Grim tales from our prisons

BY: Kobby Asmah

On countless occasions, we have heard grim tales from our prisons. That the prisons are overcrowded is no longer news. 

In many instances, we have taken the news from the prisons rather lightly or casually. After all, the prisons are meant for criminals and miscreants, we may say. This may be true to a large extent, but equally true is the fact that our prisons are also harbouring many innocent citizens. Therefore, anything concerning our prisons must be a matter of concern to all of us, especially issues of promoting the human rights and dignity of prison inmates.

Prisons are primarily meant to be correctional facilities, not condemned ones, so it's always a step in the right direction to factor the needs of prisoners in the scheme of the treasury.

Overcrowding

Last Saturday, the Daily Graphic carried a front page report of overcrowding in our prisons getting worse. In that story, headlined: ‘Overcrowding impedes prisoner rights', it was reported that the facilities housed 30 per cent above capacity. .

Prison overcrowding occurs when the number of inmates exceeds the spatial and social capacity of correctional institutions..

That was buttressed by the Director-General of the Ghana Prisons Service, Mr Patrick Darko Missah, who indicated that as of June 24, 2021, the prison population stood at 13,200, far above its capacity of 9,945, leading to an overcrowding rate of 32.65 per cent.

Challenges

Undoubtedly, overcrowding affects the quality of life in our prisons. It also increases physical contact and poor hygiene practices. The poor conditions have also been associated with increased risk of emotional and behavioural problems likely due to disrupted sleep, lack of space and privacy to study.

Indeed, lack of privacy has also been cited for causing or exacerbating mental health problems, as well as the increasing rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

Another worrying challenge is the GH¢1.80 daily feeding grant for each inmate. We do not need the managers of the facility to tell us that GH¢1.80 daily is woefully inadequate, and that something drastic needs to be done to efficiently run the prisons.

Deplorable conditions

The grim conditions in our prisons, including healthcare delivery, have also been described by many observers as dehumanising.

Immediately, it will be appropriate to roll out a programme of decongesting the prisons by building more centres.

This is long overdue and we need to simply commit to improving conditions in our prisons, notwithstanding treasury challenges.

In collaborating with the Ghana Health Service and other stakeholders, efforts must be made to improve health systems in prisons across the country.

For a start, it will be a step in the right direction to register all inmates onto the National Health Insurance Scheme and accredit all prison infirmaries to receive national health insurance claims.

Sustainable efforts must also be made to post medical officers to the prisons to improve healthcare delivery there.

Global best practices

Global best practices indicate that the measure of a successful country is how that country treats the marginalised. For this reason, it is incumbent on all stakeholders - the government, managers of our prison facilities, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the media, among others - to prioritise the needs of the prisons and get them to work optimally.

The managers of our prisons must innovate and bring some freshness into their management.

The government, which is the primary stakeholder, cannot do it all alone in view of the myriad of challenges it faces. That is why the recent gesture by the Church of Pentecost to build and donate a prison infrastructure to the Ghana Prisons Service at Ejura in the Ashanti Region is commendable.

The fully furnished facility has three dormitory blocks, with the capacity to accommodate 300 inmates. It has an administration block, a chapel, which will serve as a classroom, a football pitch, a baptistery, modern washrooms, mechanised boreholes, offices, an infirmary, workshops and other auxiliary facilities.

The church has gone a step further to think of our prisons and the prisoners therein. A few NGOs occasionally go to the aid of our prisons with donations of food items, clothing and detergents.

These gestures, though laudable, may not be enough if we are to build facilities which are primarily correctional centres. It calls for all hands on deck.

It is painful to hear and be told that inmates of our prisons come out even more hardened than they were when they were sent there. This is not good and remains the daunting task ahead which must be scaled at all cost.

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