‘There’s freedom, but there’s nothing like justice’
A look into Ghana’s overloaded justice system and overcrowded prisons
Stories by Isaac Osei and Jessica McDiarmid
Francis Grant spent more than three years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
In November 2010, an Accra court acquitted him of charges of armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
But it was not before he lost years of youth behind bars without an opportunity to have his case heard as guaranteed in every Ghanaian’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.
Mr. Grant was one of thousands of Ghanaians who languish behind bars on remand for years without access to justice.
According to the Ghana Prisons Service, more than 3,000 of the roughly 13,500 prisoners currently in the system are on remand, meaning that they have been charged with a crime but not convicted in court.
Under the Constitution of Ghana, everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The situation in reality is the opposite. Suspects are guilty until proven innocent. But the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) reports that most people in prison on remand wait for three to 17 years for trial in dire conditions in Ghana’s vastly overcrowded prison facilities.
When Mr. Grant was arrested, he had just moved into his own apartment. There had been an armed robbery in the neighbourhood recently and he heard rumours that people were accusing him of being responsible.
“People were coming and saying I should run, but I said, I didn’t do anything, there’s no need for me to run from them,” says Mr. Grant.
Later, there was banging on the door. When he looked out the window, his place was surrounded by police with guns.
He says police officers pushed him out of his house with guns. Afraid, he struggled and kept asking why they were taking him, and was severely beaten, says Mr. Grant.
At the police station, Mr. Grant says he was beaten again when he denied the charges repeatedly.
“They just wanted me to say something but I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” says Mr. Grant.
Following the beating, he says he fell ill and was taken to hospital, where he remained for some weeks.
Then he was taken to court, where he was remanded to Nsawam Prison about 35 kilometres from Accra for — they said — two weeks.
“Some of the CIDs, they really want to punish the prisoners, so they don’t take them to court,” says Mr. Grant. “Nobody was coming. I thought, this is the end of my life.”
Living conditions at Nsawam were “just rough,” says Mr. Grant. “When you open a sardine can, how it’s all packed in there that is how we were sleeping.”
At Nsawam, as many as 45 or more prisoners are crammed into cells that have almost no ventilation. Convicted prisoners
are mixed in with prisoners on remand – a practice that is against the law designed to protect those who are only charged with crimes from those who have been found guilty.
The stench of urine, faeces and sweat wafts far across the field from the cell block.
The prison service is allotted 60 pesawas per day to feed prisoners, which amounts to a cup of porridge, a bowl of soup and a cup of gari, says Mr. Grant.
“People were really dying,” says Mr. Grant. “Sometimes you’d go to sleep, you’d wake up and realize the guy next to you is dead.
“When someone died, they’d just say, ‘One more fowl dead.’”
Mr. Grant was released on bail in August, 2010, after CHRAJ intervened in his case.
CHRAJ stages ad hoc interventions when it hears of particular cases, while advocating major reforms to allay some of the rights violations occurring in Ghana’s justice system.
Deputy Commissioner Richard Quayson identifies the organization’s chief concerns as: delays in justice delivery, the manner in which remand prisoners are kept in prisons; prison congestion; poor sanitation and overall conditions prisoners are kept in.
Since 1995, “there has not been any improvement generally,” says Mr. Quayson.
The deputy commissioner says the overload in the remand system is due to a lack of capacity of courts, a lack of prosecutors or poor performance that drags out the process, delays in investigation and a lack of organization within the police service and the prison system.
“These are the weaknesses in the system,” says Mr. Quayson. “The combination of all of these factors has led to a situation that is intolerable in the prisons.”
And while everyone professes their concern, says Mr. Quayson, “We are not translating that concern into action.
“Every minute a person spends in prison beyond the initial remand is, for me, unfair.”
Generally, those who get stuck in prisons on remand are those who lack the resources and education to get assistance, says Mr. Quayson.
There is recourse under the law to apply for release after spending a certain amount of time behind bars on remand but many prisoners aren’t aware of it.
There is a stark lack of lawyers to represent people in bail hearings, as well as few lawyers who volunteer for legal aid service to assist people who cannot pay for legal counsel.
According to its website, the Ghana Prisons Service is responsible for the safety and humane treatment of prisoners. The service is tasked with “ensuring the welfare of prisoners through protection of their rights and providing them with good health care, clothing, bedding, feeding, recreation, and library facilities,” as well as prisoners’ reformation and rehabilitation.
Prison service officials say sanitation at Nsawam is “out of control” and water shortages are frequent in the overtaxed system.
A total of 294 staff members are responsible for the prison that is holding nearly 3,400 inmates – four times the number it was designed to house.
“Successive governments have not been decisive,” says assistant director Leopold Ansah. “There’s a prison problem. Why don’t we handle it once and for all?”
He says some prisoners have been there on remand for more than six years, waiting for trial, and that the Justice for All programme is selective in who is chosen to partake.
Furthermore, the prison service struggles to secure transportation to court for those who do get a hearing.
Despite its mandate to rehabilitate offenders who have been convicted, there are not appropriate facilities, resources or programs, says Mr. Ansah.
“The police only come and dump people here, that is all,” says Mr. Ansah. “We are just warehousing prisoners.”
The executive director of the Accra-based Legal Resources Centre, which offers case-by-case assistance while doing widespread advocacy work, says the situation is “totally unacceptable.”
“It’s going to take a lot (to change it),” says Tuinese Edward Amuzu. “Civil society has got to be into it. If you leave it to the police, they’ll be looking at other things first.”
He says there is a lot of public resistance to advocacy for prisoners’ rights due to a widespread belief that once people brush into the law, they’re guilty — when, if fact, they may not be.
“If you’re in the hands of law enforcement, people think, ‘Ah, you have committed a crime and you should be dealt with, which means, you must suffer,’” says Mr. Amuzu.
“But the mere fact that you find yourself in prison does not mean that you are a perpetrator.”
Francis Grant is now trying to get on with his life. He says he often thinks of the time that was wasted in prison and still deals with the stigma of having been in the hands of the law.
Mr. Grant says the ministry of justice should tackle the problem of remand prisoners and prison conditions once and for all.
“Innocent people are really suffering for something they didn’t do,” says Mr. Grant. “We are all human beings. And nobody knows tomorrow. I never knew I could come across something like that. I never dreamt it.
“There’s freedom, but there’s nothing like justice in Ghana.”
However in 2008, the government in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced the “Justice for All” programme to dispense speedy justice to prisoners with crimes.
The programme is aimed at disposing off some of the cases, acquitting and discharging the people, in a bid to reduce
overcrowding in the prisons.
In 2010 the Attorney General Mrs. Betty Mould-Iddrisu, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, pledged to ensure that justice becomes accessible to all the citizenry irrespective of their status in the society.
She said “Ghana as a country needed to strengthen its rule of law and observance for human rights.”
Since the inception of the Justice for All program, about 103 inmates have been released and others freed on bail.