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Guilty until proven innocent

Jamestown Prison in Accra housed remand prisoners until it was shut down in 2008. Photo by Shawn Hayward.


By Shawn Hayward

Kojo Penim Ackah wants some changes made to the Ghanaian justice system.

On Dec. 31, 1995 his mother was found dead at their home in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Ackah was charged with her murder and remanded into custody.

Ackah became one of the thousands of Ghanaians held in prison without a trial. Of the 13, 573 prisoners currently in the system, just over 3,000 are being held on remand, according to Courage Atchem, public relations officer at Ghana Prisons Service. This means nearly a quarter of inmates in Ghanaian prisons haven’t been convicted of a crime. It’s a blatant violation of their constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.

Last year, the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice found that most remand prisoners in Ghana serve between three to 17 years while waiting for a trial. Most remanded prisoners in Canada spend less than a week on remand, according to Statistics Canada.

Life in jail on remand in Ghana is no better than that of the convicted criminal. Remand prisoners eat the same food as the other inmates and in the same quantities, which amounts to about 45 cents.

What’s more, the food is often too terrible to eat, according to Ackah.

“It was toxic,” he says. “I personally witnessed someone drink the soup in the prison and vomit from the mouth and the nose. I don’t know if it was malaria or what. Where I slept, he vomited on top of me and I was shocked.”

The remand problem is mainly caused by the lack of lawyers to represent people in bail hearings, according to A.Y. Sieni, director of the National Legal Aid Scheme. Judges are more likely to grant bail when the accused has a lawyer to represent them.

To make matters worse, not enough lawyers volunteer for legal aid service because government does not provide them with adequate compensation, says Sieni.

The system loses track of how long prisoners are held in custody due to an inefficient tracking system. And even though remand warrants are by law to be renewed every 14 days, Sieni says they are often lost or forgotten.

It was disorganization that lengthened Ackah’s stay in prison. His court date was getting close by the end of 2000, but then the police officer handling his file was transferred and no one could find Ackah’s docket, condemning him to another eight years in prison.

Ackah spent four years in Jamestown Prison, a former slave fort in Accra that housed remand prisoners until 2008 when they were transferred north to Nsawam Prison. Nsawam was built to hold 850 prisoners. It’s currently home to 3,394 inmates, including 1,250 remand prisoners, who occupy a single block within the prison, isolated from the convicts for their own safety. Ackah says the convict blocks house about 20 inmates per cell, while the remand block houses up to 65 inmates in a single cell.

George Safo Sarpong is a recently-released exconvict who served three years for beating his wife. He supported Ackah’s account of life in remand detention.

“The remand block is very congested,” he says. “If you’re a convict, you thank God, because you have the freedom to move. You can go and play ball, even go to church. But in remand you don’t have that ability. You’re always locked up.”

Ackah finally had his day in court in 2008. A judge found him innocent and he now lives unemployed, relying on the help of his brother.

He wants Ghana’s justice system reformed so no one else has to suffer for a crime they didn’t commit.

“I never even married,” he says. “I don’t have anything. I have to start from scratch again. Those are the difficulties. It’s not good for your freedom to be taken from you for even a minute. It’s very, very bad.”

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