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Our prisons: reforming or deforming ?

BY: Doreen Hammond

Recently, I read a newspaper article which reported how the authorities in the Netherlands were considering closing down some of the prisons there due to lack of prisoners.

I found it quite interesting and wondered what they were doing right that had culminated in to such an amazing feat. Is it that they don’t commit crime or they have found ingenious ways of dealing with crime and criminals?

On the contrary in Ghana, the situation is so pathetic. Our prisons are saddled with so many challenges that are making the life of inmates a daily nightmare as they are kept under inhumane conditions.

Congestion in the prisons

The prisons are congested due to crowding and we have even heard of how prisoners have to take turns to sleep due to lack of space. For instance, the Nsawam Medium Security Prisons holds more than 3,000 prisoners instead of its capacity for 851.  The lack of proper ventilation as a result has led to prisoners suffering some skin diseases and other health problems. Healthcare facilities for inmates are also woefully inadequate.

Poor meals and lack of facilities for rehab

Feeding prisoners is a huge challenge as funds released for such purpose can barely provide a good meal a day.  

Prisons are not only meant to detain criminals but most importantly reform them and equip them with employable skills to ensure their easy re-integration into society. Unfortunately, facilities for rehabilitation is nothing to write home about. In spite of efforts by philanthropists makeing some donations to them occasionally, the situation in our country’s prisons remain unacceptable.

Issue of contamination

Some hardened criminals, including  Ataa Ayi have recounted how they went into prison as minor offenders and horned their skills to become some of the deadliest criminals the country has ever known. Segregation is ,therefore, key to avoid contamination. Added to this, the issue of the psychology of the individual also comes in. Do we have clinical psychologists to work on the psyche of criminals?

Low warden-prisoner ratio

The low warden-prisoner ratio in our prisons makes monitoring difficult leading to crimes in prison. Mobile money fraud is reputed to have originated from our prisons and all manner of drugs are found there, sometimes with the tacit connivance of prison officials.

Justice for all

A programme dubbed Justice for all, which is a collaborative effort among the Ministry of Justice and Attorney – General’s department, the Judicial Service, the Police Service and the Prisons Service, has made some impact in decongesting our prisons. The programme seeks to bring justice to the marginalised and unrepresented remand prisoners, helping to reduce the number of inmates in the country’s prisons.

Unfortunately, some media reports on crime has not only indicated that some of the suspects arrested by the police were remand prisoners who benefitted from the programme, but ex-convicts too.

This situation further confirms that all is not well with our prisons as far as reformation is concerned. If the prisoners are being reformed, how come they easily stray back into situations that send them right back to prison to swell the numbers?

Sadly, custodial sentences seem to be our main focus.Fines, probation order or community service aren’t something that our system focuses on and for as long as our justice system remains fixed on custodial sentences, our prisons would remain crowded. This in turn will affect our efforts at reforming and re-integrating prisoners into society.Chances are that we will continue to see ex-convicts returning to prisons to add to the numbers.

It would be a good idea for the law to make allowance for petty thieves to do community service such as cleaning the filth in our society or clearing the medians of our roads which are often so weedy, planting flowers and seeing to their growth.   

 The situation we have in our prisons is cause for serious concern. As it is, our prisons deform rather than reform prisoners.The government needs to review the penal system and commit more resources towards the management of our prisons so that our prisons can raise the reform aspect of their mandate for the benefit of society.

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