I would hate to go to jail. However, if I really need to give up my freedoms for a stint in jail, I hope I will not just be picked up and thrown there without trial and conviction. Sadly, that’s what is happening to thousands of Ghanaians across the country.
In prisons from Nsawam to Sekondi to Ho, hundreds of lives are painfully wasting away because the system has become so inefficient, and its managers inept and cruel. These are the lives of people who are being held on remand. They were captured in a net, under suspicion of having committed certain crimes, dumped in the prisons and left there to rot. Society has turned it back on them and it’s so heart-wrenching to see how precious lives are being wasted in this manner.
Take the story of 65-year-old, Dan Hages Amedzro who has been on remand at the Nsawam Prisons for 17 years. He was picked up on suspicion of robbery after a pair of ‘charlie wote’ (flip flops) believed to be his were found at the crime scene. He was then dumped at the prison. That was in 1990 and since then he has been to court just once. Mr. Amedzro has neither been tried nor convicted. He’s been told to wait and that’s what he has been doing for the past 17 years – waiting for the train of justice to come pick him up from the doldrums of Nsawam. Seventeen of his years on earth have been wasted, his life destroyed by an inefficient and inhumane system.
There are hundreds like Mr. Amadzro in prisons across the country. In Nsawam alone, more than half of the prisoners there are on remand.
Over the years there has been a lot of talk about the need to make the system work better to reduce the number of prisoners on remand to the barest minimum. Seven years ago, I was with a team of CHRAJ officials who visited the Usher Fort Prisons. The things I saw then were heart-wrenching. I saw a woman who had been in on remand for 10 years.
Shortly after that, as parliamentary correspondent for Joy FM, I watched Papa Owusu Ankomah wax lyrical about how the Kufuor administration would transform the prison system to reduce the number of remand prisoners and introduce non-custodial sentencing to “decongest” the prisons. This was during his nomination hearing for the position of Interior Minister. Since then, all those who have been nominated for that position have said the same things, in different ways and yet the problem only gets worse.
We’ve heard all the recent talk about plans (in the pipeline – where else?) to deal with the problem of remand prisoners. We’ve heard it all before though, haven’t we? Hearing those words rehashed by different people is as sickening as it is annoying. It seems the politicians and the so-called policy-makers just talk and talk without any real intention of dealing with the problem. Their best effort so far has been to offer pretentious tokens to make us feel they are doing ‘something’.
There is an ongoing programme known as “justice for all” under which an attempt is being made to deal with the issue. But it doesn’t go far enough. Since it started about two years ago, only about 20 remand prisoners have received any form of “justice”. Hundreds of others continue to languish in jail, their freedoms unjustly taken away and their lives rudely interrupted.
For true justice to be served and for this problem of remand prisoners to be dealt with, all the men and women who have been on remand for more than a year should be immediately released. If there was a case against them, they would have been tried long ago. Thereafter, if the prosecutors are able to get their acts together they can be recalled for trial.
To prevent a choking of the prisons by suspects on remand, laws should be passed prohibiting remand detention for periods longer than one or two years. If the state cannot build a case within the period, it has no business keeping people in custody indefinitely – except in very extraordinary cases.
Government officials should also stop talking about what their plans are – we’ve heard it all before. They should just go right ahead and do whatever needs to be done to make the administration of justice more efficient than it is today. Court rooms need to be built; modern court rooms, where judges don’t need to record proceedings in long hand. There is no justice in any country when half of its prison population are being on remand. And where there is not justice, anarchy reigns…
“The case has been going on for so long that I’ve forgotten whether I’m really innocent or guilty” – Ashleigh Brilliant