Ghana Prisons Service: The need for reforms

BY: Enoch Darfah Frimpong

I am writing this article in the hope that it will engender public debate about the state of the country’s prisons.

It is my conviction that such a debate will help us generate useful ideas for improving our penal system.

Prisons perform an important role in the criminal justice administration. It contributes to the maintenance of internal security by keeping prisoners in safe custody and through its instructional programmes return the prisoner to mainstream society as a law-abiding and productive contributing member of the society.

If released and prisoners re-offend and come back to prison, then the purpose of imprisonment is totally defeated.

Our prisons, like others elsewhere, are supposed to be centres of reformation and rehabilitation. It is, however, disheartening to observe that many ex-convicts have re-offended and returned to prison.

The activities of some ex-convicts have left people wondering whether our prisons are not schools of crime rather than rehabilitation centres. Such ex-convicts have posed real danger to their communities having been trained or mentored by hardened criminals while they were in prison custody.

The Ghana Prisons Service is facing a sea of challenges which is militating against its efficiency and effectiveness as institutions of correction and rehabilitation.

Some prisons are bursting at the seams with excessive crowding. Almost all our prisons have exceeded their approved capacity.

The problem has been exacerbated by the rather large number of prisoners awaiting trial and long term sentenced prisoners.

The principle that prisoners live in dignity is constantly violated as a result of overcrowding. With lack of sleeping space, poor ventilation, poor sanitary conditions and inadequate feeding, prisons have become hellish for our prisoners.

Overcrowding is a major contributing factor to the spread of communicable diseases among inmates. The classification and control of prisoners has become a daunting task for prison managers.

With inadequate resources, it has become a real challenge organising educational and vocational programmes for inmates.

Prison environment is generally stressful. Some inmates have developed mental illness as a result. Inmates are unable to exercise their bodies and minds due to the  lack of space and recreational facilities. This has resulted in health challenges for some of the inmates.

There are many barriers that militate against prisoner access to justice in prison. Most of the inmates in our prisons come from the margins of society and are poor. Poverty has prevented some from accessing legal assistance.

Some are also not aware of their legal rights. They do not have any reliable source of information on legal services.

Some remand prisoners are unable to meet bail conditions set by the courts and, therefore, stay very long in prison. Frequent court adjournments have negated the right to a speedy trial.

Imprisonment has also created relationship problems for some inmates. Some have been cut off from their families because of distance. They do not receive help from their relatives.

Even though a major function of prison is prisoner rehabilitation, this is not being achieved in Ghana. Ex-convicts are by law debarred from being employed by the state and other public institutions. If the state which took care of them in prison will not employ them because of their criminal records, who else will?

The scenario painted above calls for urgent reforms to make our penal system respond to current societal needs and demands. Ghana is a signatory to most UN treaties and conventions on the treatment of the incarcerated. Apart from deprivation of liberty, which is incidental to imprisonment, prisoners retain most of their basic rights.

In view of the important role the prisons play in contributing to the maintenance of internal security, it is not out of place to remind His Excellency the President, John Mahama, to redeem his pledge to retool the prisons and provide the much needed resources to make them real centres of reformation and rehabilitation.

The government must do more to help ex-convicts resettle into society so that the tax payer can benefit from their contributions to development. It must provide funds to support projects and programmes that promote the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.

Parliament must take the initiative to expunge from our statute books the law that bars ex-convicts from being employed by the state and public institutions in general.

Imprisonment should be reserved for only violent crimes and criminals who pose a real danger to society. The courts should be encouraged to make use of alternative sanctions to imprisonment. Community service should be encouraged and introduced to reduce the congestion in our prisons.

The public must also change its negative attitude towards ex-convicts. No one should stigmatise or discriminate against ex-convicts. They need compassion, not isolation.

Let me conclude my thoughts with a quote from US President Barack Obama who said: “A smart crime reduction strategy must also incorporate outreach to those who have paid their debt to society and have become responsible and contributing members of their communities. Prisoner reentry programmes have been tested and proven effective.” Need I say more?

Article by Abundant Robert Awolugutu

The writer is Asst  Dir. of Prisons/Ag. Regional Commander
Ghana Prisons Service
Wa.
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