Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-AFRICA: Prisons Under the Magnifying Glass

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Sep 17 2008 (IPS) - "Prisons worldwide face the same crises and problems as those in Africa," says Jeremy Sarkin. Chronic overcrowding, unsafe and unhealthy living conditions, lack of resources, and violence can be found on every continent.

The 2006 Kampala Declaration has brought only limited improvements for prisoners like these men in Congo. Credit:  Hugo Rami/IRIN

The 2006 Kampala Declaration has brought only limited improvements for prisoners like these men in Congo. Credit: Hugo Rami/IRIN

"Asian prisons in general are more overcrowded, and violence in Latin American prisons is far more severe and prevalent when compared to correctional institutions in Africa," says Sarkin.

Sarkin was chair of the advocacy organisation Human Rights Committee of South Africa in the 1990s, and has just edited a book titled 'Human Rights in African Prisons'.

Although African prisons are often criticised because of the allegedly high number of female prisoners, Sarkin told IPS that when it comes to the incarceration of women, the African continent dangles at the bottom of the list.

"On average this group makes up between 4 or 5 percent of the total African prison population," he explains. "In various countries in Central Europe or Asia, women account sometimes for 10 percent of the total number of detainees."

According to Sarkin's book, which is a compilation of chapters written by various human rights experts, Burkina Faso has the lowest percentage of women incarceration (1 percent) in Africa while Mozambique has the highest (6 percent).

Over the past ten years, various positive prison reform initiatives have been undertaken across the continent, Sarkin explains. "The Kampala Declaration on Prison Conditions in Africa has played a crucial role in this," he adds.

This document was drawn up in 1996 following a three-day meeting of delegates from 47 countries, including Ministers of State, prison commissioners, judges and non-governmental organisations.

"A number of African governments have altered their legislation as a result of the declaration," Sarkin continues. "This has improved the situation in various prisons across the continent."

Tunisia and Libya are good examples. "For the first time, these two countries are allowing human rights organisations such as Amnesty International to enter their prisons to monitor the situation," Sarkin explains. "That is a great improvement. Up until recently, no one knew what was happening behind these countries' prison doors."

South Africa has also improved conditions in its prisons, says Deon van Zyl, inspecting judge of prisons in South Africa. "The conditions have changed. Our new constitution and new legislation that consolidated the concept of prisoners' rights, have improved the basic human rights conditions of prisoners."

Victor West confirms this. "A lot has changed over the past years, yet the situation is far from ideal."

West works for Khulisa, an organisation that develops and brings into practice rehabilitation, skills development, and reintegration programmes in various prisons across South Africa. Khulisa, meaning 'to nurture' in the Zulu language, has been around for ten years and predominantly focuses on rural prisons.

"However, the fact that organizations like Khulisa are allowed to work with the detainees is a big improvement," West adds. "It means that the South Africa department of correctional services has acknowledged that it cannot do it by itself and that it needs to involve civil society and to make partnerships with NGOs to rehabilitate prisoners, and to turn them into good citizens instead of having them fall back into the criminal circuit."

Despite these positive signs, the situation in many African prisons remains unsatisfactory. "Not many governments seem to be interested in investing in prisoners. This combined with shortage of staff. The fact that staff members are often poorly trained does not improve the situation," Sarkin says.

In her chapter, Lisa Vetten – a senior researcher at a South African legal advocacy centre that deals with violence against women – writes about the hardship female detainees in various African prisons are facing.

In a number of countries, women are for instance punished more severely for adultery when compared to men. Married women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who are found guilty of adultery are punished with six months to a year in prison, plus a fine, according to Vetten. Congolese men on the contrary seldom get punished for adultery.

Moroccan women who have conceived a child out of wedlock can be imprisoned for up to a year, unless they can prove they were raped.

Another reason for concern is that some African prisons do not hold female inmates separate from men, Vetten writes: "In some Ugandan prisons, women were not separated from male prisoners during the day but only during the night… In Natitingou Prison in Benin, women and men use the same toilet and shower facilities."

As a result African female detainees in various prisons are subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, both by fellow detainees and prison guards, Vetten adds.

Prison overcrowding is another critical problem across Africa. The occupation rate in Tanzania is for instance believed to be as high as 193 percent and Kenya – with a prison capacity of 14,000 and an inmate population of 50,000 – has an occupation rate of 357 percent.

"Many African incarceration facilities were erected during the colonial era and while inmate populations across the continent have increased since then, prisons have not been subjected to renovation and expansion," says Sarkin.

Asked if alternative sentencing could have a positive impact on overcrowding, Lukas Muntingh, one of the book's authors, told IPS: "Countries that have a system of alternative sentencing in place, for instance Uganda, only offer this option to convicts with prison sentences shorter then 12 months. These inmates make up only a small percentage a prison's prison population. This means that alternative sentencing – for instance community service – will not empty prisons."

Alternative sentencing however, can play an important role in protecting inmates from prison violence. "Individuals who have been sentenced 12 months or less in prison, find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order," Muntingh told IPS. "They are vulnerable when it comes to for instance gang-related violence. Authorities can protect these convicts by offering them alternative sentencing."

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