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14.08.2005 Feature Article

Civilization And The Penal System

Civilization And The Penal System
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A news summary dated Monday, July 11, 2005, and posted on Ghana's Peace-FM radio's website reported the quite fascinating story of Belgian prison inmates who are reportedly granted a single two-hour conjugal visit from their spouses and partners every month by the system's administrators. What is fascinating about this story is not the simple fact of prisoners being afforded conjugal visits from their spouses and companions; after all, we know this to be the case vis-à-vis the U. S. prison system, and also that of Apartheid South Africa during the period of former president Nelson R. Mandela's incarceration on Robben Island and elsewhere around that country.

What is significantly and interestingly fascinating about this story is the fact that this writer never heard of the issue, or question, of “conjugal visits” being once discussed vis-à-vis the Ghanaian prison system. In sum, on the preceding theme and score, it is almost as if the Ghanaian prisoner deserved no such “human” right. Or perhaps it existed, except that I just wasn't aware of it, since any talk of prison, at least until the P/NDC era when it became a political commonplace, invariably attracted the kind of unspoken taboo that Aids and prostitution have attracted in recent times. Still, it would be quite interesting to learn about the “conjugal visit” regime as it pertains to Ghanaian prison inmates. Chances are that there might not exist any such system or regime at all. For generally speaking, the Ghanaian prisoner is a virtual pariah, a forgotten entity, a veritable nonentity, in fact.

Which largely explains why distinguished political prisoners like Dr. J. B. Danquah, Mr. Koi-Larbi, Mr. Joe Appiah and others were once housed in the Condemned Cell Block (or Death-Row) at Ghana's notorious Nsawam Medium-Security Prison under the Nkrumah regime. And also that President Nkrumah reportedly fumed when he learned, from Inspector-General of Police Mr. J. W. K. Harlley, that Dr. Danquah, as well as other political prisoners, was being fed standard dietary fare pretty much gives us some useful insight into the Ghanaian mainstream perception of prison inmates and prison culture in general. And here, also, it is rather tragic to recall that President Nkrumah, a self-proclaimed “Prison Graduate,” under the British colonial regime, does not appear to have learned, or taken to heart, any meaningful lessons, whatsoever, regarding the deplorable prison conditions experienced by erstwhile Gold Coast radical politicians under the British colonial administration. If anything at all, prison life and culture appear to have fascinated the pioneering premier of post-colonial Ghana to the pathological extent of reportedly prompting the former political prisoner to mete out the harshest forms of treatment – including the institutionalization of protein-deficient menus – to politicians and statesmen incarcerated at his behest. For instance, in the case of Dr. Danquah, President Nkrumah ordered that the former be fed on a daily diet of salted water and garri – farinated cassava – according to National Liberation Council member and former IGP, Mr. J. W. K. Harlley (see Enquiry into the Detention and Death of Dr. Danquah at Nsawam Prison. Accra-Tema: Ghana Information Service, 1967).

Indeed, it may have been the widely accepted short-shrift treatment accorded Ghanaian prisoners, generally speaking, which motivated the operators and proprietors of Peace-FM radio to post the story regarding the niggardly allowance of “conjugal visits” to Belgian prisoners on the station's website. For, needless to say, in Ghana, as can be readily fathomed, the idea of affording prisoners “conjugal visits” from their spouses reeks of the outright defeatist and preposterous. In sum, any talk of “conjugal visits” for prison inmates, on the part of the average Ghanaian, sounds like a bad joke and may well verge on outright lunacy. After all, what is the primary purpose of incarceration but to deprive the subject or prison inmate of the normative rights and privileges of non-convicts, of which the right to consensual coition or sexual intercourse with a recognized partner is part and parcel.

Consequently, the heading, or slug, that the Peace-FM operators gave their posted article on “conjugal visits” in Belgium could only be deemed in terms of the sarcastic. Emblazoned in bold print was the caption: “Extra Sex Time For Convicts.” Initially, this writer's attention was drawn to the aforementioned story because he thought, perhaps, it was about convicts being sentenced to have marathon sexual bouts in prison – which would have been quite “newsy,” for the very fact of its novelty, as he routinely teaches his journalism students. But the brief, two-paragraph story was quite fascinating in other ways. In sum, it dealt with the study of a Belgian Catholic University student on that country's prison system, which concluded that the monthly two-hour “conjugal visits” afforded prison inmates was grossly inadequate, unromantic and outright inhumane, which also gives a fascinating dimension to the theme of the prisoner and human rights.

And here, also, it is significant to observe that the study did not make any distinction between political and non-political prisoners. In other words, the right of a convicted murderer to “conjugal visits” is envisaged as being equal to that of any other prison inmate. And the latter drift is no strange tune to Western prison culture. Indeed, a little over a decade ago, a convicted attempted murderess, Amy Fisher, right here in New York State, was overheard discussing “conjugal visits” with a young man whom the teenage convict believed to be genuinely in love with her. It shortly turned out that the entire episode was a trap set up by the alleged suitor, or boyfriend, for purposes other than pure romance and intimacy, if memory serves this writer accurately. But what is even more fascinating is the fact that Belgium's Justice Minister, Laurette Onkelinx, has requested a copy of that country's Catholic University student's study decrying the woefully inadequate “conjugal visits” afforded prison inmates. The student in question, Ina van Havere, concluded in her study that the niggardly brief “conjugal visits” afforded Belgian prison inmates have the deleterious impact of straining relationships; in other words, such brief sexual encounters allowable to prison inmates and their non-inmate spouses often leave either couple emotionally dissatisfied with the other. The implication here, it goes without saying, is that rather than cementing conjugal relationships in times of crises, the brief “conjugal visits” actually serve to sever relationships by, quite predictably, forcing the non-inmate spouse, or partner, to seek more emotionally fulfilling intimacy elsewhere.

The next most logical question becomes: But why should anybody bother whether an inmate's relationship with a partner on the outside is strained or cemented by such brief “conjugal visits”? And the logical answer appears to be that in many a civilized society, the mere fact of one's incarceration, for whatever number of reasons, fundamentally does not detract from one's immutable humanity as well as the need to treat the societally sanctioned as such, a bona fide human being with the right to the visceral expression of one's humanity.

Another dimension of the story and one that is clearly muted, but may yet be its most significant dimension, is the fact that both the student who conducted the study, Ms. Ina van Havere, and the Belgian Justice Minister, Laurette Onkelinx, are women. And in a heavily patriarchal global community, it cannot be gainsaid that women often bring an added and, perhaps, a more humane dimension to the manner and tenor in which proscribed elements of society are perceived. And this is not to be all together unexpected; for having hitherto been unjustifiably proscribed from many avenues of societal endeavors women, generally and relatively speaking, tend to be more sensitive to questions of injustice than men. Which is why on the issue of romance, Ms. Ina van Havere cast matters in such inimitably deft and delicate terms: “The time constraints [imposed by the niggardly brief conjugal visits] mean [that] couples are forced into bed almost immediately [upon a spouse's visit to a prison inmate, thus] leaving [the couple] no time to talk [and pet].”

And, of course, who said Ghana and Ghanaians could not take a cue from this more humane and civilized treatment of our prison inmates? Even the most criminal elements among us? *Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., teaches English and Journalism at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is the author of ten volumes of poetry and prose, including Sounds of Sirens: Essays in African Politics and Culture, all of which are available from,,, and Barnes & Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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