Human rights, prison conditions

The week immediately preceding the Eid holiday had been unusually hectic and busy even by the standards of the punishing schedule of a lawyer, so it was with great joy that I welcomed the statutory holiday occasioned by the celebration of the holy festival.


I had decided to have a very lazy day by lounging on my makeshift hammock at the beach and listening to the music of Lucky Dube. But, for my sins, hardly had I positioned myself on the hammock when the phone began to ring. 

I decided to ignore it as the day was designated as a non-working day, but it continued to ring incessantly. It turned out to be a potential client who had been detained following a minor scuffle.

Thus, I reluctantly picked myself up to attend the police station and the dire conditions I encountered at the cells is what has prompted this piece: the terrible conditions of our cells and prisons. Ironically, the Lucky Dube music I was enjoying before the call was ‘Prisoner’! 


As I walked into the police station, I was confronted with a scene from a Dickensian novel. Behind the reception desk, which was occupied by a dozing officer, was a single cell. Two openings at eye level, protected by iron bars, revealed the cell interior. At each window crouched a man, naked except for his underwear.

They had climbed up and were clinging to the bars in order to maintain their positions. As soon as they saw me, they both shot out a grasping hand and begged for water. The heat and humidity in the enclosed room were intense and I immediately started sweating.

I could imagine that the conditions would be even worse at night, with no protection from mosquitoes. Through the barred openings I could see that the walls were black with dirt, grime and mould.

I enquired after my client and asked how many prisoners were being kept in that hellhole. The officer opened his log book and slowly ran his forefinger down the page. It turned out he had 10 inmates over the normal capacity of that tiny cell.

I wasn’t surprised at the figure, as it was an accurate reflection of the overcrowding prevalent in most Ghanaian cells. 


This trend is replicated in the prisons as most Ghanaian prisons are terribly overcrowded. According to the inmate statistics of the Ghana Prison Service for June 10, 2024, the number of prisoners overcrowded stood at 4,495 or 43.79 per cent of the total prison population.

Living space is at a premium, rendering it congested. Most prisoners have to sleep very close to each other and there is little or no ventilation. In these tight situations, the prisoners have their toilets squeezed in as well, so they have to urinate and defecate in front of each other.

Some of the factors causing this unhealthy overcrowding at the prisons and police cells could be reduced. For a start, there needs to be a massive overhaul of sentencing procedures in a way that imprisons offenders for only serious crimes.

The introduction of community sentences, where offenders of minor crimes are punished with community activities (like weeding the sides of major roads, sweeping public places, etc.,) could be deployed.

The stigma and shame accompanying such public humiliatory sentences are equally shameful and have a deterrent effect on offenders. Also, the bail regime, both at the police stations and courts, should be operated in a manner that places the presumption of bail at the centre of the decision to bail.

Further, and especially at the police stations, the 48-hour rule of presenting detainees in court should be strictly enforced. There have been many situations where detainees are held at police cells well over the statutory stipulated hours, thereby unnecessarily increasing the number of people detained.


The overcrowding of prisons and detention centres has massive human rights implications. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Further, Article 10(3) of the ICESCR provides: “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation”.

Prisoners, according to international human rights law, should retain all their human rights except those occasioned by their lawful detention, i.e., liberty. The phenomenon of overcrowding, which essentially deprives detainees of adequate sustenance, privacy and medical care is fundamentally wrong and incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilised society.

The writer is a lawyer.
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