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UK Prisons: A Cut Above Ghana, But Not Good Enough

About The Author

Alexander Barbour (Former Criminal & Environmental Law Editor)

Alex has recently graduated from the University of Birmingham, achieving a First Class Honours degree in Law. His main interests lie in issues concerning human rights, criminal justice and the environment. Alex recently received the Albion Richardson Award from Gray’s Inn to fund the BPTC, which he is currently undertaking at the University of Law, Birmingham.

Prison conditions in Ghana are harsh and sometimes life-threatening. Police brutality persists and prisoners are often housed in old colonial forts or abandoned public buildings with poor ventilation and sanitation, substandard construction and limited space and light. Custodial conditions in Ghana lead many, such as Amnesty and the UN, to question whether prisoners’ rights are being upheld. But are substandard prison conditions a problem limited to less developed countries, or is the standard of UK prisons also questionable?

Since gaining independence in 1957, Ghana has been an active member of the United Nations, ratifying several instruments concerning human rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture. Ghana has also incorporated most of the provisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights into its 1992 constitution. The 1992 Ghanaian constitution entrenches a number of fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Ghana. Some of the rights and freedoms guaranteed include the right to life, fair trial and equality before the law. Article 15 relates to persons in custody, and sets out:

  1. The dignity of all persons shall be inviolable.
  2. No person shall, whether or not he is arrested, restricted or detained, be subjected to
    1. torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
    2. any other condition that detracts or is likely to detract from his dignity and worth as a human being.
  3. A person who has not been convicted of a criminal offence shall not be treated as a convicted person and shall be kept separately from convicted persons.
  4. A juvenile offender who is kept in lawful custody or detention shall be kept separately from an adult offender.

In practice, however, these fundamental rights of prisoners are being overlooked.

The majority of the problems with Ghanaian prisons stem from overcrowding, which is a direct result of Ghana's tendency towards the imposition of lengthy prison sentences, coupled with strict appeals and relief processes. Under Ghanaian law, only 10 percent of a lengthy prison sentence may be remitted for good behaviour. Prison Service statistics from October 2013 indicated that 14,101 prisoners were being held in prisons designed to hold a third of that number, with some prisons reportedly having a capacity-to-population ratio of nearly 500 percent.

Such serious overcrowding means food and medical care are inadequate, with many prisoners relying on family members for additional food, medicines and other necessities. While some prisoners have beds, some are forced to sleep on their sides on the floor, packed together in lines. In Kumasi male prison in 2011, Amnesty International observed a cell approximately 4 metres by 5 metres holding 45 inmates, all of whom lay on their sides in a top-to-toe formation in order to sleep. Gross overcrowding affects sanitation and hygiene, with prisoners having to sleep, urinate and defecate in the same place. Cell conditions in many of Ghana’s prisons can be seen as a violation of the prisoners’ right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 15(1) and (2) of the 1992 constitution.

In recent weeks, UK prison conditions have also been under public scrutiny after figures were released showing an increase in self-harm and suicide in jails in England and Wales. Ministry of Justice figures released in July showed the total number of inmates who died in prisons in England and Wales in 2013-14 was 225. This is an increase from 181 in the previous year and higher than in any of the previous nine years. There was also an increase in the number of prisoners taking their own lives: from 52 in 2012-13 to 88 in 2013-14.

Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, agreed that overcrowding, as in Ghana’s prisons, contributed significantly to the problem, warning ministers that 'if you want the prison population to rise then your resources to deal with that need to rise as well'. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the government had created a 'perfect storm' by increasing the prison population, with 50-100 more prisoners per week, closing 18 prisons and cutting the numbers of prison staff by 30%.

Contrary to international standards, corporal punishment is legal in Ghanaian prisons under the Prison Services Act 1972. Although Amnesty International observed that complaints of ill treatment were not frequent in Ghana, in one prison most of the inmates reported beatings of some kind. One prison officer told Amnesty, 'we give good treatment to the prisoners who behave well and we give bad treatment to the prisoners who behave badly'. The most common form of corporal punishment is caning, but there have been reports of fists or pieces of rubber being used. At the heart of the problem is an inefficient complaints procedure and a general lack of privacy when inmates meet with a visitor of any kind. Prisoners rarely get an opportunity to speak in confidence, with many not even being able to speak to their lawyer without a guard being present. Although corporal punishment may not be a problem in the UK prisons, it can be argued that even more bodily harm befalls inmates in the UK through self-harm and violence among prisoners. In a report on 80 self-inflicted deaths of inmates aged 18-24 over the course of seven years in England and Wales, Nigel Newcomen, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, said that the potential impact of bullying on the risk of self-harm or suicide was 'too rarely considered'.

In Ghana, poor management of paperwork relating to prisoners on remand has increased the already high number of remand prisoners who contribute to the overcrowding problem. As a result, remand prisoners are being held with convicted prisoners in the most overcrowded prisons: a clear violation of articles 15(3) and (4) of the constitution. Death penalty prisoners, however, are kept separate from others. Male and female prisoners are also housed separately.

Nevertheless, the Government is making positive steps with the implementation of the Justice For All programme, which aims to combat overcrowding by having judges hold temporary courts at the prisons to review cases for those who have been held in remand for months or years. UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, who recently conducted a visit to Ghana, recommends the Government expand the scope of the project to also review the lengthy sentences imposed for possibilities of appeal and other review. Some of the inmates the Special Rapporteur met were serving sentences of up to 145 years with no way of seeking appellate review. In his report, Mendez also recommended the ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture immediately, which, he argues, would allow national prisons to be regularly monitored by independent experts.

There is no capacity to deal with mental illness in Ghana’s prisons, with no staffing specifically focused on mental health. However, the problem is not just in prisons, the numbers of mental health staff in the whole of Ghana is dangerously low. According to the Director of the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Dr Akwasi Osei, 'the existing number of psychiatrists in the country gives the ratio of one psychiatrist to 1.7 million people'. Mental health is also an issue in UK prisons, with the Mental Health Foundation estimating that over 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders. With the suicide rate 15 times higher in prisons than outside, it is clear that the treatment of inmates with mental health issues needs to be far more considerate than at present.

In the UK, the Secretary for State for Justice, Chris Graying, continues to deny there is a problem with prisons in England and Wales; but Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, believes current evidence about the prison system 'points towards meltdown'. He argues ministers are in 'total denial' about the problem of self-harm and suicide in custody, an argument with which more and more are beginning to agree.

Despite a Prison Service spokesman assuring the media that they are 'working very hard to understand the recent fluctuations in self-inflicted deaths', it is clear that the Government must take action if the recent trend is to be curbed. In Ghana, both national and international standards are not being met by the prison conditions, and much more still needs to be done to ensure compliance with the constitution and international obligations Ghana has ratified. Despite positive steps, it is clear that prisons in Ghana and the UK are failing their inmates by falling well below the standards set by the UN. If urgent action is not taken, the rights of prisoners in the UK and Ghana will continue to be forgotten.

Further Reading

United States Department of State, "Ghana 2013 Human Rights Report"

Juan Mendez, “Ghana’s criminal justice and mental health practices need critical attention to be more humane” 

Amnesty International, “Ghana: 'Prisoners Are Bottom Of The Pile': The Human Rights Of Inmates In Ghana”

Dr Akwasi Osei, “How effective will the mental health bill be when passed?”

BBC News, “Prison conditions contributing to suicides, inspector says” 

BBC News, “Prisoner suicide report calls for action on young inmates” 

BBC News, "HMP Wormwood Scrubs 'filthy and unsafe', according to report"

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Tagged: Criminal Law, International Law, Prisons

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