[Ppnews] Prisons in Africa

Political Prisoner News PPnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 7 08:54:47 EST 2005

New York Times

November 6, 2005

The Forgotten of Africa, Wasting Away in Jails Without Trial


- Since Nov. 10, 1999, Lackson Sikayenera has been incarcerated in Maula 
Prison, a dozen iron-roofed barracks set on yellow dirt and hemmed by 
barbed wire just outside Malawi's capital city.

He eats one meal of porridge daily. He spends 14 hours each day in a cell 
with 160 other men, packed on the concrete floor, unable even to move. The 
water is dirty; the toilets foul. Disease is rife.

But the worst part may be that in the case of Mr. Sikayenera, who is 
accused of killing his brother, the charges against him have not yet even 
reached a court. Almost certainly, they never will. For sometime after 
November 1999, justice officials lost his case file. His guards know where 
he is. But for all Malawi's courts know, he does not exist.

"Why is it that my file is missing?" he asked, his voice a mix of rage and 
desperation. "Who took my file? Why do I suffer like this? Should I keep on 
staying in prison just because my file is not found? For how long should I 
stay in prison? For how long?"

This is life in Malawi's high-security prisons, Dickens in the tropics, 
places of cruel, but hardly unusual punishment. Prosecutors, judges, even 
prison wardens agree that conditions are unbearable, confinements 
intolerably long, justice scandalously uneven.

But by African standards, Malawi is not the worst place to do time. For 
many of Africa's one million prison inmates, conditions are equally 
unspeakable - or more so.

The inhumanity of African prisons is a shame that hides in plain sight. 
Black Beach Prison in 
Guinea is notorious for torture. Food is so scarce in 
jails that gangs wield it as an instrument of power. Congo's prisons have 
housed children as young as 8. Kenyan prisoners perish from easily curable 
diseases like gastroenteritis.

When the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights last visited the 
African Republic's prisons in 2000, it heard that officers had deemed 50 
prisoners incorrigible. Then, dispensing with trials, they executed them.

Even the African Commission's special representative for inmates has not 
visited an African prison in 18 months. There is no money, said the 
representative, Vera Chirwa, a democracy activist who herself spent 12 
years in Malawi jails under a dictatorship.

"The conditions are almost the same," Ms. Chirwa said. "In Malawi, in 
Africa, in 
in almost every country I have visited. I've been to 
and I've seen the prisons there. In Africa, they would be hotels."

Most African governments spend little on justice, and what little is spent 
goes mostly to the police and courts, said Marie-Dominique Parent, the 
Malawi-based regional director of Penal Reform International, a British 
advocacy group. Prisons, she said, "are at the bottom of the heap."

With so much misery among law-abiding citizens, the world's poorest nations 
have little incentive to improve convicts' lives. But, then, not everyone 
in African prisons is a convict.

Two-thirds of 
18,000 prison inmates have not been tried. The same is true of 
three-fourths of Mozambique's prisoners, and four-fifths of 
Even in South Africa, Africa's most advanced nation, inmates in 
Johannesburg Prison have waited seven years to see a judge.

Some of Africa's one million or so prisoners - nobody knows how many - are 
not lawbreakers, but victims of incompetence or corruption or justice 
systems that are simply understaffed, underfinanced and overwhelmed. 
former prisons commissioner suggested last year that with proper legal 
representation, a fifth of his nation's 55,000 prisoners might be declared 

The most immediate and apparent inhumanity is the overcrowding that 
Africa's broken systems breed, compounded by disease, filth, abuse, and a 
lack of food, soap, beds, clothes or recreation. A survey of 27 African 
governments by Penal Reform International found that national prison 
systems operated, on average, at 141 percent of capacity. Individual 
prisons were even more jammed: Luzira Prison, Uganda's largest, holds 5,000 
in a 1950's facility built for 600.

Babati Prison in 
built for 50 inmates, housed 589 as of March.

Malawi's 9,800 inmates, living in effectively the same cells that were too 
crowded when they housed 4,500 a decade ago, are luckier than many. Three 
years ago, half the prisoners had yet to go before a judge. Under a 
pioneering program run by Penal Reform International and financed in part 
by the British government, paralegals have winnowed that to fewer than one 
in four - among the lowest rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the flood of newly accused still outstrips Malawi's ability to deliver 

"This is not a hotel, where we can accommodate no more than our capacity," 
said Tobias Nowa, Malawi's commissioner of prison operations. "We must 
accommodate whomever is sent to us."

Prison Population Doubles

Paradoxically, democracy's advent has catalyzed the problems of Africa's 
prisons. Freedom has permitted lawlessness, newly empowered citizens have 
demanded order - and governments have delivered.

Malawi's prison population has more than doubled since the dictatorship 
ended in 1994. But its justice system is so badly broken that it is hard to 
know where to begin repairs.

Malawi's 12 million citizens have 28 legal aid attorneys and eight 
prosecutors with law degrees. There are jobs for 32 prosecutors, but 
salaries are so low that the vacancies go unfilled.

So except in special cases like murder and manslaughter, almost all accused 
go to trial without lawyers. The police prosecutors who try them have only 
basic legal training. And the lay magistrates who sit in judgment are 
largely unschooled in the law.

Justice Andrew Nyirenda, 49, the chief of Malawi's High Court, said the 
system had been swamped by the growth and rising complexity of crime since 
Malawi became a democracy in 1994.

"There are conspiracies to commit crimes, drug trafficking, even human 
trafficking, and instances of lower-level white-collar crimes where people 
are literally swindling institutions," he said. "These are extremely 
complicated cases for people who have not been trained sufficiently. We get 
convictions that aren't supposed to be convictions, and acquittals that 
aren't supposed to be acquittals."

Pacharo Kayira, one of the eight prosecutors, seconds that. "I've done so 
many cases where I don't agree with the conviction by the lower court," he 
said in an interview here. "It's not the best situation, to say the least."

Malawi's police officers can take two years merely to send prosecutors 
their report on a homicide. Prosecutors need months more to decide whether 
the case should be taken to a lower court, the start of a legal process 
that lasts years.

Malawi's High Court, which must pass judgment on all capital crimes, has 
not heard a single homicide case in the last year. There is no money to 
assemble lawyers, judges and witnesses for hearings in the locales where 
the crimes occurred; no money to empanel juries as required since 1995; no 
money for the written record that the Supreme Court needs for its mandatory 
review of convictions.

Ishmael Wadi, Malawi's director of public prosecutions, said his eight 
prosecutors had a backlog of 44 untried fraud and tax-evasion cases, 173 
robbery and theft cases, 388 fatal accident cases and 867 homicide cases.

"When the offenses occur, they send the files to this office," he said. 
"The files keep on coming, so the number keeps increasing. So what do you 
do? You accumulate the files, keep them nice and put them on the shelves."

And the caseload is rising. Capital crimes - homicide, rape and 
manslaughter - consume virtually all the time of legal-aid lawyers and 
prosecutors. While they process about 380 homicides a year, 500 to 600 
other homicides are committed.

Shortages of judges, prosecutors and lawyers ensure that justice is both 
sluggish and mean. Many inmates sit in cells for lack of bail that can 
total less than $10 or $20.

The interminable wait between arrest and courtroom torments the innocent 
and lets the guilty escape justice. Evidence in police stations is 
misplaced or discarded. Witnesses die and move away.

Mr. Kayira, the prosecutor, encounters such cases far too often, after much 
life has been wasted and long terms already served, by both the innocent 
and the guilty.

"There have been many times when I have used the discretion granted me as a 
prosecutor to tell the police to release a person who has been there five, 
six years," he said. "I look at their file and say to myself, 'There isn't 
the evidence here to convict this person.' " For prisoners like Lackson 
Sikayenera, their cases lost in a system that only sporadically works, the 
only alternative is to hope someone hears their pleas for help - and to 
make a new life.

The Road to Prison

Built 40 years ago to house 800 inmates, Maula Prison, on a recent visit, 
held 1,805 inmates, all but 24 of them men. Mr. Sikayenera lives in Maula's 
Cell 3, one of 160 in a pen the size of a two-car garage.

Once a farmer near Dowa, a dirt-road village 25 miles north of Lilongwe, 
Mr. Sikayenera was sent here after he killed his elder brother Jonas. Their 
father, he said, gave him a choice tobacco plot that Jonas claimed was 
rightfully his. Jonas threatened to kill him if he did not surrender it. 
Lackson refused, he said, and Jonas attacked.

"To protect myself, I took a hoe handle and hit my brother on the forehead, 
and he fainted," he said. "Then I went to the police to report that I had 
harmed my brother." The police jailed him, then moved him to Maula Prison a 
week later.

That was more than 2,100 days ago.

"I have not seen my family since 1999," he said. "I was the only productive 
person in my home, and now there is too much poverty for them to afford 
transport to see me. The only communication I have gotten is from my first 
wife, who informed me, 'I am tired of staying alone here, and I am going to 
get married.' "

"Life is very hard here," he said.

He and the other men spend daytime in the prison yard, a field of thick 
yellow dust with an outdoor privy, a communal shower and one water spigot. 
At 4 p.m., they are herded into a dozen concrete cells. Fourteen hours 
later, at 6 a.m., they are let out again.

Their cells have iron-barred windows and thick walls to discourage escape 
attempts. A sporadically working shower and toilet are crammed in each 
cell's corner.

One cell wall is painted glossy black - a blackboard where inmates scrawl 
trivia like the cell's head count, prisoners' faiths and works of chalk 
art, like drawings of autos and dream homes.

Prisoners sleep on blankets on the floor, too tightly packed to reach the 
toilet - too packed, in fact, even to turn in their sleep. One inmate 
awakens the rest each night for mass turnovers. The most privileged inmates 
sleep on their backs, ringing the walls of the cell. Everyone else sleeps 
on his side.

"It is so unhygienic here," Mr. Sikayenera said. "Basically, if you need 
any source of water, you have to get it from the toilet. The showers, most 
of them are broken. There is a lot of dysentery. A lot of the time, the 
water isn't running." Maula Prison's commanding officer, an expansive man 
named Gibson Singo, disputes none of that.

"They were designed for 50 or 60 people in one cell," he said. "But now 
it's 150, 155. If you talk of human rights, there is no way you can put 150 
people in one room."

Maula and four nearby prisons split a monthly state allotment of $12,500, 
from which Mr. Singo must pay Maula's 124 employees and meet inmates' 
needs. Maula's share is laughably small. There are no prison uniforms, no 
blankets, no soap, save what charities provide. The only food is nsima, 
corn mush leavened with beans or meat from the prison rabbit hutch. The 
only drink is water.

The mush is boiled in massive tubs outside the prison, where wardens moved 
the kitchen after hungry inmates began fighting over the food. The old 
kitchen is now a rudimentary school, its lessons scrawled in chalk on the 

These conditions exact a cruel toll. Maula Prison lost an average of 30 
prisoners a year in 2003 and 2004 - about one death per 60 inmates. The 
average for American prisons is one death per 330 inmates.

It could be worse: Zomba Prison, 100 miles south, loses one in 20 inmates 
annually. But it is bad enough.

How They Survive

"It's just unbearable," said Frances Daka, 32, jailed on an unresolved 
murder charge since 2002. "We make ourselves live, just to survive."

Survive they do, in ingenious fashion. On each cell's wall, beside the 
chalk artwork, is a list of rules, laws that are both prosaic and telling: 
Do not make noise when the lights are off. Do not smoke during prayers.

Prisoners must be clothed, lest a bare body excite sex-starved men. "Sodomy 
is not allowed in this house," one rule states.

A cell hierarchy maintains order. A minister of health checks daily for 
sick prisoners and arranges medical care.

If justice outside the prison is slow to come, inside it is swift, lest 
unrest ensue. Cell policemen "arrest" rule breakers, and cell magistrates 
hear evidence and pronounce sentences.

"Let's say someone was helping himself while the others are eating," Mr. 
Sikayenera said. "This person might be given 500 days of cleaning the cell."

After 20 or so, the offender might be taken again to a cell judge, who can 
grant a reprieve.

"The reason why there is all this hierarchy is to find conflict 
resolution," Mr. Sikayenera said. "So there is no chaos. And it's 
effective. In most of the cells, you find there is no fighting. People 
don't break the rules."

Mr. Sikayenera is the magistrate of Cell 3. For six years, no one in 
Malawi's justice system has decided whether he should be punished or freed. 
But in prison, elevated by seniority and fellow inmates' respect, he metes 
out mercy and retribution with an even hand.

And without delay.

"When a case comes up," he said, utterly without irony, "it is dealt with. 
Right there."

The National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild is 
dedicated to the protection of all persons from the unlawful or 
unconstitutional use of police power.

NPAP, 14 Beacon Street, Suite 701, Boston, MA 02108
phone: (617) 227-6015 fax: (617) 227-6018
web: www.nlg-npap.org email: npap at nlg.org

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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