Slow justice systems clog African jails

zambian Prison
zambian Prison

There are at least 1,015,639 prison inmates in Africa

By Halima Athumani

The glacial pace of national judicial systems and inherent challenges left over from the colonial era are being blamed for the congestion of prisons across Africa.

“Most of our [prison] population has yet to be tried,” Johnson Byabashaija, chairman of the African Correctional Services Association (ACSA), told The Anadolu Agency in an interview.

“These are people who are still waiting for the criminal justice system to process them,” he explained.

Byabashaija, who is also commissioner-general of Uganda’s prisons, cited his own country as an example.

“In Uganda, 56 percent of my inmates are people who are still running to court and back,” he said. “They’re running me down financially.”

“We need the wheel of the justice system to move faster – then we will be fine,” said Byabashaija.

He does not, however, have the same problem with convicts, especially since most of them are young people.

“Actually, I need them [convicts] to work on fields and contribute to the economy,” he told AA.

Uganda has a total of 43,000 inmates and a warding capacity of only 8,228.

The situation is the same in Zambian prisons, which currently have 19,000 inmates and a warding capacity of only 8,250.

“Case records of condemned prisoners are misplaced and they can’t finish the hearing process,” Percy Chato, ACSA secretary and commissioner-general of the Zambia Prisons Services, told AA.

He said this meant that the prisoners’ constitutional rights – such as the right to petition the president for clemency – could not be invoked.

Chato insists it is time for African governments to address the issue of excessive use of custodial measures, which has resulted in over-congestion in many of Africa’s already-dilapidated prisons.

“We need to address issues of the judiciary,” he said. “Sometimes, the wheels of justice move slowly. This has a telling effect on congestion.”

ACSA currently caters to 30 African countries.

Its executive committee includes representatives from Uganda, Mozambique, Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, Namibia, Ghana, Angola, Swaziland, Kenya and Egypt.

They are currently meeting in Kampala to brainstorm solutions to the management problems plaguing the continent’s correctional and prison services, including staff shortages, over-congestion, inadequate funding, and poor prison conditions, both for inmates and staff.

According to ACSA chief Byabashaija, there are a total of 1,015,639 prison inmates in Africa – excluding Guinea Bissau, Eritrea and Somalia, for which figures are not available.

South Africa has the highest incarceration rate in Africa, with 157,000 prison inmates. Uganda, for its part, ranks ninth.

In East Africa, Tanzania has the least number of inmates at 35,000.

But Chato, the ACSA secretary, insists that the problems go beyond mere congestion.

“Most infrastructure can be described as legacies of the colonial era, which is an issue that each country needs to address by building more infrastructure,” he told AA.

“We have to develop correctional prison systems by building more infrastructure, building capacity, and improving conditions for staff, both in terms of incentives and accommodation,” the Zambian official added.

Many African countries, however, have appeared reluctant to sink money into expensive prison-building ventures.-Anadolu Agency