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25.01.2006 General News

Rotting in remand

By Statesman

The shameful state of Ghana's prisons, as reported by a former inmate of the Kumasi Central Prison

Soon the clock will tick to 5:30, the cell leaders will shout “foleey”, and Azouh, 64, will put aside his concerns about the failure of the prison officers to take him to court once again; he will stop thinking briefly about the fate of his seven children at home, and turn to wondering about where and if he will sleep tonight.

The Kumasi Central Prison, which was built in the 1940s to house criminals, is in a woefully deteriorating condition. The remand section, designed to accommodate 70 inmates awaiting court verdicts, is bursting at the seams with 700 prisoners boarded in behind its walls.

The custody is so congested that cell police, who are inmates themselves, will spend hours packing and arranging inmates on the floor every night like the tubers of yam in a truck or sardines in a tin. Those not lucky enough to have secured a share of the precious floor space are forced to “sleep” standing on their feet through the night; the sores and swelling incurred can take months to subside.

During the day, the prisoners are exposed to the heat of the sun, with the only canopy in the yard sufficient to shelter just a few inmates at a time. The Holy Family hospital, meant to give medicine for free, is ritually demanding the disease-ridden prisoners to pay for their treatment: no money, no cure. Alhaji Ibranhim, a resident of Aboaso No 1, was forced to pay for treatment when he complained of malaria and body weakness – but with the conditions in which the prisoners are forced to live, they can barely avoid illness.

The food, which is served twice a day, is filthy and uncooked; the morning porridge is never served with sugar, whilst the unappetising lunch at 1pm consists of a bowl of water with palm oil and salt to represent “soup”, dished up with undercooked banku or rice. The poor nature of meals given to prisoners has made diarrhea and cholera endemic killers in the prison.

The poor toilet facilities compound the problem. According to one officer, until recently every prisoner had been forced to take part in the task of digging out toilet holes with their bare hands – even those too sick and weak to cope. The death of an inmate immediately after working on the toilet however prompted the cell leaders to begin demanding a 500 cedi fee from those who could not withstand that task. Now Akwasi Agyemang, the sanitation leader of the remand prison, takes charge of the digging; but for those who cannot afford the fine, they have no option but to join in.

There is no fan system, and this coupled with the poor ventilation at the prison leaves the inmates even more vulnerable to disease. The cry of “foul is dead” resonates all too often in the crowded community; another inmate has passed away, one or two at least every month from cholera, malaria, diarrhea. If the family can be traced, the corpse is handed back. If not, it is simply buried alongside the bodies of so many other “criminals” who die in remand before their cases are never given a hearing. Some of the inmates had been there five years or more, although no court of law has ever officially sentenced them to their imprisonment.

According to a survey conducted by Abdallah Musah, a political scientist at the University of Ghana, Legon and the General Secretary of the Association of Retired Person, an NGO based in Accra, only 60 percent of those held in remand would ever been imprisoned by a court of law. A further 10 percent are debtors who have failed to pay their dues, whilst fully 30 percent are innocent but confined to custody nonetheless because they have no one to speak for them at the law court – no money to hire a defence lawyer, or even to pay CID officers to take them to court in the first place.

With so many prisoners imprisoned by their poverty, and the apparently unresponsiveness of justice system to the situation, the overcrowding looks set to get worse.

Wofa Yahaya, 54 and blind, hails from the wood-carving village of Ahwia. He was remanded for his failure to find the whereabouts of his nephew, who is accused of stealing 4 million cedis worth of wood. It is a cruel reality that prisoners such as him are unable to motivate or bribe CID to take them to court and so are sentenced by default to remain; prisoners with families outside Kumasi or who do not know their whereabouts, could spend literally years in the remand yard.

The situation is compounded by the treatment, or mistreatment, of the CID officers themselves. The remuneration given to the prisons officers is the lowest of all the various security services: a salary of about ¢500,000 is meaningless for effective care and administration of the prison institutions in our country.

Mallam Yahaya spent 40 days as an inmate at the Kumasi Central Prison, after which time he was cleared of all charges.