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Bursting at the seams: A walk through Ghana's prisons

Prisoners from the recently-closed Jamestown Prison (above) were moved to nearby Nsawam Prison, which holds more than four times the number of inmates for which it was designed.
Photo by Shawn Hayward. 

By Jessica McDiarmid

“Never say die” is stencilled in capital letters above a cell door on death row in Ghana’s Nsawam prison.

One of the cell's inhabitants leans on the door frame, following my eyes as I read it. He grins before retreating back into his room, a cell that perhaps measures 3 by 4 metres and sleeps three or four men.

He is just one of nearly 3,400 inmates at Nsawam Medium Security Prison about 35 kilometres from the nation's capital, Accra. The facility—cell blocks, some outbuildings, a grassy football pitch and a few well-kept administrative buildings—is designed for 850 men.

The term "prison congestion" wasn't new to me. I'd seen the statistics and read the reports. But the sight—and smell—of it was. Ghana's prison system is vastly overloaded—a problem everyone knows about, but no one is doing much about.

On death row, bags, pots, pans, shoes, clothing and crude tools hang on the walls of the two-storey building that houses the 105 condemned men.

According to the rules, convicts' worldly possessions shouldn't be kept here. But at Nsawam, there isn't any other room.

Some of the cells are decorated: posters of busty white ladies here, a landscape painting there. Prisoners and guards weave their way down the hall outside the cells, stepping carefully around the bodies and belongings that cover a good part of the floor.

Just beyond the prison "library" are the gallows. A prisoner smiles as he holds the door open and points up to a wooden platform overhead. A long lever extends downward to activate the trap doors that open to drop condemned men to their deaths. High above the platform are the nooses. There is a dummy in one of them.

"It's like a museum for us," says the inmate. No one has been hung here since the 1960s, when firing squads replaced hangmen as the state's preferred executioners. The last time a death sentence was carried out in Ghana was 17 years ago.

None at Nsawam are begging for their lives, but rather for the conditions in which they will live the rest of those lives.

And, despite living like sardines in sweltering heat just around the corner from a gruesome reminder of their sentences, the inmates on death row have it good when it comes to their living conditions.

Outside the high wall topped with shards of glass that isolates death row from the rest of the prison, eight buildings house about 3,300 inmates. More than 1,200 of those men are not convicted of any crime—they are on remand, waiting for the sticky wheels of justice to turn. They may be waiting years, they may be waiting decades.

In Canada, there is a push to eliminate double-bunking in prison cells. Currently, between six to 10 per cent of inmates share cells at Canadian prisons.

At Nsawam, the number of inmates per cell is written in chalk on blackboards at the front of each cell block: 42, 26, 22, 43, 45. Each cell measures five metres by five metres. The smell of the cell blocks wafts out across the yard, a sour mixture of urine, feces and sweat that, once you get close, is strong enough to taste.

In the sweltering midday heat, inmates sit in the cells out of the sun, lining the walls, forming lines through the middle of the rooms. Constantly fanning themselves with almost no ventilation, inmates are locked in these cells for about 12 hours a day. About $0.40 per day is allotted to feed them, which affords them a small cup of porridge in the morning, soup at lunch and a cup of gari, a local cassava dish, at dinner, according to one former inmate.

Prison officials say water shortages are frequent and sanitation is "out of control." And prisoners' health is suffering.

A 24-year-old man from Volta Region in eastern Ghana found himself at Nsawam after being arrested on suspicion of armed robbery. He spent over three years there.

“The place is just rough,” says the man, who doesn’t want his name printed for fear it would affect his case, which is now before the courts, as well as the risk of mob violence.

He says he remembers waking up to find someone's feet in his mouth. Other mornings, prisoners would realize that someone hadn't survived the night.

“When a human being dies over there, they just say, one more fowl dead.”

Richard Quayson, deputy commissioner of Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), calls the situation in the country’s prisons “intolerable.”

He says all the government departments involved in the justice system are concerned.

“But we are not translating that concern into action,” says Quayson.

Ghana’s attorney general’s office has launched several programs in recent years aimed at decreasing the number of remand inmates behind bars in order to lessen overall congestion, but CHRAJ calls these measures “ad hoc" and says there has been little improvement overall.

Overall, the rights of prisoners are low on the totem pole of social consciousness, says Tuinese Edward Amuzu, executive director of the Legal Resources Centre in Accra.

"There's a lot of resistance there," says Amuzu, whose organization provides legal counsel to inmates and stages ad hoc interventions. "If you are in the hands of law enforcement, people think, ‘Ah, you have committed a crime and…you must suffer.’"

Championing prisoners' rights on a political level isn't likely to win many ballots, says CHRAJ's Quayson, which makes the fight for prisoners' rights that much more difficult.

"We are in a dilemma at this stage," he says. "In promoting human rights, we are promoting  human rights for all persons. And when it comes to prisoners, compared to other people, they are very, very vulnerable." 

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