as minor theft and prisoners can remain on remand for many years, with no prospect of trial.
Until around 20 years ago little attention had been focused on the decrepit, grossly overcrowded African prisons, which failed those incarcerated within, and were institutions of human rights atrocities. They were mainly out of reach of NGOs, scholastic research and major government attention. Still today, Africa’s prisons remain in conflict with human rights. Generally, prisoners are dehumanised and there is lack of hygiene, food and healthcare, and many preventable and treatable illnesses are rife.
African prison populations have risen by 71 per cent since 2009 meaning a burgeoning prison population that aggravates associated problems of overcrowding – central to innumerable problems – and depleted resources, leading to poor prison control, inadequate operation, and ongoing failure to protect inmates’ rights. The 2010 figures estimate almost all African prisons are dangerously above capacity with Benin, Burundi and Mali the most acute, at up to double and treble over capacity. Around 50 per cent of prisoners are on remand, possibly for a crime as minor as stealing a pen knife. A shortage of lawyers and the inmates’ lack of means can greatly extend remand periods.
Overcrowding also affects prison staff. Rev Kamara Kusupa, an ex-inmate of a Tanzanian prison, emphasised that the poor living conditions of prison staff ‘forces them to act brutally against prisoners as one way of reducing their psychological stresses’. Examples can be found across the continent: Equatorial Guinea, notorious for torture; Congo, imprisons children as young as eight; Zambia, gangs exercise control using the scarce commodity of food; Kenya, deaths from easily curable diseases. And the list continues.
The plight of women and children
Sexual inequalities and disempowerment of women in Africa are entrenched and rife, with prisons predominantly run by male administrations. Commonly, African women prisoners are devastatingly poor and lack education, often being incarcerated for committing abortion, infanticide and theft. Sexism sways women’s imprisonment for adultery, along with murder and attempted murder. The social shame of accused women and their rejection by society, including relatives, leads to children being incarcerated along with their mothers. Women account for approximately 1.6 per cent of the total numbers incarcerated, nevertheless their specific needs are rarely acknowledged and children remain neglected. Children in prisons lack essential nutrition, education, healthcare and stimulation. Restricted gynaecological care and no access to essential female toiletry requisites – the total lack of which makes menstruation a living nightmare – highlight the poor treatment of women prisoners.
The 1996 Kampala Declaration, the 2002 Ougadougou Declaration on Accelerating Penal and Prison Reform and the appointment of a ‘Special Rapporteur of Prisons’ make up Africa’s attempts at reform. However, no special reference to women’s issues is made and the Kampala Declaration ignores the plight of pregnant women. Reliance continues on NGOs and others that aid in reducing and tackling the increasing problems within Africa’s penal systems.
As Africa nudges forward on the international stage of economy, science and commerce, it is hampered by its need for social and penal reform. Alexander McLean, Director and founder of the African Prisons Project (APP), works in conjunction with prison services in Africa saying, “There are a huge number of needs and many challenges; things are slow to change.” He explains that it is hard to get those in the UK to understand things that he sees.
Image from: http://www.phaseloop.com/foreignprisoners/prison-africa02.html
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